Noel Coward

The most extraordinary literary figure of the period between the wars to have achieved literary repute, which then lasted into the rest of the century, was undoubtedly Noel Coward. Unlike most of the writers I have written about thus far, he came from a relatively poor background, and his propulsion towards writing came from a career on the stage, launched when he was not yet in his teens.

After an apprenticeship of less than a decade, Coward starred in 1920 in the first of his plays to be produced, when he was just 20 himself. That was not a great success, but he went on to better things and in 1925 wrote Hay Fever, one of the greatest of modern comedies. The plot, if one can call it that, is very simple, dealing with four members of the artistic aptly named Bliss family who each invite a guest for the weekend, and are horrified that the others have been so thoughtless as to not inform them of the visitations.

The guests are bemused by their charming but totally self-centred hosts, and seek solace with the wrong partner, which leads to high comedy – the dumb sportsman invited by the actress mother is attracted by her comparatively earnest daughter, while the diplomat she had intended to impress is overwhelmed by her mother; the husband, a writer, charms the older society belle his son had invited, while the son gets entangled with the ingenuous girl his father had intended to bedazzle. The visitors also pair off amongst themselves, which is not however a worry for the family for they, in the last resort, are more enamoured of each other than of anyone else, and the guests are in effect simply fodder for their entertaining excesses.

This was my first introduction to Coward, for the Dean at my College had a tradition of inviting eight bright undergraduates and getting them to read the play aloud. He himself took the minor role of the long suffering maid, who had to keep changing the rooms allocated to the guests, with each member of the family demanding that his or her guest got the best accommodation. The readings were preceded by dinner and much alcohol, which made for a riotous evening.

The play is pure entertainment, rather like Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest, where one slightly bizarre action leads on to more and more confusion. The essence of the play lies in some lines in the play the writer is working on, which his family finds ridiculous – ‘Is this a game?’ ‘Yes, and a game that must be played to a finish.’ When one of the guests unwittingly asks the question when someone in the family does something strange, the family glance at each other and immediately go into the full dialogue they had earlier been criticizing. The curtain falls on the guests creeping away silently to escape from the madhouse, while the family are wholly engrossed in their own private joke.

Many years later, Richard de Zoysa and I used to use the line ourselves in a private code for activities that people began in a spirit of detachment, but which then took them over – as for instance Lalith Athulathmudali in his military incarnation as Minister for National Security. Afterwards I used the line about Richard himself, in the novel I based on his life, seeing in his determination to stick to the path he finally chose something of Judith Bliss’ debonair approach to life, as well as her commitment to her image of herself.

Coward wrote lots of plays, but his reputation in that regard rests mainly on this one, on Private Lives, about a couple who had divorced and find themselves in hotel rooms next to each other when with their new partners, and on Blithe Spirit, about a man whose deceased wife’s spirit is brought back by a medium, to cause chaos to his new marriage. Needless to say, virtue is not rewarded in Coward’s world, and the brilliant couple get bored with their worthy new partners and go back to each other, while the new wife is completely outplayed by the spirit of her predecessor.

Coward’s offbeat approach to life was apparent also in the other art form he specialized in, the cabaret songs he wrote, and performed in inimitable style. These included ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen (Go out in the Noonday Sun)’, ‘The Stately Homes of England’, ‘Nina’ (from Argentina, who did the tango), and ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington’. I should also mention here one of my particular favourites, for sheer absurdity, ‘In a bar on the Piccola Marina’, where Mrs Wentworth-Brewster finally discovered true love. And, while these satires seem more characteristic of Coward, he could also pen surprisingly romantic songs, such as ‘Someday I’ll find you’ (from Private Lives) and ‘Mad about the boy’.

During the War Coward belied his reputation for flippancy and worked for British intelligence in propaganda. His achievements during this period included writing, co-directing (with David Lean) and starring in the naval film ‘In which we serve’. He played the part of his friend Lord Mountbatten, on one of whose apparently heroic exploits the film was based. After the War it was reported that Coward had been on the Nazi death list, had Britain been conquered, along with other artists the Germans thought dangerous such as Virginia Woolf and Bernard Shaw. This prompted from Coward some scorn at ‘the people we should have been seen dead with’. It should be noted that Churchill did not lay much store by Coward’s intelligence work, and thought he would do more for the country by entertaining the troops.

Though Coward’s standing as a playwright declined in the fifties, when theatre was painfully earnest, the studied idiosyncrasy of his usual stage presence, clad in a silk dressing gown and waving an elegant cigarette holder, assured for him a special reputation. He continued as a cabaret star well into old age, snapping out in his characteristic staccato tones the vivid images of his songs. He was in demand too for film roles, though he notably turned down the villain’s part in ‘Dr No’ with a resounding ‘No, no, no, a thousand times, no.’ And he was a good companion to many, ranging from the Queen Mother to Marlene Dietrich. His wit was legendary, including the comment when asked who the little man was, who was accompanying the large Queen of Tonga in a royal carriage to the Coronation of the Queen. Coward’s response, to the Queen Mother it was said, though that bit was probably apocryphal, was ‘Her lunch.’

Well before he died, in 1973, the sheer exuberance of his plays, and the sharpness of his explorations of people coping with the sheer unexpectedness of other individualities, assured increasing recognition for his writing. The comedy was much more than farce, for the audience is always aware of bright minds exercising themselves in the relentless exchanges of wit, suiting themselves to the people they are dealing with, if not always in the prescribed or orthodox way. In Noel Coward’s plays and his songs, as in his life, we can see a game being played to a most satisfying finish.