Lash­ings of Coward

Coward’ s Noel let­ters re­veal a tal­ent to abuse, Diana Sim­monds writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

BARRY Day has spent many years on the writ­ings and life of Noel Coward and one is tempted to make ( and fails to re­sist) the ob­ser­va­tion that the mas­ter ’ s waspish de­meanour has rather rubbed off on him. As has Coward ’s pen­chant for an oc­ca­sional silly pro­nounce­ment. On the open­ing page of the in­tro­duc­tion to his new col­lec­tion of Coward ’ s cor­re­spon­dence, for in­stance, Day writes that the great man was an

‘‘ early role model for that 20th- cen­tury phe­nom­e­non the celebrity ’, some­one well

‘ ‘ known for be­ing fa­mous and fa­mous for be­ing well known ’ ’ ’ .

This is, in the Cowar­dian ver­nac­u­lar, ut­ter rot. One need not be a Coward fan to ac­cept he was fa­mous be­cause he was aw­fully good at what he did. And what he did was write heaps of plays, in­clud­ing such cork­ers as

Blithe Spirit , Hay , Present Laugh­ter , Private Lives , The Fever Vor­tex and Wait­ing in the Wings .

He also wrote, ap­peared in and co- pro­duced the 1942 clas­sic of the high seas, In Which We Serve ( David Lean di­rected). Then there are some of the most mem­o­rable pop­u­lar songs of the early 20th cen­tury: Lon­don Pride , I ll See

’ You Again , The Stately Homes of Eng­land and ( Don t Put Your Daugh­ter on the Stage) Mrs

’ Wor­thing­ton among dozens of greater and lesser dit­ties. He also wrote reams of fiction, co­pi­ous di­aries, two well- re­ceived vol­umes of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and, of course, hun­dreds of let­ters. From this brief re­sume it’ s clear Coward ’ s

´ fame had noth­ing to do with empty celebrity, and Day is a chump for say­ing so.

Coward could also be a chump and was also a fright­ful snob, an in­de­fati­ga­ble so­cial climber and able to come up with such pensees as the in­fa­mous diary en­try: Gandhi has been as­sassi-

‘‘ nated. In my hum­ble opin­ion, a bloody good thing but far too late. ’’ To of­fer some sort of ( ad­mit­tedly con­vo­luted) con­text: Coward ’s close friend and sis­ter- in- the- closet was Lord Louis

Dickie ’’ Mount­bat­ten, last viceroy of In­dia, ‘‘ who was cuck­olded by his wife, Ed­wina, with In­dia ’ s first post- in­de­pen­dence prime min­is­ter, Jawa­har­lal Nehru. And Nehru was Gandhi ’s very stylish pro­tege. Six de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion, per­haps, but Coward was an acid queen who could make Tina Turner look more Julie An­drews than hy­drochlo­ric.

Al­though An­drews ap­pears to have been one of those rare thes­pi­ans with whom Coward did not share cor­re­spon­dence, it ’ s worth not­ing that, even pe­riph­er­ally, she did not es­cape the Coward lash. When the movie

Star was an­nounced, with An­drews to play Coward ’s long- time muse Gertrude Lawrence, he wrote: Julie . . . is about

‘‘ as much like Ger­tie as I am Edna Fer­ber ’ s twin, but what can one do? I liked her ath­letic, ca­reen­ing, whilom nun in

The Sound of Mu­sic . She is a bright, tal­ented ac­tress and quite at­trac­tive since she dealt with her mon­strous English over­bite. It will be . . . more in­ter­est­ing, I hope, than dear Ger­tie ’ s ac­tual life. ’’

What he thought of Daniel Massey ’s per­for­mance as Coward in the 1968 epic fails to get a men­tion here; Massey ’ s fa­ther Ray­mond rates an en­try in the in­dex. On the other hand, his in­sou­ciant use of the ar­chaic whilom ’’ ( for­mer)

‘‘ is some­how typ­i­cal of the play­ful yet al­ways am­bi­tious show- off from the wrong end of the cham­pagne cork.

What is more re­mark­able about the let­ters is that they fill 782 pages, in­clud­ing in­dex, ed­i­tor ’s notes and link­ing nar­ra­tive. Con­se­quently the book weighs in at 1.875kg. Hav­ing now lugged the wretched vol­ume about for the past cou­ple of weeks, it has to be said that its weight has be­come the most sig­nif­i­cant thing about it, far out­weigh­ing ( beg par­don) the bril­liance and scope of Coward ’ s cir­cle. Ir­ri­ta­tion at his end­less and twee cor­re­spon­dence with mummy — and her and daddy ’s nick­names of Poj’’ and Stoj ’’ — was

‘‘ ‘‘ quickly dis­placed by ex­as­per­a­tion at the phys­i­cal dif­fi­culty of grap­pling with the doorstop.

It is some­how un­a­mus­ing that a book de­voted to a man who made a virtue of the light­ness of be­ing is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to read in bed, un­less one is sit­ting up, and is equally ex­haust­ing even in an arm­chair, ham­mock or on a sofa. It ’s a beastly bur­den to carry on a train or bus and un­less one is fly­ing first class ( with un­lim­ited lug­gage al­lowance and a flunkey to deal with it), it is the last book one would dream of tak­ing on a plane.

To read it in the bath would re­quire an un­usu­ally sturdy sponge and plas­tic duck rack, and great care in avoid­ing con­tact with bub­bles ( you ab­so­lutely do not want to get it wet and make it any heav­ier). Be­cause of the dip­ping­into- at- ran­dom fac­tor, loo read­ing is a pos­si­bil­ity but in this in­stance is again ham­pered by sim­ple poundage. And stand­ing at a lectern is not an op­tion, as one would feel ridicu­lously bib­li­cal.

This leads to the ques­tion: what were Methuen ’s mar­ket­ing peo­ple think­ing of? Th­ese days pub­lish­ers and edi­tors are well out- pecked in the new or­der of de­cid­ing whether or not a book will be pub­lished. And the rea­sons for pub­lish­ing are not so much the tal­ent or rep­u­ta­tion of the au­thor, or the un­usual bril­liance of the text, but such fac­tors as the mar­ketabil­ity of the cover im­age and three- line blurb. Per­haps they all are weightlifters and gym bun­nies at Methuen or, al­ter­na­tively, they have never tried heft­ing a 2kg book for longer than it takes to pass it around the con­fer­ence ta­ble.

In less eco­nom­i­cally un­cer­tain times Coward ’ s let­ters would un­doubt­edly have been di­vided into suc­ces­sive vol­umes: such as those of Vita Sackville- West to Vir­ginia Woolf, for in­stance, or Sylvia Townsend Warner ’s let­ters to William Maxwell ( one vol­ume) and to Valen­tine Ack­land ( in an­other). The chances of such books find­ing a pub­lisher to­day would be min­i­mal: the trade has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion and this col­lec­tion is, quite pos­si­bly, an anachro­nis­tic last gasp of the old or­der.

Per­haps the mar­ket­ing bods thought they could front- end load it into the Bri­tish mar­ket­place in time for Christ­mas ( God help the stock­ings) and then pal­let it up for the colonies and away.

This is a pity, be­cause as well as the pre­co­cious boy ’s af­fected ef­forts in his early years — in­clud­ing many, many de­scrip­tions of weep­ing and home­sick­ness while em­ployed as an in­genue in end­less reper­tory tours of grey Bri­tain — the Coward wit and guile grad­u­ally grows. As he be­comes more suc­cess­ful, con­fi­dent and mel­low and as his cir­cle of name ac­quain­tances widens, the tone and style of the let­ters move be­yond arch and into real sub­stance. Not or­di­nary sub­stance, of course: his long let­ter of rep­ri­mand to Mar­garet Leighton is a scorcher. No won­der she apol­o­gised for want­ing to vet the new play on of­fer be­fore ac­cept­ing.

Al­though ob­vi­ously writ­ing with pos­ter­ity in mind, Coward wrote freely and out­ra­geously long be­fore the con­cept of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness had taken hold. He had no hes­i­ta­tion in de­scrib­ing Mumbai ex­actly as he found it ( ‘‘ hav­ing gained in­de­pen­dence the In­di­ans had not both­ered to clean the place ever again ’’ ) and he was not fond of the Sey­chelles ei­ther.

In essence, Coward ’ s let­ters will be of most in­ter­est to luvvies ( Aus­tralian and oth­er­wise), theatre buffs ( his­tor­i­cal and so­cial), as well as ama­teur de­tec­tives and gos­sips ( of­ten one and the same). For in­stance, a lit­tle light sleuthing will be hi­lar­i­ously, wickedly re­ward­ing in the mat­ter of the let­ter Coward wrote when he vis­ited Aus­tralia in 1963.

Sail Away was to be staged His Broad­way hit by J. C. Wil­liamson and he wrote of its ini­tial stages: The whole Aus­tralian busi­ness was

‘‘ highly suc­cess­ful . . . I was belle of the ball. Some of the mi­nor per­for­mances leave a good deal to be de­sired. The lady who plays Dorothy Reynolds ’s part turned out to be a les­bian ro­bot who has had a skin dis­ease for three years and was in­se­cure in ev­ery area. I watched her with dis­may at the first run- through and said to Co­ley, This is my big­gest chal­lenge since

Cav­al­cade ’, so I took her aside, told her she was ob­vi­ously un­happy and that she must change her char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion . . . In one af­ter­noon I had her in slacks, drill coats, and slap­ping her thighs and smok­ing a ci­gar! She was tear­fully grate­ful and got rounds of ap­plause and good no­tices! Oh dear!

The lady who plays Mrs Van Mier is a cross be­tween an age­ing Jewish Princess Mar­garet and Ge­orge Cukor. She is un­able to act. Mrs Lush is like a very squat bull­dog wear­ing a red fright wig. She also barks. Mag­gie F ( Fitzg­b­bon) is re­ally ex­cel­lent. A good belt­ing voice, a warm per­son­al­ity and the au­di­ence love her; she isn ’t s o good as ( Elaine) Stritch and there ’ s n o good pre­tend­ing she is. The girl who plays Nancy is quite re­mark­able. She can nei­ther sing, dance nor act, has a lisp and no top to her head! I left terse or­ders for her to be re­placed. ’’

Some­one some­where must pro­gram that will iden­tify the mas­ter ’s wicked eye. have the vic­tims of old the Let­ters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day, ( Methuen, 782pp, $ 65)

Mad about the boy:

Noel Coward meets fans dur­ing a visit to Syd­ney in 1940, left; and leaves Buck­ing­ham Palace in 1970 af­ter be­ing knighted by the Queen, bot­tom

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