The Noël Coward Reader,

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Michael Wade Simp­son

edited and with com­men­tary by Barry Day, Al­fred A. Knopf/Ran­dom House, 596 pages Barry Day has writ­ten or edited nine books about Noël Coward, seven vol­umes on Sherlock Holmes, two on P.G. Wode­house, and sin­gle edi­tions about Dorothy Parker, Johnny Mercer, Os­car Wilde, and Shake­speare. Clearly the man knows his way around a lit­er­ary life.

For those who aren’t fa­mil­iar with the work of Coward, the author of the play Pri­vate Lives and many oth­ers, Day’s new book, The Noël Coward Reader, will more than make up for any ig­no­rance. A hy­brid form, the book is part bi­og­ra­phy, part repos­i­tory, part en­ter­tain­ment — a scrap­book of Coward’s ca­reer and per­sonal life with com­men­tary. The “reader” de­scrip­tor refers to the many, many sam­ples of Coward’s songs, diary en­tries, plays, sto­ries, and letters in­cluded in the text. What emerges, in a deep and vo­lu­mi­nous way, is a life story that Coward told mainly through his own bril­liant lyrics, chatty epis­tles, and clever the­atri­cal repar­tee. This is brought into chrono­log­i­cal con­text, di­vided into decades, and laid out like a chess game by Day. I’ve been to a mar­velous party, I must say the fun was in­tense, We all had to do What the peo­ple we knew Would be do­ing a hun­dred years hence. Dear Ce­cil ar­rived wear­ing ar­mour, Some shells and a black feather boa, Poor Mil­li­cent wore a sur­re­al­ist comb Made of bits of mo­saic from St. Peter’s in Rome, But the weight was so great that she had to go home, I couldn’t have liked it more.

(from “I’ve Been to a Mar­vel­lous Party,” 1939)

Coward was born in 1899 in Mid­dle­sex, Eng­land, and raised in “re­fined sub­ur­ban poverty.” He be­gan his pro­fes­sional theater ca­reer at the age of 11. I can re­mem­ber, I can re­mem­ber. The months of Novem­ber and De­cem­ber Were filled for me with pe­cu­liar joys So dif­fer­ent from those of other boys. For other boys would be count­ing the days Un­til end of term and hol­i­day times But I was act­ing in Christ­mas plays While they were taken to pan­tomimes. I didn’t envy their Eton suits, Their chil­dren’s dances and Christ­mas trees. My life had won­der­ful sub­sti­tutes For such con­ven­tional treats as these. I didn’t envy their coun­try larks, Their or­ga­nized games in pan­eled halls; While they made snow-men in stately parks I was count­ing cur­tain calls.

(from the poem “The Boy Ac­tor”)

In ad­di­tion to per­form­ing, he soon be­gan writ­ing sketches, sto­ries, plots for plays, songs, and verse and had his first plays pro­duced in his early 20s. “It’s funny this want­ing to get things down on paper,” he wrote. Coward was a peri­patetic author, in­clined to write en­tire new plays dur­ing a tour of one of the vaudevil­lian mu­si­cal re­vues that were bread-and-but­ter em­ploy­ment for him in his early ca­reer. Day shows how the friend­ships Coward de­vel­oped through gay re­la­tion­ships with older gentle­men pro­vided him with an en­trée to a so­cial scene filled with ec­cen­tric up­per­class mem­bers. It was this aris­to­cratic mi­lieu that be­came his spe­cialty as a comic play­wright. Hay Fever,

De­sign for Liv­ing, Present Laugh­ter, and Blithe Spirit are plays that are now con­sid­ered clas­sics.

As the 1930s ar­rived, Coward was not blind to the po­lit­i­cal un­der­cur­rents build­ing on the Con­ti­nent. As Day puts it, “In the 1931 Cav­al­cade, with the cen­tury less than a third over, he would pin down its es­sen­tial psy­chol­ogy.” Why is it that civ­i­lized hu­man­ity Must make the world so wrong? In this hurly-burly of in­san­ity Our dreams can­not last long. We’ve reached a dead­line — The Press head­line — ev­ery sor­row, Blues value Is News value To­mor­row.

(from “Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Blues”)

On the verge of World War II, Coward was a ma­jor pub­lic fig­ure in Bri­tain, at least in the en­ter­tain­ment world. He met with Win­ston Churchill to ask ad­vice about how he could help out with the war ef­fort. “It was, on the whole, an un­suc­cess­ful lit­tle in­ter­view. I was aware through­out that he was mis­un­der­stand­ing my mo­tives and had got it firmly into his mind that I wished to be a glam­orous se­cret agent.” Churchill later blocked Coward’s first nom­i­na­tion for a knight­hood, and Day sug­gests that the writer’s gen­eral flam­boy­ance and taste in con­tro­ver­sial the­atri­cal topics (drugs, sex, al­co­holism) was part of the prob­lem. He re­ceived a knight­hood, be­lat­edly, in 1969.

Post-WWII Eng­land had no taste for the kind of up­per­class high jinks Coward spe­cial­ized in por­tray­ing, and the rest of his ca­reer was less cel­e­brated, un­til, as an older man, he was re­dis­cov­ered, com­monly called “The Mas­ter.” He died in his home in Ja­maica in 1973.

At Coward’s 70th, in 1969, Lord Louis Mount­bat­ten said, “There are prob­a­bly greater painters than Noël, greater nov­el­ists than Noël, greater li­bret­tists, greater com­posers of mu­sic, greater singers, greater dancers, greater co­me­di­ans, greater trage­di­ans, greater stage pro­duc­ers, greater film di­rec­tors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. … If there are, they are 14 dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Only one man com­bined all 14 dif­fer­ent tal­ents. The Mas­ter. Noël Coward.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.