The Noël Coward Reader,
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.”