Saturday, April 19, 2014


Sir Noël Peirce Coward, born 16 December 1899, died 26 March 1973, was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called “a sense of personal style, combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.”

It says something about the influence of Coward, that rather than the stars being showcased, Al Hirschfeld's caricature of Coward was displayed in this 1968 revival. 

When I was a teenager, my mother was enamored of and played in various amateur theater groups. For the most part, the troupes she performed with, wrote their own plays and there was lots of discussion and emulation of, Noël Coward. I was never too sure how this translated, since the majority of her work was done with a bunch of aficionados who performed at something called "The Opry House" out in a place called New Almaden, not very far from where I went to high school in San Jose, California. The types of plays that the troupe wrote and performed, were more of the old western melodrama, or "melerdramer" as they all called them and they consisted of a lot of interaction with the audience.

Not really drawing-room plays, but more suited to the "Snidely Whiplash" and "Perils of Pauline" from the early days of silent films, and I think, a whole lot of made up stuff that came from several sessions of them sitting around, drinking beer and seeing who could come up with the funniest one-liners. What does all of this have to do with Noël Coward? Well, his influence in plays and drawing-room comedies on both sides of the pond was indelible and his generosity and kindness were legendary. He was quite handy with a quip, which is NOT going to be my subject for letter Q. No, I'm going to blatantly cheat on that one!

It's not Noël Coward, but at times, my mother would try to be as witty. It was pretty much hit-and-miss. I look stoned here, and she looks drunk. The sliver of "dude in hat, playing the piano), is the ever-brave Robert Lee Haycock, my classmate and our Valedictorian. 

But Coward's contribution as a playwright is legendary and I seem to recall that one of the characters in the plays that was (I hope NOT written by my mother, but could have been) penned out there at the Opry House, had the distinct name of "Know-all Coward" and that was what was passing for wit in New Almaden. Since the audience was encouraged to drink vast quantities of tap-beer from pitchers the size of Iowa, the quality of comedy needn't be of a very high standard, although, it must be said, they did have lots of fun.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Coward's witticisms were certainly more high-brow and he had a lengthy and varied career. I enjoyed discovering that he abandoned theater work during the Second World War and sought official war work. After running the British propaganda office in Paris, where he concluded that "If the policy of his Majesty's Government is to bore the Germans to death, I don't think we have the time", he went to work on behalf of British Intelligence. His task was to influence American public and political opinion in favor of helping Britain. Frustrated with the British Press' criticism of him while he traveled abroad, he could not reveal that he traveled on behalf of His Majesty's Secret Service.

Coward on the HMS Victorious, Trincomalee, Ceylon, 1 August 1944

Had the Germans invaded Britain, Coward was slated to be arrested and killed, as he was in The Black Book, along with other public figures like Virginia Woolf, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell, C P Snow and H G Wells. When this was revealed after the war, Coward wrote: "If anyone had told me at the time that I was high up on the Nazi blacklist. . . I would have laughed. . . I remember Rebecca West, who was one of the many who shared the honor with me, sent a telegram, which read: "My dear -- the people we should have been seen dead with'."

Winston Churchill's view was that Coward would do more good touring and singing and dancing to the troops, rather than doing any intelligence work: "Go and sing to them when the guns are firing -- that's your job!" Though disappointed, Coward took his advice and went where he was told. He toured, acted and sang indefatigably in Europe, Asia, Africa and America. He wrote and recorder war-themed popular songs, including "London Pride" and "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans". His London home was destroyed in the Blitz and he took up temporary residence in the Savoy Hotel. Another of his wartime projects (along with David Lean) was the naval film drama In Which We Serve. The film was popular on both sides of the Atlantic and he was awarded and honorary certificate of merit at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony. Coward played a naval war captain, basing the character on his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. Lean went on to direct and film several film versions of Coward plays. 

Coward's most enduring work from the war years was the play Blithe Spirit, a hugely successful black comedy (1941), about a novelist who researches the occult and hires a medium. A séance brings back the ghost of the first wife, causing havoc for the novelist and his second wife. With 1,997 consecutive performances on the West End, it broke box-office records and was produced and ran on Broadway for 650 performances. The play was adapted to film in 1945, directed by David Lean. 

Coward as Slightly in Peter Pan (1913) Regarding Coward's sexuality, critic Kenneth Tynan said, "Forty years ago he was Slightly in Peter Pan, and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since." This was the era of "gentleman bachelors" and was widely accepted. Coward's generosity and kindness to people who he had never met was legendary; truly a class act.

Coward continued to write and produce plays into the 50s and 60s, but what is unmistakably his largest influence into 2000 and beyond is his own personality and his witticisms, much like Oscar Wilde. As soon as he achieved success he began to polish the Coward image: an early press photograph showed him sitting up in bed holding a cigarette holder: "I looked like an advanced Chinese decadent in the last phases of dope." Soon after that, Coward wrote, "I took to wearing coloured turtle-necked jerseys, actually more for comfort than effect, and soon I was informed by my evening paper that I had started a fashion. I believe that to a certain extent this was true; at any rate, during the ensuing months I noticed more and more of our seedier West-End chorus boys parading about London in them." 

Noël Coward Theatre in St. Martin's Lane, which opened in 1903, was refurbished and renamed in his honor in 2006. He was knighted in 1969 and elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

The critic Kenneth Tynan, in 1953, was the first of his generation to recognize that Coward's plays might enjoy more than transient success. In the 1930s, what had seemed to be daring, but no more than effervescent sophisticated plays, with droll characters, and then seemed old-fashioned in the 1950s, began to be seen as something more. By the 1960s, it was becoming clear that underneath the witty dialogue and art deco glamour of the inter-war years, Coward's best plays dealt with recognizable people and familiar relationships and situations. They contained an emotional depth and genuine pathos that had previously been overlooked. By the time of his death, he was spoke of in the same breath as Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde and Shaw. Although his plays are in the classical tradition, once again, as recently as 2008, he is experiencing another renascence in popularity.
Listening to my folks as a kid toss off literary quips was at first mystifying and then as my vocabulary and understanding of the English language grew (at a rather alarming rate, according to my father) I grew to appreciate the well-thought out and well-spoken epigrams and one-liners that my mom and dad quoted, by the likes of Wilde, Coward, Thurber, Wodehouse and H. L. Mencken, to name just a few. Coward is not someone that can easily be written about; he was a one-of-a-kind personality and wore so many hats, so very well. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a lot of amazing pictures you have and so much information. My parents used to love Noel Coward so that brings back memories, plus I love vintage, that was slightly risque the picture of a take off of Adolf hehe.

Hello also from another A-z blogger, how are you finding it all?