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Sir Noël Coward, 1899–1973, Part 1

[1]2,421 words

Part 1 of 2

“The only thing that really saddens me over my demise is that I shall not be here to read the nonsense that will be written about me and my works and my motives. . . . There will be lists of apocryphal jokes I never made and gleeful misquotations of words I never said. What a pity I shan’t be here to enjoy them “—The Noël Coward Diaries, March 19, 1955.

“White”—from a list of things with “style,” solicited from Sir Noël for an ad by Gillette razor blades.

Noël Coward
The Noël Coward Reader [2]
Ed. Barry Day
New York: Knopf, 2010

Noël Coward
The Letters of Noel Coward [3]
Ed. Barry Day
New York: Knopf, 2007

Noël Coward
The Noël Coward Diaries [4]
Ed. Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley
New York: Da Capo, 2000

Philip Hoare
Noël Coward: A Biography [5]
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998

Graham Payn
My Life with Noël Coward [6]
New York: Applause Books, 2000

One is so used to today’s notion of the artist as an outsider, tortured or haughty as the case may be, or perhaps proudly degenerate, that it can come as a shock to find, or recall, that the artist has usually been, and more importantly seen himself as, a productive and grateful member of society, whatever its flaws; even a patriot.

Ah, but what of the homosexual artist? Surely here we can find a true outsider. According to the victimology of the Left, life “before Stonewall” was one long uncut period of gay bashing and oppression, subtle or overt.

The point of such a mythology is to convince the homosexual that by accepting the manufactured “gay” identity, and thus contributing to the Left’s project of destroying and reconstructing Western Civilization, he will be rewarded with both vengeance now and a bright future in an entirely new gay-friendly world.

Well, it wasn’t that way, and it needn’t be that way. As the late English New Right theorist Alisdair Clarke put it:

After the 1967 de-criminalization in the UK, homosexuals faced a choice between re-integrating with European civilization in a way not possible for 1,500 years (i.e., since the Jewish heresy of Christianity infiltrated the Roman Empire), or siding with the Marxist, Maoist, New Left enemies of European civilization, the ones who brought “Gay Liberation” from Manhattan to London. Instead of taking up our traditional responsibility of defending and glorifying our civilization, as did so many homosexuals in the past like Frederick II and von Humboldt, we supported of those who would destroy that very same civilization (“Paris Shockwaves” at his blog, Aryan Futurism http://aryanfuturism.blogspot.com/2006/08/paris-shockwaves.html [7])

December 16th being his birthday, it may be instructive to examine Sir Noël Coward, “The Master“ who practically invented the idea of “The Englishman” in the 20th century, as an example of such full-hearted, un-ironic “defending and glorifying our civilization.”

Was Coward a “conservative”? It seems odd to those who remember him, if at all, as the campy cabaret entertainer of the 50s and 60s. When Coward’s Diaries were published in 1982, Variety was puzzled: “It’s a bit startling to discover that Coward was a ‘political reactionary,’” quoting his views on Suez:

The good old imperialism was a bloody sight wiser than all this woolly-headed, muddled “all men are equal” humanitarianism which has lost us so much pride and dignity and prestige in the modern world. (Noel Coward: A Biography, p. 521.)

Rather than accepting such loaded terms as “reactionary,” we can certainly designate Coward as a “conservative” or “man of the Right” as Paul Gottfried has recently defined the term:

The Right by its nature is anti-egalitarian and favors hierarchy over the idea (or chimera) of universal individual equality. It is also committed to preserving organic institutions in which families and communities can survive. It is profoundly skeptical of any scheme that seeks to advance some notion of human perfection, and especially in the modern world, the Right should be fighting doggedly against social engineering and leveling. (“Cannon Fodder” at http://www.alternativeright.com/main/blogs/untimely-observations/canon-fodder/ [8])

Jere Real reviewed the work of Coward back in 1976 and came to the same diagnosis, but with this useful caveat:

[A] conservative may desire simultaneously order in society and the toleration of personal non-conformity, he can doubt the existence of equality in the abstract but hope for the greatest variety in human experience. This combination—the orderly society combined with considerable expression of individual eccentricity—exists in our time, almost as nowhere else, in the England of a writer such as Noël Coward.… (Jere Real, “The Playwright as Bohemian Tory,” Intercollegiate Review 11:2 [Winter–Spring 1976] Available online at http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/print.aspx?article=487&loc=b&type=cbtp [9])

With the publication this month by Knopf of The Noël Coward Reader, which chronologically mixes excerpts from his public work and private diaries and letters, we can now take a synoptic look at six decades of artistic public work and private rumination and not only see that Coward deserves, as Real suggested, Russell Kirk’s sobriquet, Bohemian Tory, but also some idea of how he came to be that way.

The Reader is a big, well organized, finely produced volume, but it suffers from a couple of odd flaws. First, it claims that “to date, there has never been a Noël Coward reader; this is the first;” in fact, The Cream of Noël Coward [10] was published in 1996 by the Folio Society. One might claim this was a “limited edition,” but it is still easily available online for half the price of the Reader. More importantly, although the Reader is three times larger, it ignores “Not yet the Dodo,” which as we will see is Coward’s most explicit discussion of homosexuality, the artist, and society; it even claims that “A Song at Twilight” from the previous year is “the only time he touched upon the subject of homosexuality in his work” (Reader, p. 546). What could explain this curious omission?

Despite Coward’s reputation, and carefully constructed pose, as the quintessence of high-class sophistication and airy panache, his biographers have shown how the man was shaped by his distinctly unglamorous childhood, what the Reader calls the “refined suburban poverty” and proud of it to the end of his life:

How fortunate I was to have been born poor. If Mother had been able to send me to private school, Eton and Oxford or Cambridge, it would probably have set me back years. I have always distrusted too much education and intellectualism…. My good fortune was to have a bright, acquisitive but not, not an intellectual mind, and to have been impelled by circumstances to get out and earn my living. (Diaries, December 21, 1967)

He earned that living as a hard-working child actor, which he considered to have taught him quite a lot about the “basic facts of life by the age of fourteen.”

What were those facts of life? Here is John Simon’s summary of them:

Yet no one loved England (climate apart) and its common people more than Coward, as his friend the queen was first to acknowledge. “England may be a very small island, vastly overcrowded, frequently badly managed,” he wrote, “but very much the best and bravest in the world.” Repeatedly he flaunts his pride in the Scottish and English blood to which he owes his success. (“Sir Noël’s Epistles,” New York Times, November 25, 1967; online at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/25/books/review/Simon-t.html [11])

That success, early on, came from work that, though superficially as “decadent” and “modern” as the Bright Young products of Oxbridge, was actually bringing the critical eye of a practical, working-class mind to their intellectual pretensions.

Like his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, Coward created a character, what Kenneth Tynan later called his “protective pose” (Reader, p. 522), which made him seem to be of that very milieu, while employing a subtle wit to create aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable works that also mockingly expose the flaws in “the modern age.”

As Guillaume Faye advises, “It is mocking and ‘eccentric’ brainwaves that should lay the foundations” for any critique, a principle also well known to the Surrealists (“Gravity lies in what does not appear serious”—Breton) and the Situationists (“subversive ideas can only come from the pleasure principle”—Vaneigem) (Quotes in Guillaume Faye, Archeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-Catastrophic Age [Arktos Media, 2010], p. 57.)

Coward was far from a flapper or a toff, but rather an honest and sympathetic participant-observer and conservative critic, in the same way Burroughs played with crime and drugs and Kerouac with irresponsibility, but were not themselves “Beat” as that “lifestyle” was distilled from their works by the mass media. In the same way Coward writes of hopelessly romantic couples while privately, in his letters and diaries disdaining the very idea of “love.”

The pose was solidified for all time after his first major success, his play The Vortex (which was almost banned until a surprisingly perceptive civil servant noted that this mélange of drugs and incest served a serious aim, and observed that “if we ban this we shall have to ban Hamlet”) when he allowed himself to be photographed in Chinese garb, in bed, with a look of “advanced degeneracy” caused (he later said) by the flash bulb. But his teasing interviews were designed to leave the same impression: his mind is “frightfully depraved” and “a mass of corruption” due to incessant visits to “opium dens, cocaine dens” (Reader, p. 103).

There is certainly no attempt to advance any kind of “gay agenda.” The “camp” of Demi-Monde was a serious attempt to explore morality that had been shattered but not destroyed by the First World War (as he says quite openly in his Preface) and Bitter Sweet is intended as parody of Wilde, not hagiography.

Eventually real or affected decadence led to a nervous breakdown, where his treatment involved composing a list of good and bad qualities—among the former: “common sense.”

Gradually, his “exploration” of modernity modulated to an open disillusionment with this life of bobbed hair and cigarettes; were people really happy?

By dancing
Much faster
You’re chancing
Time alone will show
(“Poor Little Rich Girl”)

“These words from me may surprise you” indeed; and three years later, in 1928, Coward is even more emphatic, and specific:

But I know it’s vain
To try to explain
When there’s this insane
Music in your brain…
Nigger melodies
Syncopate your nerves…
And when the lights are starting to gutter
Dawn through the shutters
Shows you’re living in a world of lies.
(“Dance Little Lady”)

Indeed, as Spengler observed 5 years later (in a book published by same house as The Noël Coward Reader today), “Jazz music and nigger dancing are the death knell of civilization.”

All this subtly subversive work culminated in 1931, when encapsulating the “essential psychology” of his time in the classic song “Twentieth Century Blues.”

One might think, if one were under the “general perception” of him, that the ensuing Depression and war would leave a campy social critic like Coward without a subject. But what was called for was patriotism and belief in the British spirit, and these were hardly alien.

And while it would be inaccurate and even absurd to think Coward welcomed the war, it did give him the opportunity to exercise his profoundly conservative instincts in a more open, as it were out of the closet, fashion.

Coward’s patriotic work was on two fronts; one was more public than ever, to buck up British spirits with a play, Blythe Spirits, a song, “London Pride,” and a movie, In Which We Serve. “To make that film he had to overcome extraordinary opposition from high up, only to have it turn into a major artistic and morale-building hit” (Simon [11]).

The other was more secretive: undercover work promoting, among other things, US involvement in the war. Though some conservatives might prefer the “isolationist” side from today‘s perspective, Coward, like Lindbergh after Pearl Harbor, was simply defending his homeland from attack by outsiders.

This is again consistent with Gottfried’s notion of “conservative”:

[F]riend/enemy distinctions are natural to how people live. The way out of this situation, even when it becomes heated, should not be through international administrative regulation of individual human lives for the sake of perpetual peace and brother- or sisterhood. Such utopian efforts can only lead to tyranny and the utter destruction of traditional ways of life. The best we can do in dealing with conflict is to control and channel violence through timely diplomacy and only if absolutely necessary, military interventions.

Rooted in real connection to his country, Coward’s patriotism did not entail any ideological demonizing of the German enemy, or a demand for “unconditional surrender” (the typical motive of the modern war of “humanism” versus “enemies of humanity”), and certainly no dream of a post-war “world administration,” whose actual manifestations, displacing the beloved Empire, he despised.

As Guillaume Faye has said:

It is possible to be a “patriot,’ someone tied to his sub-continental motherland, without forgetting that this is an organic and vital part of the common folk whose natural and historical territory … extends from Brest to the Bering Strait. (Archeofuturism, p. 20)

No modern neocon or liberal ideologue could have the sense of his enemy’s humanity that would allow him to see the ironic humor in a song like

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans
When our victory is ultimately won,
It was just those nasty Nazis who persuaded them to fight
And their Beethoven and Bach are really far worse than their bite
Let’s be meek to them—
And turn the other cheek to them
And try to bring out their latent sense of fun.
Let’s give them full air parity
And treat the rats with charity,
But don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun.

Certainly the BBC didn’t appreciate it.

Oddly enough, Churchill loved the song; but maybe he just loved forcing Coward over and over to jump up and sing it on command. In any event, Coward’s authentic patriotism was miles from the war-mongering ideologue Churchill, and the two hardly saw eye to eye on anything involving the war. Churchill rebuffed his offer to work for the war effort, disparaging his talk of “intelligence” (though Coward pointed out that he was talking of his own talent, not “Intelligence” in quotes, à la James Bond) and suggested he “sing to the troops while the shooting goes on” (“not practicable,” Coward later sniffed).

Churchill was no doubt part of the “higher authorities” who didn’t want him involved with the film In Which we Serve, and Coward, rightly as later documents showed, suspected Churchill had personally torpedoed his knighthood for the ensuing film.

For his part Coward hardly granted Churchill the reverence today’s neocons demand; he considered him “a spoiled petulant gaga old sod” (Payn, My Life with Noel Coward, p.135).