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Sir Noël Coward, 1899–1973, Part 2

[1]2,488 words

Part 2 of 2

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

Coward was hardly committed to idolizing the Yanks (who still seem to think that “the war” began in January 1942, by which time Britain had been in action for three years).

In Coward’s Middle East Diary, he made several statements that offended many Americans. In particular, he commented that he was “less impressed by some of the mournful little Brooklyn boys lying there in tears amid the alien corn with nothing worse than a bullet wound in the leg or a fractured arm.” (Calder, Beware the British Serpent: The Role of Writers in British Propaganda in the United States, 1939–1945, pp.102–04).

Tame, it would seem, but one can sense the sneer underlying “mournful little Brooklyn [7]” and “the alien corn” and the corresponding -witz’s and -steins it implies. After protests from both The New York Times and the Washington Post, the Foreign Office urged Coward not to visit the United States.

One is also reminded of a similar incident, around the same time, involving General Patton and an apparently malingering soldier. Coward and Patton (who once proposed a tank uniform of green leather jumpsuit and gold helmet) belonged to an earlier generation that expect soldiers to get out there and get results, whatever their taste in haberdashery; today’s macho commanders worry about “gays” but haven’t won a war since, well, Patton.

And speaking of “macho,” the incident also gave him an opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of his “campy” persona, when backed by genuine physical courage. As fellow spy David Niven tells the story:

Now, (on the day that Stars and Stripes headlined “Kick this bum out of the country”) Noël opened in Paris with Maurice Chevalier, whom the American soldiers were sure was a collaborator, and with Marlene Dietrich, whom they were sure was a German spy…. I went to see Noël before the performance and I said … what are you going to do about it? Sir Noël said, “First I shall calm them, and then I shall sing some of my very excellent songs.” So I went out and stood at the back by the exit, and Noël came on to a deathly hush, which he’s not used to. A deathly hush. And then he looked at them and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, and all you dear, dear, sniveling little boys from Brooklyn…” And they fell down and absolutely loved it.

But the Navy was his true love.

I love the Navy, I inherited my affection for it, all my mother’s family were Navy. Admirals and Captains. I love everything to do with the Navy. To start with they’ve got the best manners in the world and I love the sea and Navy discipline, which is very hard. It wouldn’t have frightened me because I’m quite disciplined anyway, and I’m used to accepting discipline. I would have loved to have been in the Navy. (Charles Castle, Noël, p. 173)

The combination of pride in family heritage and personal predilection for self-discipline are expressed honestly, while in these days of “gay sensibility” as well as official “don’t ask don’t tell” policies they seem almost “camp.”

Even Churchill‘s opposition couldn’t stop his writing and acting in the classic film, In Which We Serve, a tribute to his friend, Lord Mountbatten, as well as to the regular sailors, whom he demanded be detailed to the production instead of actors. That confidence in the “ordinary man” was rewarded by performances that led the Admiralty Head of Personnel to exclaim: “By Jove, Coward, that convinces me you were right to ask for a proper ship’s company, real sailors. No actors could have possibly done that.” (Reader, p. 432).

Although it must be said that when he gave his patriotism too free a hand (in the war time isolationist bashing Time Remembered, the pre-War Post-Mortem or the post-War Peace in our Time) it tended to become strident and a bit hysterical, forgetting his first rule of the dandy‘s pose: “The greatest thing in the world is not to be obvious—over ANYTHING.”

If the early Coward developed an aristocratic veneer for solidly working class values, and the wartime Coward was a simple spokesman for a patriotism considered old-fashioned if not criminal, the post-War Coward now became the “surprisingly” reactionary. Coward hadn’t changed; what had changed was England. Having won the war, would it now win the peace?

Coward had his doubts; the post-War “Festival of Britain” was like Britain itself: “the last word in squalor and completely ungay” causing him to riposte with the lugubriously conservative, almost Guénonian “Bad Times are Just Around the Corner”:

There are bad times just around the corner.
There are dark clouds travelling through the sky.
And it’s no good whining
About a silver lining.
For we know from experience they won’t roll by.

The 50s were indeed a bad time for Coward, who was put on the shelf by critics who found him, and his work, terribly old-fashioned, though the public never deserted him.

His send-up of “modern” art, Nude with Violin, based, of course, not on rival “theories” but his own experience as an amateur painter, ran for over a year but was ignored by the critics.

Sebastien: I don’t think anyone knows about painting anymore. Art, like human nature, has got out of hand.

Since he wasn’t taken seriously in the theatre anymore, Coward even tossed aside the pose and began to speak over the heads of the critics, directly to the public, in a serious of articles for the Sunday Times, “Consider the Public.” Here he diagnosed and rebuked the bad new playwrights, who were

[B]igoted and stupid to believe that tramps and prostitutes . . . are automatically the salt of the earth [or] that reasonably educated people who behave with restraint in emotional crises are necessarily “clipped,” “arid,” “bloodless,” and “unreal.”

Coward also lambasted the bad new actors who use a pretentious and unreliable “Method” to justify an inflated sense of their own “intellects” as well as a contempt for audiences, actors of the older generation, and the theatre itself, expressed mainly through coprophiliac stage business, slovenly dress and dirty fingernails; and above all, the bad new critics, whose “old-fashioned class consciousness and inverted snobbism” (the Leftist as the true reactionary!) leads them to assume that any successful West End play is “automatically inferior” to a shoe string production in the East End, and who mislead the actors and writers by over-praising anything that “happens to coincide with the racial, political and social prejudices of a handful of journalists” (Payn, pp. 322–37).

Against all this Coward praised simple, unpretentious craft—“You must have the emotion to know it, then you must learn how to use the emotion without suffering it”—which he had honed the hard way entertaining troops; “Noël distrusted every emotion on stage and dealt solely in the illusion” (Payn, p. 42). And above all, respect for theatrical tradition, and the audience itself, without which there would be no theatre at all.

The critics sneered, but as usual the public applauded Coward’s common sense, and the Times letters column had to be cut short.

Sadly, not much would have to be re-written for publication in, say, The New Criterion; today actors like De Niro and Theron undergo grotesque physical metamorphoses for roles (satirized in the recent Tropic Thunder by Robert Downey’s character who preps for a role “by working in a Beijing textile factory for eight months”), writers seek only to shock and disgust their passive audiences, and critics impose a rigid, class-conscious code of political correctness and crap-Freudianism.

And there was bad politics as well; here comes that “reactionary” stuff, though confined to his Diaries:

The British Empire was a great and wonderful social, economic, and even spiritual experience and all the parlour pinks and eager, ill-informed intellectuals cannot convince me to the contrary. (Diaries, February 3, 1957)

Bad actors and bad critics were one thing he could “rise above,” to use his characteristic expression, but not the parlor pinks. The tax-happy welfare state drove him out of his native land; at a professional ebb and subjected to scorn for leaving, Coward typically replied: “An Englishman is the highest example of a human being who is a free man. As an Englishman I have a right to live where I like.” That turned out to be Jamaica, where he was indeed able to “conserve” as the Reader puts it, a little bit of the old England. By 1963 he had concluded that “the England we knew and loved was betrayed at Munich, revived for one short year in 1940 and was supreme in adversity, and now no longer exists” (Diaries, 1963).

The next year, with the Beatles, the 60s began in earnest. As Philip Larkin put it in “Annus Mirabilis”: “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

In “Swinging London,” along with a new freedom of expression in the theatre, there was a perhaps surprising Coward renaissance. Coward now began to openly discuss homosexuality; first, in a one act play, A Song at Twilight, where letters revealing a homosexual affair threaten an elderly, knighted writer living in Switzerland (where Coward now lived, but still without the knighthood). Here the homosexual angle anchors a fairly conventional melodrama, based on Max Beerbohm but with a bit of Maugham tossed in. Certainly “today’s youth” is not courted:

Sir Hugo: I detest the young of today. They are grubby, undisciplined and ill-mannered. They also make too much noise.

But there were also hints of a libertarianism that Coward would soon present explicitly:

Carlotta: To outside observers my way may seem stupid and garish and, later on perhaps, even grotesque. But the opinion of outside observers has never troubled me unduly. I am really only accountable to myself.

Or simply:

Sir Hugo: My inner feelings are my own affair.

But he chose verse, always the home of “his secret heart,” to once and for all address the question of the homosexual and society; or rather, typically, the homosexual and his everyday family.

While the Britain’s Wolfenden Report, a decade before Stonewall, may have brought the issue to society’s attention and thus on Coward’s agenda, for Coward the 60s promised not the chance to overthrow or otherwise remake society in some utopian formula for absolute “freedom,” (the “freedom” of those grubby, undisciplined, ill-mannered and noisy youths, actors and critics) but rather a chance for good old English common sense (always to be distinguished from media-programmed proles) to be heard from on such issues as homosexuality.

In the title piece of Not Yet the Dodo, common sense is expressed by the family maid to her employer, a mother of conventional middle-class morals who has finally realized her son is a theatrical homosexual:

“If you want my opinion,” she said, “I think
We’re both of us wasting our breath,
You can’t judge people by rule of thumb
And if we sit gabbing till Kingdom Come
We’ll neither one of us sleep a wink
And worry ourselves to death.

People are made the way the’re made
And it isn’t anybody’s fault.
Nobody’s tastes can quite agree
Some like coffee and some like tea
And Guinness rather than lemonade
And pepper rather than salt.”

Here Coward had the opportunity, towards the end of a long, professionally successful but, the Left ideologues would imagine, privately thwarted and persecuted life (nursing perhaps a grudge at the knighthood that would be denied him until the last moment in 1970), to pen an explosion of rage and expose society’s rottenness, like the “kitchen sink” dramatists he had deplored (but, typically, personally befriended) in the 50s. Instead, Coward delivered a paean to the common sense, live and let live conservatism of his working class roots.[1] As he wrote in his diary at the time:

I have always distrusted too much education and intellectualism. Always dead wrong about things that really matter (Diaries, December 21, 1967)

This is one of the passages where Real locates his fundamental conservatism:

[It] lies, I think, in the manner in which these acts are presented. In every instance, such nonconforming behavior is shown to be individualized; true, it is the individual’s right, but it is also his or her responsibility. In other words, the problem—if there is one—is the individual’s, not society’s. Coward may seem to endorse a “new morality,” but he also implies that personal morality is ultimately just that, personal. . . .

In summary, therefore, it might be said that Coward’s attitude was one of maximum toleration of independence and non-conformity for the responsible individual. However, on larger societal issues of order, patriotism in times of crisis, tradition, national loyalty, skepticism about man’s perfectibility, and the inherent flaws of human nature, he was consistently conservative. Because of these views and his accompanying total trust in the intelligence of many average men, he qualifies, perhaps as much as any literary figure of our time, for that appellation Russell Kirk so frequently invokes, the Bohemian Tory.

One might find this redolent of the kind of vulgar libertarianism anathema to many conservatives, including Kirk. Rather, I suggest it has its analogues in an almost Nietzschean recognition of different moralities for different people (without his anti-social bias), or rather, for those who can make themselves different people, and thus be worthy of their own morality.

It may also suggest the Absolute Individual of Baron Evola (and who was more of a “Bohemian Tory” than the Baron, at least in his younger, Dadaist days, or when he toured Soviet Russia in white tie and tails to annoy the commissars?) or the four castes and differentiated ethics of Traditional India (and it is interesting that other than Guénon, the only Traditionalist who actually lived in a traditional society was Alain Daniélou, who roamed pre-war India with his lover in a silver motor home and reports that it was being a European that made him outcaste, and as a result his sexuality was of no interest to anyone).

The editors of the earlier anthology, The Cream of Noel Coward, were correct to include it as “a fitting capstone” to the book and his life’s work, “because it celebrates the people and the country which Coward knew so well and the values which he always stood for: loyalty, courage, and good manners.”


1. Faye describes his view, opposing not only “repression (or) banning” of homosexuality, but also homosexual “marriage,” as “common sense, a notion with which the French Left—the most stupid Left in the world—has been in conflict with since 1789 thanks to its ideological hallucinations” (Archeofuturism, p. 107).