Noel Coward, one of the great gifts to the 20th century, was born at the very end of the 19th century, 100 years ago yesterday. Noel Coward, the indelible persona, however silk dressing gown, cocktails, smart-set repartee wasn’t born until 1924 in the “The Vortex,” the first smash hit play he wrote and starred in. “The Vortex” titillated Jazz Age theatergoers with its decadent satire of upper-class neuroses a son’s drug abuse and a mother’s philandering conveyed in the clipped witticisms that became the actor-playwright-composer’s stock-in-trade.
More than 75 years later, “The Vortex,” though prescient in many ways, is no longer as fresh, if only because of the intervening years of social transformation (via drug abuse and philandering). Interestingly enough, the Coward persona the dressing gown, the cocktails, the smart-set repartee remains as alluring as ever, even more so in a world Mr. Coward lived long enough to recognize as having changed to the point where “elegance is a dirty word.”
And elegant is one particularly apt word for the Coward oeuvre plays, stories, operettas and songs that combines a rare, shimmering wit, a sometimes surprising romanticism, and a practically unrivaled facility for language in all its richness and humor. It’s worth noting that the ever-elegant Mr. Coward occasionally chafed at what he called his “created image.” In “Future Indefinite,” the second installment of his autobiography, he wrote: “All that was important for monotonous future reference was the created image the talented, neurotic, sophisticated playboy. In later years this imaginary, rather tiresome figure suffered occasional eclipses, but they were of short duration. Cavalcade,’ Bitter Sweet,’ This Happy Breed,’ Brief Encounter,’ and In Which We Serve,’ ” he continued, listing a fine string of memorable plays and movies that celebrate both noblesse oblige and what you might call middle-class virtue, “scratched a little gloss off the legend, but not enough to damage it irreparably.”
Certainly, the man’s exceptional talents for writing and performing high comedy (“Private Lives” and “Hay Fever,” to name two perfect specimens), not to mention his obvious ease in a well-cut dinner jacket, had something to do with his deathless image as the soignie sophisticate. Still, it is also true that people see what they wish to see. In the case of Mr. Coward’s multifaceted talent, that has usually meant overlooking, as much as possible, his paeans to a stolid hoi polloi and a gallant upper class.
And it still does. Noel Coward, famously but discreetly homosexual, is now celebrated in curiously political terms. He is remembered as a “gay playwright,” who, long after death, is expected to sing in tune with a range of contemporary “gay rights” issues. The New York Times, for example, has marked his centennial by dubbing him, natch, “a gay playwright … in tune with today’s ironic age.” The intensely private Mr. Coward would likely have recoiled from such a handle, and not only because of his Edwardian reticence toward sexuality (don’t flaunt it), but also because irony was emphatically not a mainstay of his creative arsenal.
Then there’s last year’s “Twentieth Century Blues” album, a selection of Coward’s inventively literate songs rasped, mauled and ululated by various rock stars, from the Pet Shop Boys to Paul McCartney, featuring, for example, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” as rap music, and “London Pride” as rave music. Talk about irony. Mr. Coward despised rock ‘n’ roll, not only on aesthetic grounds, but also because it rendered his own work popularly obsolete. Even the Beatles, in his opinion, were “talentless.” Surely, their successors would rank even lower in his estimation. But here they are all paying tribute to the man who was known as “the Master.”
And there’s more. The proceeds from the album are going to an AIDS charity, a financial arrangement that just might strike one as a rather presumptuous act of political grandstanding considering Mr. Coward’s determined, and even notorious, reticence on personal sexual matters. When his diaries were finally published in the early 1980s, for example, they were actually criticized in some quarters for lacking much in the way of intimate detail.
All the same, of course, they were considered too revealing on other counts. As Variety put it, “It’s a bit startling to discover that Coward was a political reactionary.” And there it is: The secret that truly dare not speak its name.
Reactionary or not, Noel Coward stands, or should stand, as a consummate poet of 20th century popular song, a uniquely gifted playwright and memorable entertainer not a political symbol. While his work is inextricably bound to a certain era and place in history, the pure delight it evokes is happily timeless. Care to celebrate his birthday in style? See “Private Lives,” starring sparkling Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. Or find an album of the Master singing his own songs. Or both.
Dressing gown optional.
Diana West is an editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Times.