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Title: The Plays of Mr. Noel Coward
Alternative title [U.S.]: The Plays of Noel Coward
Author: Macdonell, A. G. [Archibald Gordon] (1895-1941)
Author [introductory paragraph]: Anonymous
Date of first publication: November 1931 [London: London Mercury, No. 145, November 1931]
Edition used as base for this ebook: New York: The Living Age, January 1932
Date first posted: 27 September 2014
Date last updated: 27 September 2014
Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #1205

This ebook was produced by Al Haines

At the age of thirty-one, Noel Coward seems destined to equal if not surpass the achievements of Bernard Shaw. Here is a record of his career up to now.

The Plays of
Noel Coward


From the London Mercury
London Literary Monthly

No sooner had Great Britain finished dealing with the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Turkish Empire, and the Bulgarian Kingdom, than it was called upon to face a problem of a different nature, some might say of lesser magnitude, but unquestionably of a baffling character. It was the sudden appearance of a young man—he had been just too young to be a soldier when hostilities came to their abrupt, in the eyes of the armchair school of warriors a deplorably abrupt, conclusion—who was prepared to act, sing, dance, compose music, write lyrics, stage-manage, produce, and turn out one comedy per fortnight, separately, in pairs, or all at once.

It was not at all the sort of thing to which London, and especially the London theatrical world, is accustomed. Versatility is not looked upon favorably in the neighborhood of Shaftesbury Avenue. A man who has written a play that centres round, let us say, the discovery by a husband that his wife loves another, has usually got to go on writing plays that centre round that discovery. After ten years he may vary the theme by making the wife discover that the husband is the guilty party, but if he ventures further than that he is almost certain to be accused of levity, insincerity, and dilettanteism. When Mr. Noel Coward, then, shot, with the disconcerting precocity of Athena fully equipped from the head of Zeus, into the heart of the British Empire and displayed his shop-window dressed with his varying talents, half the people said it simply could not be true and the other half said that they had predicted from the very beginning that the War would bring changes.

But it was true. Mr. Coward really could do all these things and some of them he could do really well. But not all. That is a mistake that has been made by many, especially by the very young. It is the purpose of this essay to consider only the dramatic work of Mr. Coward and to try to sift the good from the less good and determine what Mr. Coward has done well and what he has done less well.

It is seldom that the writings of a man who is only one-and-thirty years of age can be divided already into three distinct periods. Heaven knows how many more periods there may be before Mr. Coward 'writes himself out' at the age, say, of eighty-five, but so far there are three. The first period consisted of a swift succession of comedies and farces. These were hailed with ecstasy by the younger generation and tittered at doubtfully by the older, and they rushed their creator up to a dizzy pinnacle of notoriety. From that pinnacle his popularity as a playwright steadily declined into an eclipse of boos and failures. Alliance with Mr. C. B. Cochran forms the second period. A revue and a comic operette have been phenomenally successful, and another musical piece has just appeared. The third period has only just begun. It is Mr. Coward's new attack upon the art of play-writing and it contains one farcical comedy in his old style and one serious play in a style quite different to anything he has hitherto attempted.

Let us begin with the first period. Mr. Coward's earliest play, The Rat Trap, has not been produced on the stage but it has been, for some obscure reason, published. In his preface to the volume in which it appears, Mr. Coward says: 'I can still perceive some good moments in it ... The great fault of the play is a desperate desire to be witty at all costs, but when the would-be pyrotechnical frills are torn away and a few pieces of untidy but real psychology emerge it is n't so bad.'

The odd thing is that the desperate desire to be witty at all costs does not succeed at all. The first act, which contains most of the would-be frills, is full of this sort of thing: 'She says she could n't live without the classics, and seems to imagine that the classics could n't live without her,' and 'Love should be free, absolutely free always, like the National Gallery'; 'It's an ill wind that blows somebody something,' and 'Marriage nowadays is nothing but a temporary refuge for those who are uncomfortable at home.' With the help of these pyrotechnics, Act One tells us that a dramatist is going to marry a lady novelist and that they adore each other. Six months later, in Act Two, they are bickering their heads off. The dramatist is also inconceivably offensive to their housekeeper; and the curtain descends on the lady novelist getting home with a quick hook to the dramatist's left ear. Act Three is a mass of padding that discloses the dramatist's infidelity with a chorus girl, and the 'curtain' again is a slashing row. Then, oddly enough, the fourth act comes to the rescue with a queer little touch of sincerity. There is a reconciliation between the pair, not, as might have been expected, on the basis of true love misunderstood and a sop to the gallery, but on the much braver lines that the wife no longer loves her husband but is prepared to rub along as best she can. The last few pages of The Rat Trap might be considered as a justification for reprinting it.

The next play chronologically is The Vortex, and it was the first of Mr. Coward's plays to be produced on the stage. The Vortex also contains writing of real sincerity. The final desperate scene of reconciliation between the drug-taking son and the lover-taking mother contains a sort of groping after power and emotion, even if the language employed is not of this life or of any other. There is no pandering to the conventions of the commercial theatre in The Vortex. As in The Rat Trap, there is no final hostage offered to the sentimental patrons of gallery and pit. Nobody can accuse Mr. Coward of sacrificing his early ewe lambs on the altar of the happy ending. Apart from this artistic integrity there is not very much to praise in The Vortex except its precocity. It is a remarkable play for such a young man to have written, but it is not a remarkable play. The first act consists of an almost unbelievable amount of padding out of which emerges, at the last moment, the fact that Nicky is engaged to Bunty, and that some years ago Bunty knew Tom, who is now the lover of Nicky's mother, Florence. In Act Two, Tom kisses Bunty; Florence is furious; Bunty and Nicky part. The last act is the 'big scene' between mother and son. The scene is powerful, the language incredible. Do sons, even when they have lost their heads and are incipient dope fiends as well, really say to their mothers: 'All your so-called passion and temperament is false—your whole existence had degenerated into an endless, empty craving for admiration and flattery—and then you say you've done no harm to anybody,' or 'You're not young or beautiful; I'm seeing for the first time how old you are—it's horrible—your silly fair hair—and your face all plastered and painted,' or 'I've seen you make a vulgar, disgusting scene in your own house, and on top of that humiliate yourself before a boy half your own age'?

A great difference is in the next play, The Young Idea. Here Mr. Coward had the old idea of borrowing and he helped himself to a loan of Mr. Shaw's jolly pair of young things in You Never Can Tell. With his initial loan to assist him, Mr. Coward did all the rest himself and produced a really capital bit of nonsense. There is a high-spirited swing about The Young Idea that is most attractive, and there is genuine satire in the characters of the intolerable, and so typical, hunting folk who talk nothing but dreary gossip and dreary hunting shop. Gerda and Sholto, the young pair whose ambition is to reconcile their divorced parents, are very amusing and gay, and, even if the machinery does begin to creak in the last act and an irrelevant and elderly American has to be dragged in to keep the play going, it is all done with high good humor and bounding spirits.

By this time Mr. Coward is beginning to get off the mark. He is launched upon the first phase of his career. There follows a series of comedies, the chronological sequence of which does not matter, for they are more or less identical in form, plot, and treatment. Technically they are all an advance on The Young Idea and not one of them is an advance on any of the others.

Hay Fever is the story of the impact of respectability upon a family of Bohemians. Judith is a celebrated ex-actress and the centre of what is best described as a ménage of Sangers straight out of The Constant Nymph. Each one of the Sangers invites, unbeknown to the others, a respectable guest for the week-end. The result is incessant bickering and quarreling, carried on in language of astonishing offensiveness, and in the end the respectable guests go away unnoticed and unsped by their hosts and Judith announces her intention of going back to the stage. Hay Fever is a play that is very amusing to see and intolerable to read. It is a classic example of Mr. Coward's method of writing dialogue. In the third act there are two speeches of five lines apiece, four of four lines, and three hundred and seventeen of three lines or less. In the first act there are a hundred and fifty-eight consecutive 'speeches' of three lines or less. The whole thing is simply rattle, rattle, rattle. Judith is an excellently written character, the rest are nowhere.

Fallen Angels is the story of the impact of Continental manners upon English respectability. Two English husbands go off to play golf. Two English wives await the coming of Maurice Duclos with whom each had conducted a violent pre-marriage love affair—one at Pisa and one at Venice. They pass the time of waiting by dining together and becoming what Mr. Coward describes in his preface to the play, rather naïvely, as 'faintly intoxicated.' During the dinner, which is prefaced by a strong cocktail, accompanied by a bottle of champagne, and topped up with a liqueur, the two 'faintly intoxicated' ladies bicker, then quarrel, and end up with a terrific set-to which includes such passages as:—

JULIA: I thought you had a nicer mind than that.

JANE: Mind! What about yours? I suppose you imagine it's a lovely gilt basket filled with mixed fruit and a bow on the top.

JULIA: Better than being an old sardine tin with a few fins in it.

And again:—

JULIA: You're utterly, completely contemptible! If it's true, you're nothing but a sniveling hypocrite! And if it's false, you're a barefaced liar. There 's not much to choose between you. Please go at once.

JANE: Go—I'm only too delighted. You must curb your social sense, Julia, if it leads you to drunken orgies and abuse.

The husbands return and are duly horror-struck at the revelation of their wives' pasts. Maurice drifts in and the play peters out.

Easy Virtue is on exactly the same theme. A conventional youth marries a divorcêe, Parisian, older than himself, and brings her home in triumph to his truly appalling mother and sisters. She is called Larita and she is described as

tall, exquisitely made up, and very beautiful—above everything she is perfectly calm. Her clothes, because of their simplicity, are obviously violently expensive; she wears a perfect rope of pearls and a small, close traveling hat. She speaks with the faintest possible foreign accent.

This elegant lady is plunged into a circle of tweed skirts, sport coats, tennis players, girls like Miss Nina Vansittart

attired in a strikingly original rose taffeta frock, with a ribbon of the same shade encircling her hair the wrong way—giving more the impression of a telephone apparatus than of a head ornament, and young men like the Hon. Hugh Petworth, a healthy young man, whose unfortunate shape can be luckily accounted for by his athletic prowess.

Naturally, Larita does not go down very well with the ladies of the district, and when her young husband tactlessly stands up for them against her, they bicker. And then Larita and one of the sisters bicker, and Larita calls her a disloyal and nauseating hypocrite, which does not tend to restore harmony. Then another sister finds a newspaper cutting about Larita's past and that leads to a first-class row during which Larita is actually made to say to her elder sister-in-law:—

All your life you've ground down perfectly natural sex impulses until your mind has become a morass of inhibitions—your repression has run into the usual channel of religious hysteria. You've placed physical purity too high and mental purity not high enough. And you'll be a miserable woman until the end of your days unless you readjust the balance.

This bowls out the home team and Larita goes back to Paris. There is one human character in Easy Virtue and that is Colonel Whitaker, Larita's father-in-law, a charming and sympathetic picture of a husband who finds wife and daughters too much for him. Certainly the Whitaker females would be too much for most people.

The subject of Home Chat is infidelity, pure and simple, and for once there is no wicked, romantic, Continental, glamorous wrecker of homes. An innocent pair are compromised in a wagon-lit accident. Everyone believes the worst. The wife, magnanimously forgiven by her husband for an infidelity that she has not committed, revenges herself by pretending that she is guilty. In the end she is really unfaithful and again no one believes her. Home Chat is a very poor example of stagecraft. The wife's pretense is explained over and over again to each new character, and the dialogue is very weak and careless. Nothing, for instance, can forgive such lapses as:—

Peter behaved like a gentleman.

How disgusting of him—I must speak to him seriously.


You must be feeling very uncomfortable inside.

My digestion has always been superb.


I don't understand you, Mrs. Chilham.

Then I must be right, must n't I?

is well-worn Oscar Wilde.

By this time the first phase of Mr. Coward's career is at its dazzling zenith. London and New York have been stormed, and his name is a household word. But triumphant youth became impetuous. A play was announced as having been written in a week. Discerning critics, after its first night, said that two days ought to have been ample for such a production. There were boos and hisses. Mr. Coward tried again. More boos and more hisses. The first phase was rapidly tumbling to the ground. One of the failures was called Sirocco and its theme was the same old one trotted out again—the impact of Bohemia, this time an Italian painter, upon dear, respectable old England. A heavy husband, high-speed vamping with the help of a lot of Asti Spumante, a studio in Florence, a scene of crude offensiveness and abuse, and a final curtain on a free fight ('they fall on to the floor themselves, rolling over and over, fighting madly').

Another was a period play, The Marquise, which contained a charming heroine, a badly forced ending, and reams and reams of what the Greeks called 'stichomuthia,' which is dialogue by one line at a time.

Another 'romantic' play of this period was The Queen Was in the Parlor. Nadya, about to be married in Paris to M. Sabien Pastal, is suddenly told that, owing to the assassination four days earlier (for some reason unreported, apparently, in the newspapers of Paris) of the King of Krayia, she is now queen of that country. Like all good queens of romance she abandons her Rudolf Rassendyll and follows the stern call of duty. Sabien in turn follows her and penetrates right into the royal bedchamber and is duly shot for his pains by the local Colonel Sapt.

So ends the first phase of Mr. Coward's career. A brilliant opening campaign had gone steadily into eclipse.

But our hero was undaunted. With a talent for music that he had exploited upon the revue stage, he tried a different branch of his profession and the result was a revue, This Year of Grace, music, lyrics, and book all written by himself. I rather think he produced it as well. Mr. C. B. Cochran, the Napoleon of Piccadilly, flung his dashing young Murat into the battle and a resounding victory was won. This Year of Grace ran for a long time; Bitter Sweet, its legitimate successor, although an operette and not a revue, was even more successful, and a third musical production, Cavalcade, is packing Drury Lane.

This is the second period—musical entertainments and a complete rest from 'straight drama.' Of Bitter Sweet there is little to be said. It succeeded completely in what it set out to do, to catch the fancy of those ladies who visit matinées, read stories about sheiks in the desert, and thoroughly enjoy a good cry. There is, of course, no prize at all for anyone guessing its main theme. Mr. Coward simply transferred his now famous plot from the 'straight' into the musical line. An English girl is swept off her feet by a foreign musician, the idea of Milestones is added, and there you are. As for the lyrics, if Mr. Coward had not himself published the libretto of Bitter Sweet I should have played the game and not quoted a word of them. But, as it is, Mr. Coward cannot blame me if I reprint what he has printed, as, for instance:—

Tho' life buffets me obscenely
It serenely
Goes on.
Although I question its conclusion,
Is gone.
Frequently I
Put a bit by
For a rainy day.
Nobody here can say
To what indeed
The years are leading.
Fate may often treat me meanly
But I keenly pursue
A little mirage in the blue.
Determination helps me through.

You don't believe me? I did n't suppose you would, but it is there all right, on page 64 of Messrs. Heinemann's handsome edition. Or:—

Life is very rough and tumble
For a humble
One can betray one's troubles never

I mean to say! Dash it! There is also a capital song in which Tokay is described as made from the grapes of a sunlit vine on the banks of the golden Rhine. If anyone thinks that Mr. Coward can write a lyric, let him look at any lyric written by Mr. A. P. Herbert and think again. So much for the triumphantly successful second phase.

The third has only just begun. It is the return of Mr. Coward as dramatist after an interval of rest and a trip round the world. Private Lives is the first of the pieces in this third phase. It is especially interesting as it is a kind of résumé of all that Mr. Coward did and tried to do when his first phase was at its brilliant zenith. The swift, hard, rattling farcical comedy, at which he aimed so many shots, is brought to a glittering perfection in Private Lives. It is technically a masterpiece—not of the art of writing plays, but of the art of writing Mr. Coward's plays. For, as I think we have discovered by now, Mr. Coward's plot is the contrast between brilliant cosmopolitanism and stodgy Anglo-Saxondom, his stand-by is infidelity, and his device of stagecraft is the bicker. Like Josef Israels, who alleged that he could paint pictures of a mother and child in his sleep, so Mr. Coward could write scenes of abuse and invective on the subject of infidelity for days and nights on end. Private Lives is the apotheosis of his first phase. It contains such gems, spoken on the first evening of a honeymoon, in the moonlight, as:—

SYBIL: You're hateful and beastly. Mother was perfectly right. She said you had shifty eyes.

ELYOT: Well, she can't talk. Hers are so close together, you couldn't put a needle between them.


I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe.

Or, in the second act:—

ELYOT: Snap, snap, snap; like a little adder.

AMANDA: Adders don't snap. They sting.

ELYOT: Nonsense. They have a little bag of venom behind their fangs and they snap.

AMANDA: They sting.

ELYOT: They snap.

AMANDA: I don't care, do you understand? I don't care. I don't mind if they bark and roll about like hoops.

The second act of Private Lives is Mr. Coward's own particular triumph. Nothing happens from beginning to end except quarreling, gramophone playing, telephones ringing, struggling, smashing of records, face slapping, rolling about on the floor, and general invective, and all of it extremely entertaining. There is no question about that. Mr. Coward at his best is extremely entertaining, and often quite witty as well. Indeed, in Private Lives he has more witty lines than in all the rest of his plays put together. 'Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs' has the authentic touch, and also, in reply to the line, 'It does n't suit women to be promiscuous,' the retort, 'It does n't suit men for women to be promiscuous.' And this little exchange is delicious:—

AMANDA: Do you realize that we're living in sin?

ELYOT: Not according to the Catholics. Catholics don't recognize divorce. We're married as much as ever we were.

AMANDA: Yes, dear, but we're not Catholics.

ELYOT: Never mind; it's nice to think they'd sort of back us up.

And lastly, in this third phase, we have, as we had at the very beginning, a play published but hitherto unacted.

Post Mortem is Mr. Coward's first serious work. Is it of any significance that he wrote it immediately after Private Lives? Has he deliberately discarded his farcical comedies after reaching high-water mark, and is he going to aim at greatness instead of notoriety? Post Mortem is an attempt to discuss the Great Peace dramatically, just as so many writers have attempted to discuss the Great War. Mr. Coward's question is the one so often asked: 'Was it all worth while?' Was the Peace worthy of all the sacrifice that went to make peace possible? Mr. Coward's reply is an emphatic no. The play opens in a company headquarters in the line in France, and the talk of the officers is not the talk of any company headquarters that ever was or will be. At the end of the scene John Cavan is killed by a sniper. The rest of the play is the gropings of the spirit of John Cavan toward an understanding of what it was all about. Thirteen years after his death he visits his mother. She tells him that his father, the newspaper magnate, has got a new mistress; that Monica, John's fiancée of the war years, has married a man called Chellerton; that Perry Lomas, a brother subaltern, has written a war book which is going to be burnt publicly for being too near the truth. She implores him to go back to his spirit world before his eyes are opened, but John refuses.

I must know [he says] whether by losing so much we have gained anything at all, or whether it was just blind futility like Perry said it was. I must know whether the ones who came home have slipped back into the old illusions and are rotting there, smug in false security, blotting out memory with the flimsy mysticism of their threadbare Christian legend, or whether they've had the courage to remember clearly and strike out for something new—something different.

In search of this knowledge John visits Monica and finds her in a cocktail-, gramophone-, dance-mad, loose set of acquaintances. She tells him:—

You died young; who are you to judge? You had n't yet found out about everything being a bore.

Perry Lomas, next on the list, is about to commit suicide. Almost his last words, before he shoots himself, are:—

Fundamental good in human nature? Bunk! Spiritual understanding? Bunk! God in some compassionate dream waiting to open your eyes to truth? Bunk! Bunk! Bunk! It's all a joke with nobody to laugh at it.

The visit to his father's newspaper office is even worse. His return from what the managing editor calls 'beyond the hinterland,' subsequently alluded to as 'b. the h.,' is made into the subject of a newspaper stunt; and, finally, he dines with his company officers, middle-aged men who were young in Scene One. The dinner is a failure; one of the ex-officers is furious at being reminded that he loved a subaltern who was killed; another announces that he would sooner shoot his own sons than see them shirk the 'next war'; and the third says that war or peace, death or life, it's all the same to him. He's just passing the time and does n't care. So John goes back, and Mr. Coward's answer to his quest is a bitter one.

Post Mortem is not a great play, but it is interesting in itself and it is doubly interesting as an indication that Mr. Coward may intend to forsake the broad and easy path of invective and infidelity, and try to become a real dramatist. So far his claim to be a real master of the theatre is stultified by his fatal gift of amusing padding. It is not a sign of technical skill to be able to hold an audience's attention throughout the second act of Private Lives, or the first acts of almost all his plays. It is only a sign of a shrewd appreciation of what can be done by rattling on and on and on. The great dramatists use dialogue to unfold the action of the play and display their characters at the same time. Mr. Coward cannot be bothered to master this difficult art, and so when he wishes to draw a character he has to fill in page after page of irrelevances in order to do so. It would be possible to take, for example, the first thirty-three pages, of a total of thirty-six, of the first act of The Vortex, and fit almost any sort of play on to them without making a single line of those thirty-three pages any more irrelevant than it is now to the rest of The Vortex.

But if Mr. Coward is really going to turn his attention from his everlasting attack upon respectability and his everlasting satire against modernity (it is odd, by the way, how modern youth should hail as their leader and representative a man who was old at twenty and who never stops withering them with irony), the next phases of his development may be of the utmost importance to the theatre. The knowledge and the experience of the stage are his already; his, also, a nimble mind and inexhaustible energy and industry. If he turns his mind and his energy and his industry a little more to thought and study, and a good deal less to producing and lyric writing and song composing, he may yet live down his colossal success.

Mr. Coward is a strange figure in this post-war England. He belongs to no 'school,' he has no 'masters' whom he copies, he writes no newspaper articles, he is seldom interviewed or photographed. His name hardly ever appears in 'social jottings.' The Lido knows him not, nor Deauville, nor Le Touquet, nor North Berwick. He has not written his reminiscences. He has not pulverized America in a book of travel. For all his immense notoriety he is an aloof and retiring individual. And, for all the wealth that he has garnered, he is an indefatigable worker. In the last hundred years only Disraeli and Wilde and Shaw have started from nothing and conquered England as Mr. Coward has conquered. It is curious that he is the first Englishman to have done so.

[End of The Plays of Mr. Noel Coward, by A. G. Macdonell]