Jonathan Yardley

Review of "The Noel Coward Reader," edited by Barry Day

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 17, 2010

THE NOEL COWARD READER

Edited by Barry Day

Knopf. 596 pp. $39.95

Since a genuinely satisfactory biography of the great Noël Coward has yet to be written, this compendium of bits and pieces from his massive life's work can serve as a useful and thoroughly entertaining introduction to that life and work for those who do not know either, as well as a treasured bedside companion for those who do. Coward, who died in March 1973 at the age of 73 (he was a mere 15 days older than the century itself) seems in no danger of vanishing from our collective consciousness, but it is good to have Barry Day's "Reader" because it covers the full sweep of his career and leaves no doubt as to the depth and breadth of his accomplishment.

Most of those who know his work will agree as to its breadth -- Coward wrote numerous plays and several film scripts, musical comedies and revues, many short stories, one novel, two volumes of autobiography (and fragments of a third), melodies and lyrics in profusion and even the occasional poem, in addition to which he acted in numerous plays and movies and toward the end of his life became a star of cabaret -- but doubtless there is disagreement as to its depth. Certainly he possessed in abundance what he called "a talent to amuse" and could be deliciously, wickedly funny, but too often he is pigeonholed, or dismissed, as a mere entertainer. This completely misses the point that there is nothing "mere" about entertainment when it is done at a level so high and sophisticated as Coward's. Beyond that he had things to say, mainly about love and its fleshly companion sex, which he called that "sly biological urge," that often have far more depth and complexity than is commonly to be found in "popular" culture.

Barry Day tells us that Coward once was asked by a TV interviewer "to sum up his life in a single word." The question was met with "an uncharacteristically long pause," after which he said: "Well, now comes the terrible decision as to whether to be corny or not. The answer is one word. Love. To know that you are among people you love and who love you. That has made all the successes wonderful -- much more wonderful than they'd have been anyway." Instructively, though, Day has placed that quotation immediately after the lyrics of a tart little number called "Bronxville Darby and Joan." As many Americans may not know, Darby and Joan live in British legend as a happily married old couple that epitomizes sentimentality about love and marriage, but in Coward's hands they become "a dear old couple who detest one another,/We've detested one another since our bridal night,/Which was squalid, unattractive and convulsive/And proved, beyond dispute,/That we were mutually repulsive."

Coward was playing that for laughs (in the musical comedy "Sail Away"), but, as in many other places in his work, there's a biting edge to it. In his splendid comedy "Private Lives," Amanda and Elyot, once married but now divorced, encounter each other accidentally and agree that "We were so ridiculously over in love," as Elyot puts it, to which Amanda replies: "Selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy. All those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other." Well, says Elyot, "Perhaps they were there anyhow," and Amanda closes the case: "No, it's love that does it. To hell with love." As Day astutely comments: "On an anything-but-superficial level it can be claimed that the play is really about the impossibility of sustaining love. The wit is merely the surface coating to conceal the hurt."

"Private Lives" is a characteristic piece of Cowardiana not merely for its wit and crisp dialogue but because it was written with astonishing speed. This took place in the Far East in 1929, as he tells it in "Present Indicative," his first volume of autobiography, written eight years later:

"A bout of influenza laid me low in Shanghai, and I lay, sweating gloomily, in my bedroom in the Cathay Hotel for several days. The ensuing convalescence, however, was productive, for I utilized it by writing Private Lives. The idea by now seemed ripe enough to have a shot at, so I started it, propped up in bed with a writing-block and an Eversharp pencil, and completed it, roughly, in four days. It came easily, and with the exception of a few of the usual 'blood and tears' moments, I enjoyed writing it. I thought it a shrewd and witty comedy, well constructed on the whole, but psychologically unstable."

What Coward means by this last is unclear, at least to me, but "shrewd" is precisely the word for this play and so much else that he wrote. His sense of human psychology was acute, every bit as much so as that of Oscar Wilde, to whom he can be compared to the benefit of both, though Coward himself found Wilde overrated. He was as capable as Wilde of writing snappy epigrams, but as his writing matured "my dialogue was becoming more natural and less elaborate and I was beginning to concentrate more on the comedy values of situation rather than the comedy values of actual lines." In my view, Coward's finest plays, "Private Lives" and "Blithe Spirit," rank with Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" and have every bit as much staying power, as is attested to by the frequency with which they are still performed by theatrical companies both amateur and professional.

As for the rest of Coward's work, the autobiographies are superb, the short stories rather less so because (oddly considering that Coward wrote them) there's too much description and too little dialogue, and the songs are simply out of this world. It's a pity that a compact disc of "The Noël Coward Album" isn't included with this volume, because his live recordings from the 1950s in Las Vegas and New York are the definitive interpretations of this sublime (and in many instances sublimely funny) music. The love songs really do need the music as well as the words to convey the full effect, but encountering the lyrics as intermittently reproduced in this collection is invariably a pleasure: "A Room With a View," "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," "Mad About the Boy" and of course, above all, "I'll See You Again," which "dropped into my mind, whole and complete," during a 20-minute New York traffic jam:

"Brass bands have blared it, string orchestras have swooned it, Palm Court quartets have murdered it, barrel organs have ground it out in London squares and swing bands have tortured it beyond recognition. . . . It has proved over the years to be the greatest song hit I have ever had or am ever likely to have . . . and I am still very fond of it and very proud of it."

With ample reason, but no doubt he was equally proud of his great humorous songs. They're not patter songs in the Gilbert and Sullivan mode, but cleverly constructed narratives in which Coward makes fun of his fellow Englishmen ("Mad Dogs and Englishmen," "The Stately Homes of England," "I Wonder What Happened to Him") or tells deliciously risqué stories: "Alice Is at It Again," "Uncle Harry" and, most brilliantly, "A Bar on the Piccola Marina." My only regret is that Day does not include the lyrics Coward wrote to the tune of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It," the Las Vegas recording of which is an indisputable classic.

Yes, that's a serious omission -- "Teenagers squeezed into jeans do it,/Probably we'll live to see machines do it" -- but it's the only one that comes to mind. Otherwise thanks are due to Barry Day, whose service in Coward's behalf has been exemplary -- this is the ninth Coward volume he has edited -- and is still further burnished with this splendid "Reader."


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