While inventing himself, Noël Coward invented much of the 1920s. His imperturbable sophistication, his ”seamless carapace of urbane distinction,” as Clive Fisher puts it in Noël Coward, his suave manner of grooming, dressing, talking, and smoking — all this was widely imitated, working its way into fashion and film, and has become inseparable from the enduring image of the interwar years. Coward was the theatrical equivalent of Art Deco.
For a time he seemed to be everywhere — writing plays and acting in them (Hay Fever, Private Lives, Present Laughter), composing and singing popular and satirical songs (”Mad Dogs and Englishmen”), rubbing elbows with the rich, titled, and fashionable in London and New York. But by the late ’30s his work already had a nostalgic tone, and the war swept away what was left of the Jazz Age frivolity and cynicism he had celebrated and mocked. Yet during the ’60s audiences began to tire of the angry young men and kitchen-sink realism that had superseded him in the theater, and before he died in 1973 (at the age of 73), he had, along with Deco chairs, lamps, and mirrors, been revived. The plays that have lasted are regularly performed for the same reason that the movies made from them (Design for Living, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit) are regularly watched — our raucous and contemporary culture has nothing to offer like Coward’s light touch, his articulate, elegant, discreetly sentimental comedy.
Coward said that he was ”determined to travel through life first-class,” and he succeeded, but only by purchasing his ticket in disguise. He was born second-class, in the South London suburb of Teddington, the son of a traveling salesman for a piano company. He was close to his mother, who pushed him toward the theater, not that he needed much of a push. Like Sarah Bernhardt and others born to be on stage, he was theatrical from infancy; Fisher tells us that as a boy Coward hated singing in the church choir ”because congregations, unlike audiences, do not applaud.” His mother got him child parts; by 20 he had written a play and was perfecting his sleek public mask; by 24 he was famous and slightly scandalous. But only slightly. His plays goaded the censors by flirting with irreverence, sex, and drugs. But he concealed his homosexuality behind the usual role — ”womanizer and sexual cad” — that he wrote for himself. He had to; a public admission of his sexuality could have landed him in jail. He must have relished the irony of one of his first affairs — it was with the Duke of Kent, the youngest son of George V.
Yet — perhaps more shocking to our contemporary sensibilities — Coward remained at heart a suburbanite. He believed in rising early and working hard (and fast — he wrote Hay Fever in three days). He hated the welfare state, the decline and fall of the British Empire, and the debased standards of postwar art, dress, and manners as vehemently as any apoplectic retired colonel.
Like his predecessor in the comedy of manners, Oscar Wilde (whom he found insufferable), Coward was an avatar of dandyism — its polished egoism, its detached ironic gaze, its devotion to pure style and to such adjuncts of style as luxury and snobbery. Yet he combined this artifice with an intense sentimental patriotism and a nostalgia for the world of his childhood. Fisher, a British critic, gives us a brisk and sensible biography well-suited to a man who aimed to be clever, not deep. The book, unlike many theatrical biographies, isn’t superficial or merely anecdotal, but it’s a pleasure to read and admirably lacking in thoroughness. B+