I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
A number of years ago, when Turner Classic Movies featured Claude Rains as their Star of the Month, the five-minute promotional video they put together was narrated by the late, great Sir John Gielgud. (When Rains was Star of the Month for a second time, Gielgud’s appreciation was replaced by one spoken by Richard Chamberlain. It was, I hope I need hardly add, not quite the same thing.) In his narration, Sir John said that Rains had been one of his teachers at school, and that when he was a young actor, he often imitated Rains — “until I decided to imitate Noël Coward instead.”
Who today even remembers Noël Coward? The WNET program “Theater Talk” has devoted several shows to the man; the panelists and hosts gush on about his staying power, his “immortality.” I’m afraid they’re quite wrong. His name is still well known among theatre folk, but few civilians under the age of fifty ever heard of him.
Reporter: Mr Coward, have you anything to say to “The Sun”?
The other night, I watched a three-part documentary called “The Coward Trilogy.” Each part runs roughly fifty minutes. In this generally excellent documentary, John Lahr and Sheridan Morley have interesting things to say about Coward’s life and career, but the most interesting commentary is by Coward himself and by his friends.
Reporter: Mr Coward, have you anything to say to “The Star”?
His wit is undeniable, his talent immense, but I find that there’s something ineffably sad about Noël Coward . . . He had friends all over the globe — the most interesting, intelligent, talented friends imaginable — and they all genuinely loved him — they even remembered to tell him so. Until the late 40s, his life was a series of successes. He wanted to be famous and was, for a time, one of the most famous men in the entire world. He was one of the rare mortals who actually got pleasure from his talents and success. When his star began to fade in the 50s, he still managed to make a tremendous amount of money from his personal appearances at the Café de Paris and in Las Vegas.
Coward: Las Vegas: it was not Café Society; it was Nescafé Society.
He also was more happily in love than most great men ever manage to be (though his love affairs weren’t all smooth sailing). He was an incorrigible social climber, but he actually succeeded at it. The Queen Mother herself came for a visit to Firefly, his beautiful home in Jamaica. Louis Mountbatten counted Coward as one of his best friends. And of course, Coward was knighted, an honor that came late, but came nevertheless. So why should he make me feel twinges of unhappiness?
I suppose it has almost entirely to do with the matter of longevity. The most famous man in the world has been utterly forgotten within forty years of his death. He left hundreds of songs, scores of plays and short stories, dozens of movies . . . and none of them leave a deep enough impression to make his name mean anything to the modern world. He died only a few years before John Wayne, but everybody still remembers John Wayne. Everyone still remembers Ian Fleming (who was Coward’s neighbor and best friend in Jamaica), even though Fleming wasn’t a quarter as prolific as Coward. Few people in the modern world have read a word of Fleming’s books, but the character he created keeps his memory alive. Coward, on the other hand, created dozens of memorable characters — or to put it more Cowardly, characters who would be memorable if anyone remembered them.
Then there’s Coward’s attitude toward life that saddens me. On the surface, his scintillating wit suggests that he always rose above his failures with good grace, but when you look more closely, there’s considerable thrashing about: Portrait of a Man Drowning. Many of his later songs are little better than ill-humor set to out-of-date music. In “Sail Away,” for instance (which was his last musical success), there’s a song called “Beatnik Love Affair.” Beatniks were still around in 1961 when “Sail Away” was written, but they had been the subject of ham-fisted parody for so long that Coward’s inclusion of this song seems desperate and even pathetic. Moreover, he doesn’t come close to getting the idiom right, which is the first requirement of successful parody — it’s simply a Coward song flyspecked with wrong notes to give it “edge.”
It’s always unwise for middle-aged and elderly writers to attempt to write scornful parodies of the youthful culture that has supplanted their success. Late in his career, Cole Porter tried and failed at the same game: his parodies of rock ‘n’ roll (in “Silk Stockings” and “Les Girls”) are appalling and leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Coward’s early career was all about about youth and new directions in the theatre — “The Vortex” was considered so deeply shocking that it nearly didn’t get past the Lord Chamberlain. But by the fifties, Coward had become the sort of peevish old coot he had risen to success by mocking. Scorn for the young is never a smart career choice — even if the scorn is deserved.
Add to this that Coward was a tax exile. To the end of his life, he said that England was his favorite place in the world, but the Labour Government made it impossible for him to live in the country he loved. Mind you, living in Jamaica and Switzerland and keeping an apartment in Manhattan is no terrible thing, but I shouldn’t want to be an exile. During the war years, Coward was impressed time and again by the valor, tenacity and humor of his own people (“They’re the only people in the world I absolutely trust,” he said in an interview), but after the war everything changed. Coward wrote quite poignantly about his hostility toward the direction his beloved country had taken. He felt England had abandoned all the things that had made it great and was heading toward ruin. Was he wrong?
Add to this that within the first few years of his meteoric success, the strain of being witty became so great that he suffered at least one nervous breakdown (and perhaps two). Add to this that for much of his last ten years, he was ill: he began to forget his lines on stage, which terrified and depressed him; his legs were in constant pain. All those years of cocktails and cigarettes took their toll. All the fun he had and pleasure he gave to audiences is therefore bookended by mental and physical collapse.
And then there’s the talent itself that I find curiously heartbreaking, even as it delights me. The very thing that once made Coward a household word — his brittle flippancy — is also the thing that makes him less than first rate. I find him an enormously appealing and attractive person. I admire his toughness and his work ethic: he was one of the hardest working men in show business. When he went to the grand opening of the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai, he contracted pneumonia, which kept him flat on his back in bed for three days. He spent the time writing what turned out to be his best play, “Private Lives.” He wrote a lot of songs that I love. The last play I ever appeared in was a one-act from his “Tonight at 8:30” trilogy. I’ve read his diaries more than once, and am slowly working my way through his letters, which are full of wit and the most marvellous good sense. The letter he wrote to Marlene Dietrich urging her to get over her foolish, self-destructive affair with the abominable swine, Yul Brynner (whom Coward calls “Curly”), is a masterpiece of sanity and loving advice.
Dick Cavett: You’re, you . . . what is the word when one has such terrific, prolific qualities?
I love Coward, but I’m constantly aware of his weaknesses. It’s not only his flippancy that ultimately tells against him; it’s his shallowness that condemns him to irrelevance. That’s really what’s wrong with even his best work: it’s shallow. In “A Song at Twilight,” one of the last plays he wrote for himself, he comes as close to revealing himself as he ever managed; Coward’s overt intention is to be daringly “honest,” but the play is contrived and melodramatic. And old fashioned. And shallow. I own a very good production of it on DVD, starring Paul Scofield and Deborah Kerr. Scofield is superb, but Kerr is strangely terrible: she’s my favorite female movie star and a brilliant actress, but in this play, she overplays her hand on nearly every line. Paradoxically, her error is actually what the play deserves: had she been less arch, the play would surely seem better than it actually is. Her mistake does her no credit, but it trains a million watt arc lamp on the play’s moonlit shallowness. (Conversely, Kerr’s beautiful, emotionally nuanced performance in the shameful “Tea and Sympathy” fooled millions of people into believing it was a work of wisdom and sensitivity.)
And finally, I come back to Coward’s unhappy, but inevitable, desuetude. If the world hadn’t changed so much after WWII, Coward would still make sense and he would still be well-known. But the world did change and his plays no longer make any real sense, alas. I could wish that the world hadn’t changed, but what would be the point? So poor Noël Coward and his world must be enjoyed merely as a relic of a long-ago time. I suppose it all comes down to this: my affection for his work makes me feel so wretchedly old.