In my next life I’d like to talk like this

Noël Coward truly knew how to live

In my next life I'd like to talk like this

Sasha/Getty Images

As well as being an opera star, great writer and dressage champion—preferably all three at once—I have prayed that in my next life I will be able to carry on a conversation with Noël Coward and his friends. What a circle: snobby Bright Young Things from Oxbridge, campy men in espadrilles and pale linen trousers on the Riviera, the violently talented and viciously bitchy homosexuals he palled around with—Somerset Maugham, Beverley Nichols, Iris Tree, Tallulah Bankhead—all of this razor-tongued bisexual society of the 1920s and ’30s, madly experimenting with anything on offer. This was a pudding rich in Continentals, British aristocrats and intelligentsia including aesthetes and one-offs like Coward who had perfected the cut-glass accent and Savile Row suit necessary to transport himself from the ordinariness of south London to international society.

Going to see Coward’s 1930 play Private Lives at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto (now playing, and an absolutely fabulous production; never tell me Kim Cattrall is just a sex symbol. She is a superb actress and comedian) brought home to me once again how stuck in wet concrete my tongue is. When I say “carry on a conversation” with Coward, I mean to engage him by having at one’s tongue-tip le mot juste, just as his leading characters always do. I have never ever had a mot juste at the right moment in my life, and in my next I want to have paragraphs of them plus fabulous one-liners.

Imagine being at ease in a country-house party at Coward’s home Goldenhurst or at Edward Molyneux’s spread in Cap d’Ail, with Somerset Maugham’s wife, Syrie, spitting mad at her husband for his dalliance with Gerald Haxton, who tried to shock at dinner with a singular tale of seducing a 12-year-old girl in Siam for a tin of condensed milk. What a witches’ brew of hissing serpents and spewing talent. In these times, you mixed the trivial and decadent pursuits of the wealthy with genuine artists and artistic achievement—before war and tax policies broke the whole edifice down, exiling the wealthy to St. Barts and the artists back to their studios.

According to Philip Hoare’s biography of Coward, the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue of Private Lives was written in Shanghai during four days when Coward was laid up with the flu (and how does that make us lazy sods feel when flu-ish and rolled up with Tylenol doing bugger all?). Coward claimed the dialogue had come to him earlier in the trip in Tokyo “when I switched out the lights, Gertie [the actress Gertrude Lawrence] appeared in a white Molyneaux dress and refused to go until 4 a.m., by which time Private Lives, a title and all, had constructed itself.”

The play’s plot is simple: a divorced couple each married to a new spouse bump into one another during their Riviera honeymoons. Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and Elyot (Paul Gross) are the love-and-hate ex-spouses. I’ve seen Amanda played by Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins with a lot of actresses in between and none quite had Cattrall’s balletic movements, her timing, and a snarl that Gertrude Lawrence, the original Amanda to Noël Coward’s Elyot, would have appreciated.

It’s an utter mystery why Coward still works on stage. His humour and writing are rooted in the milieu of his time and totally tied to class and nationality. A few of the jokes are accessible only to British aficionados—people like me who get out the chocs and put on the DVD of Brief Encounter, the black-and-white film of a Noël Coward play (directed by David Lean) with cryptic, constipated oh-so-very English dialogue. His writing still works because not only is Coward holding up the proverbial mirror to his times (or “looking-glass,” if you want to speak in Nancy Mitford’s “U” terms ), he is making a roast of it all, dissecting the lunacy to get at the truth about the vanity and despair without losing his stylish heigh-ho indifference. It’s brilliant in its way. It works wonderfully well.

Some critics have analyzed Coward in terms of his homosexuality. True, it’s unlikely anyone but a homosexual would have had a dream in which Gertie wore a “Molyneux” dress, and it’s also true he was in the theatre at a time when it seemed ruled by amazing homosexuals. When the power theatre producer Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont and Sir Noël Coward died within days of each other in 1973, a Spectator columnist wrote that though it couldn’t be said that with their deaths “the whole edifice of homosexual domination of the British theatre will come tumbling down,” it certainly made the British theatre look less secure. Since homosexuality was against the law, the theatre did become something of a refuge for the forbidden to lurk discreetly in scripts. How better to rebel against the established regime, and where else to go if you were an artist in a society ruled by King George V, who, when made aware of homosexuals, reportedly remarked, “I thought that men like that shot themselves.”

Whatever Coward’s sexuality, the genius would have been there and the sexual unorthodoxy in his plays would have remained. His accuracy masked in camp mocked conventional love and muddled distinctions between sincerity and manners. As Amanda says in Private Lives, in a moment of unusually quiet (for her) reflection: “I think very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.” On some level, you might say, Coward pretty much did it all.


In my next life I’d like to talk like this

  1. Ms Amiel should worry less about ever achieving le mot juste and pay more attention to writing plain, accurate English. She writes: “Imagine being at ease in a country-house party at Coward’s home Goldenhurst or at Edward Molyneux’s spread in Cap d’Ail, with Somerset Maugham’s wife, Syrie, spitting mad at her husband for his dalliance with Gerald Haxton, who tried to shock at dinner with a singular tale of seducing a 12-year-old girl in Siam for a tin of condensed milk.”
    As Ms Amiel puts it, this states quite clearly that Haxton seduced the girl to obtain a tin of condensed milk. 
    What she would have written, had she known any better,  was: “…. Gerald Haxton, who tried to shock at dinner with a singular tale of seducing a 12-year-old girl in Siam WITH a tin of condensed milk.” 
    It was the girl who was surrendering herself to paedolophilia to obtain the can of milk. 
    Ms Amiel, a little less posturing, please. And a little more attention to the simple, declarative sentence.
    London W24ES, England.
    (tel +44 7808843425.

  2. When did this woman get out of jail?

  3. Dear Barbara Amiel: I adore your writing, as I’ve posted here previously.  Today I offer my condolences on the passing of your brilliant cousin, Dr. Robert Buckman, may he rest in peace.  His work, his philosophies, have helped me grieve and work towards a greater understanding of death.  Dr. Buckman was an angel.

  4. October 11,2011

    Well, Ms. Amiel will be well acquainted with the Franz Smiths of London- a tin of condensed milk and the context of the words  with or for.. Yes, he is right, but there are no reasons today to try and show up Lady Black. She has been in the last eight years a tower of strength and dignity and one of the most talented writers I have read.I thank Lady Black for the diversion and entertainment her columns give to me.

     As Lord Black has stated, using a phrase coined by another   THE NIGHT WILL END.

    Lord Black’s new book, A Matter of Principle, is one of the finest books I have read – no need for the Franz Smiths of the world to tell me that means I do not read very much- and not only makes a wonderful case for love and marriage, but exposes that we are all one step from precipitous fall from grace when pursued by zealots.

    As an Ulster man said to me years ago after shooting a rather low golf score on an Irish Links I now say to the Blacks


    David Ferries
    Ottawa, Canada

  5. Yes, but wasn’t it Amiel who was so horrified by homosexuality that she called it an abomination?
    One cannot be a right wing idealogue and a wit at the same time. Le mot juste does not spring from fascist lips easily if at all. When one has achieved renown through talent and brilliance as did Coward (without the ice, how is that for irony?) one has indeed achieved. When one has stolen fame from alliance with a  renowned thief one is truly not worth the paper etc. Mr. Black’s writings reek of pretention and artifice. His tome on FDR was boring to say the best about it. To have a gift for memorizing so called historical fact is not genius. There is no genius in either Mr. or Mrs. Black’s writings. Just tiresome , boring pretention and vanity. The only interesting thing about either being their Shakespearean fall from a very brief and undeserved grace.

Sign in to comment.