When a writer’s work seems inseparable from his personality, what’s left when you do try to separate them? That’s what the world is about to find out when it comes to Noël Coward, the actor/writer/songwriter who was one of England’s most prolific theatre people until his death in 1973. Though he was out of fashion for some time, this year has brought a rush of Coward revivals: a production of his supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit is up for several Tonys on Broadway, and there’s a new movie based on Coward’s comedy of Roaring Twenties manners, Easy Virtue, starring Colin Firth and Jessica Biel (the most unlikely Coward heroine since the time he wrote a musical for Florence Henderson). Most ambitiously, the Shaw Festival is presenting Coward’s cycle of 10 one-act plays and musicals, Tonight at 8:30. Philip Hoare, author of Noël Coward: A Biography, says that Coward was once dismissed as “a kind of avatar of old values,” but that “a new generation, without those blue-rinse, coach-party associations with Coward, is seeing his work in a new light.” Now that nobody remembers Noël Coward the man, we can investigate Noël Coward the writer.
Coward could do virtually anything: when he wrote a play, he also directed, starred, produced and composed the music. But what he was most famous for was just being himself, or a carefully arranged version of himself. Hoare says that Coward never smoked cigars and “hated champagne,” but he presented himself to the public as someone who loved high living and high society. His persona, and his clipped delivery of his lines, became familiar to people who had never seen his plays; he even had a successful one-man comedy and music show in Las Vegas. Because he’s best known for making audiences laugh, he’s associated with light, heartless comedy (Blithe Spirit kills off a major character without anyone, including the audience, caring). But Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell was surprised “by the incredible range” of Coward’s work, “from comedies to musicals to quite poignant and strong dramas.”
Coward’s work isn’t easily categorizable as the work of a light, superficial cynic. One of the best plays from Tonight At 8:30, Still Life, is a quiet drama about two middle-class married people having a short, doomed affair; it became the hit movie Brief Encounter (which was adapted into an opera earlier this year by composer André Previn). And most of the plays in the cycle, whatever their style, deal with themes that run through all of Coward’s plays, particularly what Hoare calls “themes of dysfunction and lack of communication” (in a one-act musical, Shadow Play, a character says that conversations consist of “a lot of small talk with other thoughts going on behind”). That wasn’t clear when there were only three or four Coward plays that were regularly performed; now that more of his work is being staged, we can get a better understanding of what it means.
Part of the reason Coward’s non-comic plays weren’t seen much is that their association with him as an actor (or with his friend Gertrude Lawrence, who co-starred with him in most of the Tonight at 8:30 plays) caused them to be viewed as relics of an older style of theatre. Coward applied the same style of acting to all his work, comic or dramatic; emotion had to be underplayed, and the delivery of the dialogue was careful and precise, not naturalistic. (In Coward’s Second World War movie In Which We Serve, he eulogizes dead sailors in a constipated, stiff-upper-lip manner.) That style went out of fashion in the ’50s, with the arrival of method acting. Even now, to perform these plays, you have to ignore the type of performances Coward had in mind: “We don’t update them,” Maxwell says, “but that style of acting, we really don’t act like that anymore. As far as people comparing them to Coward, I would hope that people have moved on by now.”
But what producers have rediscovered about Coward is that he can still provide a good vehicle for actors, even if they don’t talk the way he did. Maxwell says that the fun of producing the Tonight at 8:30 plays is that they showcase the whole range of what actors can do: “For the audience, it’s a real kick to watch actors make those shifts so delightfully and so smartly.” Coward is gone, and so is his style of acting, but what’s left is a body of work that, Maxwell explains, is perfect “to show how multi-faceted actors can be.” No wonder everybody wants to put on his plays: a lot has changed since Coward’s time, but actors will always want to show off.