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.