Academic journal article The Space Between

"Shrill Small Voices . . . Drowned out by the General Trumpetings of Praise": The Reception of Noël Coward's Cavalcade

Academic journal article The Space Between

"Shrill Small Voices . . . Drowned out by the General Trumpetings of Praise": The Reception of Noël Coward's Cavalcade

Article excerpt

When Virginia Woolf first met Noël Coward at one of Sybil Colefax's famous social gatherings in 1928, she was thoroughly charmed: she praised him as "a miracle, a prodigy" and, after seeing his hit revue, This Year of Grace, wrote a letter enthusiastically encouraging him to try his hand at novels that would "put these cautious, creeping novels that one has to read silently in an arm chair deep, deep in the shade" (Letters 3: 478). By 1934, she was referring to him in her letters as "Noël Coward whose works I despise" (Letters 5: 273) and dismissing his gifts in her diary as "all out of the 6d box at Woolworth's. . . . Nothing there: but the heroic beating" (Diary 4: 259). By 1936, he had become a reason for her disenchantment with Sybil Colefax's parties: "But at last, what with Noël Coward on my left and Sir Arthur [Colefax] on my right, I felt I could no longer bring myself to dine with Sibyl" ("Am I a Snob?"). Woolf's change of heart reflects a broader shift in Coward's reputation within intellectual and artistic circles in Britain in the late twenties and early thirties-not coincidentally, the same period that the divisive "battle of the brows" was taking place on the BBC and in literary periodicals and presses.

Right at the peak of this "battle of the brows," Noël Coward wrote and produced Cavalcade, a lavish pageant of British history from the Boer War to the present day, for the largest theatre in London's West End, the Drury Lane. Popular audiences gave the production enthusiastic stand- ing ovations and kept it running for over 400 performances while many theatre critics lavished it with "paeans of praise" (Coward, Autobiography 239). A few dissenters, however, criticized the play and expressed grave concern about Coward's politically and emotionally manipulative effect on an unthinking, largely middle-class audience. The divided reception of Cavalcade indicates the extent to which theatre criticism both participated in and was affected by the "battle of the brows" and the resulting tensions between so-called "highbrow" writers associated with Bloomsbury and the modernist aesthetic and "middlebrow" writers whose artistic commitments were, according to Woolf in her essay penned in the heat of these debates, "mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige" ("Middlebrow" 80).1 By the time Cavalcade opened in October 1931, "the cultural debate had hardened into the form of antithetical camps, each 'brow' convinced of [its] superiority" (Cuddy-Keane 19). Coward's own description of the response to Cavalcade hints at the role these increas- ingly entrenched cultural divisions played in its reception: "[A] few uneasy highbrows . . . deplored my fall from sophisticated wit into the bathos of jingoism, and had even gone so far as to suggest the whole thing was a wily commercial trick . . . but these shrill small voices were drowned out by the general trumpetings of praise" (Introduction ix). Furthermore, the pro- duction coincided with the economic and political crisis that produced an unprecedented Conservative landslide in the general election of 27 October 1931, two weeks after Cavalcade opened (Cole 143). These external cultural and political tensions played a crucial role in the play's initial reception, resulting in a distorted critical response that had a lasting effect on Coward's reputation. Critics used their responses to the production to take sides in these contemporary debates, often by eliding the play's ambiguity and by magnifying those features that would help them to position themselves. Such distortions are not uncommon in creating cultural divisions and classifications. Although, as Coward indicates, the "general trumpetings of praise" temporarily drowned out the "shrill small voices" of his detractors, the divisive response to Cavalcade significantly damaged Coward's reputa- tion with "highbrow" writers and intellectuals for decades and contributed to his critical neglect in the second half of the twentieth century. …

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