British Playwrights, 1880-1956: A Research and Production Sourcebook

By William W. Demastes; Katherine E. Kelly | Go to book overview

Noël Coward
(1899-1973)

SARAH DUERDEN

Few writers have invested as much care into the personal image they publicly project as did Noël Coward. As a result, within popular culture the name "Coward" has become synonymous with a certain English style: the elegant silk dressing gown, the cigarette holder, charm, wit, clipped phrases, upper-class accents, and sex appeal. His plays reinforced this image, and Coward was not averse to audiences confusing him with his leading male heterosexual characters.

Coward's homosexuality is now well understood, as is the fact that his public persona was a careful construction designed to hide his homosexuality from the general public. He was, for example, unimpressed with Oscar Wilde, calling him "a silly, conceited, inadequate creature . . . a dreadful self-deceiver" ( The Noël Coward Diaries, 135). Although by the 1960s Coward was writing openly about the Homosexual Bill in Parliament in both his diaries and his play Shadows of the Evening, he failed to realize that his whole mannerism--the silk dressing gown, the cigarette holder, the raised eyebrow--was deeply artificial and camp. In addition to the creation of an immensely enjoyable persona, Coward's homosexuality may have also led him to the acidly witty exposure of society characteristic of so many of his plays and the comedy of manners ( Lahr). He well understood society's double standards and knew exactly how they might best be exposed through language. However, his success lay not with the epigrammatic phrase, but rather with the timing so that ordinary phrases become witty, hilarious, hysterical, or loaded with desperation.

The recent revival of Coward in London, labeled by some critics as Coward for the nineties, attests to Coward's enduring qualities. To a certain extent he ignored modernism and sweeping changes in the theater, preferring instead to perfect the comedy of manners. Yet his sparse but witty dialogue that relies on situation and moment, his consciousness of language as a weapon that can dam-

-81-

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British Playwrights, 1880-1956: A Research and Production Sourcebook
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • William Archer (1856-1924) 3
  • W. H. Auden (1907-1973) 15
  • Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) 25
  • Sir Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) 37
  • Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948) 46
  • James Bridie (Osborne Henry Mavor) (1888-1951) 56
  • Harold Brighouse (1882-1958) 67
  • Noël Coward (1899-1973) 81
  • Clemence Dane (Winifred Ashton) (1887-1965) 97
  • T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) 105
  • Christopher Fry (1907-) 117
  • John Galsworthy (1867-1933) 131
  • William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) 144
  • Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) 157
  • Graham Greene (1904-1991) 172
  • Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952) 189
  • St. John Hankin (1869-1909) 200
  • W. Stanley Houghton (1881-1913) 213
  • Laurence Housman (1865-1959) 225
  • Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) 237
  • D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) 251
  • John Masefield (1878-1967) 268
  • W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) 278
  • Allan Monkhouse (1858-1936) 296
  • Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) 305
  • J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) 327
  • Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) 339
  • Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952) 352
  • George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) 364
  • R. C. Sherriff (1896-1975) 381
  • Alfred Sutro (1863-1933) 395
  • Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) 409
  • Selected Bibliography 425
  • Index of Names 429
  • Index of Titles 443
  • About the Editors and Contributors 453
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