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The Critics
James Evershed AGATE (1877-1947)
Drama Critic of 'The Times' from 1923 to 1947

"Long experience has taught me that in England nobody goes to the theatre unless he or she has bronchitis."

This page provides extracts that mention Noël Coward from the books of James Agate published over 50 years ago by Harrap, and Home & Van Thal Ltd.

KEY to abbreviations:
JA = James Agate; EGO 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 & 9 = the 9 titles of James Agate's Autobiography written largely as a diary with prose, poetry and lyric inserts;
AC = the two volumes of his 'Around Cinema';
CT = his book entitled 'Contemporary Theatre, 1944-45';
ST = Sunday Times

9th November, 1936 From EGO 3: "The night has been unruly; some say the earth was feverous and did shake. In non-Shakespearian English, EGO 2 was given to the world at midnight. The S.T. had a discouraging review and a heartening advertisement yesterday. Gollancz, fishing for advance options, had hauled in a noble catch. Eddie Marsh, Cedric Hardwicke, High Walpole, Noël Coward, E.M. Delafield and Bob Sherriff were all highly flattering ..."
May 14th, 1937 From EGO 3 in a criticism of the play ' You Can't Take It With You' by Hart & Kaufman at the Booth Theatre where he is looking at the nature of the humour of the play and says: ""I wouldn't deceive you for all the rice in China," says the boy. "Is there much rice in China?" asks the girl. This is good Noël Coward, and to my surprise nobody laughed ..."

25th May, 1937 From EGO 3 JA and Lucius Beebe are dining at El Morocco: "As Beebe put it, "In the season everybody has to come here or they think you're dead. Or out of town, which is worse." Coming out, I heard a cad expostulating with the management. He didn't see why he should pay fourteen dollars for a coupla drinks for himself and his wife. I thought the man was clearly mad. Drinks or no drinks, fourteen dollars is surely not excessive for sitting in a room in which Noël Coward once waved to Beatrice Lillie!"

2nd September, 1937 From EGO 3 criticising Jack Priestley's 'Time and the Conways' JA refers to a piece written by Julian Glen that says this: " Obviously having read Dunne with interest, Priestley does his best to destroy a considerable achievement by forcing certain of his characters to talk sombrely about the old scythe-slinger in much the manner of Coward's "Time makes a mess of things, oh, what a mess of things Time makes."

9th September, 1937 From EGO 3 - JA's birthday when he received a birthday gift from Gladys Calthrop of a drawing from Noël Coward's production of 'Mademoiselle'

22nd March, 1938 From EGO 3 talking about his theatre visits of the previous six days: "Also Noël Coward's Operette, which is Bitter Sweet all over again, and very much watered down."

6th July, 1938 From EGO 3: "It is remarkable how the people I discourage do well, and how those I try to help either fail or fade away. I did my best to dissuade Alan Parsons from becoming a journalist, and Robert Speaight and Reginald Tate from becoming actors. All these three spurned my advice, and look what a success they made! Now consider the people I've tried to help since this diary started, beginning with Tait and Allot! Noël Coward said: "Those young men ought to have realised that the pattern of your book demanded a triumph from them. Your little horse saw that much when he won the championship at Dublin!"

26th September, 1942 From EGO 6 and referring to 'In Which We Serve': Also dealt with Noël's film about a destroyer. Very good."

11th December 1942 From EGO 6: "Lunched at the Ivy with my old friend the New York dramatic critic, John Mason Brown, now in the American Navy. Introduced me to the new adjective "hilarious", meaning first-class or extraordinary. About In Which We Serve: "It took me almost as long to get used to Noël Coward as a naval captain as to myself as a naval lieutenant." About the hilarious liqueur brandy: "I expect they distil it from the Crown Jewels.""

2nd May, 1943 From EGO 6: "On Thursday and Friday nights went to the premieres of Noël's two new plays. Worked at my S.T. notice all Friday, sitting up half the night and yesterday up to going to press."

16th June, 1943 From EGO 6: "Noël Coward and Gladys Calthrop fulfilled a promise to come to lunch made six months ago. They called for me, and I showed them round the flat, which they liked very much. Gladys fell in love with the balcony room and vowed she would use it in her next set of designs, while Noël said he should write a new and sparkling comedy round it. I had intended to introduce Leo to them, but the old 'un had a sudden access of coyness or temper or something, locked himself in the bathroom, and refused to emerge till we had departed. Michael Shepley joined us at the Ivy and everything was very gay. Discussing an intellectual actor who can't act Michael says, "The worst thing about him is the way he whinnies." I say, "I think you mean 'neighs.' Only mares whinny." Whereupon Noël claps his hands and cries, " Splendid! You've given me the title for my new comedy - Only Mares Whinny!""

26th June, 1943 From EGO 6: "Reflections after twenty years of service with the Sunday Times: .... Noël Coward appeared as the successor to Wilde and Maugham."

14th August, 1944 From EGO 7: "In Middle East Diary Noël Coward calls those of his Forces audiences who didn't like him "bloody-minded." " I can only assume that black inward rage has astonishing curative powers, for by the time I had got through my first three numbers all fatigue and fever had fled from me." I have no knowledge of what Noël's numbers may have been, but I can very well realise that sophisticated chit-chat about the West End may not mean very much to troops who have spent three years in the Libyan Desert. It's all a matter of approach. I began my talk today to the sailors at the Southern Hospital, Dartford, many of whom were on crutches and some in wheel -chairs: "Lead-swingers and malingerers!" Which at once made me all right with them. The talk was an unrehearsed affair, consisting of stories and simple stuff about the theatre; I am convinced that the last thing recuperating sailors want to listen to is highbrow stuff about the art of drama. Went round some of the wards, and came away extraordinarily refreshed in mind."

2nd September 1944 From EGO 7: "A little bit of civilisation and respite from G.S. Generals stepped into my life in the form of Noël Coward and Cecil Beaton. The former came round to drinks, and the latter stayed two days on his way to America. Noël was extremely good in his one-man show to the troops, which surprised me a lot, since I find his records intolerable. But from what I can glean from behind the scenes of Vice-regal circles, the garland of popularity went quite decisively to our Cecil - who, incidentally, and as you probably know, is a thoroughly good sort."

29th November 1944 From EGO 7 extract from a quoted letter from A. W. Devas Jones, Major: "Give my love to Noël Coward when next you see him. I had a yarn about you with him when he was in Nairobi earlier this year."

15th December 1944 From EGO 7:" Discover that my article about the Henry V f film has made me unpopular with "the profession." At lunch today Noël Coward started to give me a good rousting. The conversation went something like this: Noël. "Don't you realise that Olivier is the best actor this country has had for centuries?" C. A. "How old are you?" Noël. "Forty-five. I saw Irving in The Lyons Mail when I was five." J. A. "Let's talk about something else!" In a way I understand Noël's feelings because I know how actors and their kind reason. Because Larry has intended nobly he has achieved nobly. Because his venture is better than Hollywood's misguided efforts his way must be the perfect way. Which is about as logical as to say that because intermittent showers are less wetting than a steady downpour the day is perfectly fine. Earlier on Noël had said, "Don't you realise that the early scenes in Henry V are so dull from the cinematographic point of view that Larry just had to liven up the dullness?" Noël said, "I think Larry was perfectly entitled to make Henry a stage player when he wanted a stage player, and a historical figure when he wanted a historical figure." I said, " That is exactly what I mean by a jumble of planes." But Noël couldn't or wouldn't see it."

26th August, 1945 From CT: "The best things in Mr Coward's latest are as follows. The exquisite, spindly, Dufy-like decor by Mrs Calthrop. The tunes. The shattering Backfischerei of Miss Joyce Grenfell - Lewis Carroll is the father of that grin with which the maddening child greets misfortune, a grin which grows, and GROWS, and GROWS. The grace and agility of Miss Madge Elliott lightly triumphant over Time ("I haven't done this since I was a girl"). The resolute, undefeatable glitter of Mr Cyril Ritchard. A haunting little sketch about the Companion whose summer wanes beyond retrieval; this is the other side of Sir Osbert Sitwell's immortal story of Miss Collier-Floodgaye and Miss Bramley. (Very good help by Mr. Alan Clive.) A Pageant in which Miss Josephine Wray, as Gloria with one eye occluded by her crown, knights the wrong person. A ditty entitled Matelot to which Mr Graham Payn brings genuine sensitiveness. Last, on the principle that the best form of defence is attack, Mr Coward includes some jokes against himself, notably the ballet entitled Blithe Spirit. Anxious, as always, to help, I permit myself a suggestion. We have had this masterpiece, acted, filmed, broadcast, mimed, puppeted, danced, shadowgraphed -que sais-je? Can we now have it crooned, please? I suggest Southend pier on the last day of the season, after which it could be dropped, decently and without fuss, into the sea."

Kenneth Tynan (1927 - 1980)

A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.

A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.

A good many inconveniences attend playgoing in any large city, but the greatest of them is usually the play itself.

No theatre could sanely flourish until there was an umbilical connection between what was happening on the stage and what was happening in the world.

Not content to have the audience in the palm of his hand, he goes one further and clinches his fist.

The sheer complexity of writing a play always had dazzled me. In an effort to understand it, I became a critic.

What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.

A Tribute to Mr. Coward
To be famous young and to make fame last-the secret of combining the two is glandular: it depends on energy. Someone once asked Demosthenes what was the most important quality in an orator. "Action," he said. And the second? "Action." And the third? "Action." So with a talent.

Noël Coward, who was performing in public at ten, has never stopped being in action; at fifty-three he retains all the heady zest of adolescence. Forty years ago he was Slightly in Peter Pan, and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since. No private considerations have been allowed to deflect the drive of his career; like Gielgud and Rattigan, like the late Ivor Novello, he is a congenital bachelor. He began, like many other satirists (Evelyn Waugh, for instance), by rebelling against conformity, and ended up making his peace with it, even becoming its outspoken advocate.

Any child with a spark of fantasy in its soul is prone to react against the English middle classes, into which Coward was born. The circumstances of his early upbringing, in Teddington, were "liable," he wrote afterwards, "to degenerate into refined gentility unless carefully watched." He promptly reacted against them, and also against his first schoolteacher, whom he bit in the arm - "an action which I have never for an instant regretted." From this orgy of rebellion he excepted his mother, a tiny octogenarian who is now comfortably installed in a flat in Eaton Square. With the production of The Vortex, in 1924, notoriety hit him. He had already written two other plays and most of a revue, meanwhile announcing that his own wit and Ivor Novello's profile were the first and second wonders of the modern world.

The Vortex, a jeremiad against narcotics with dialogue that sounds today not so much stilted as high-heeled, was described by Beverley Nichols as "immortal." Others, whom it shocked, were encouraged in their heresy by an unfortunate photograph for which Coward posed supine on a knobbly brass bedstead, wearing a dressing-gown and "looking," as he said, "like a heavily-doped Chinese illusionist." From this sprang the myth that he wrote all his plays in an absinthe -drenched coma; in fact, as he has been patiently explaining for nearly thirty years, he drinks little and usually starts punishing his typewriter at seven a.m. His triumph has been to unite two things ever disassociated in the English mind: hard work and wit. Toil is commonly the chum of serious-mindedness; and though, within Coward, a social historian and philosopher are constantly campaigning to be let out, they seldom escape into his work. His wit in print is variable-he has not written a really funny play since Present Laughter in 1942-but in private it is unflagging. It took Coward to describe an American adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, set in the deep South, as "A Month in the Wrong Country"; and many other theatrical mots have been fathered on him. We may never know, for example, whether it was he who, after seeing a certain actress as Queen Victoria, left the theatre murmuring: "I never realised before that Albert married beneath him."

To see him whole, public and private personalities conjoined, you must see him in cabaret. Just before his first season at the Café de Paris, I noticed him watching his predecessor, whose act was not going too well.

I asked him how he was enjoying the performance, and, with a stark, stunned, take-it-or-leave-it stare, he hissed: "Sauce! Sheer sauce!" A few weeks later he padded down the celebrated stairs himself, halted before the microphone on black-suede-clad feet, and, upraising both hands in a gesture of benediction, set about demonstrating how these things should be done. Baring his teeth as if unveiling some grotesque monument, and cooing like a baritone dove, he gave us "I'll See You Again" and the other bat's-wing melodies of his youth. Nothing he does on these occasions sounds strained or arid; his tanned, leathery face is still an enthusiast's.

All the time the hands are at their task, affectionately calming your too-kind applause. Amused by his own frolicsomeness, he sways from side to side, waggling a finger if your attention looks like wandering. If it is possible to romp fastidiously, that is what Coward does. He owes little to earlier wits, such as Wilde or Labouchère. Their best things need to be delivered slowly, even lazily. Coward's emerge with the staccato, blind impulsiveness of a machine-gun.

I have heard him accused of having enervated English comedy by making it languid and blasé. The truth, of course, is the opposite: Coward took sophistication out of the refrigerator and set it bubbling on the hob. He doses his sentences with pauses, as you dose epileptics with drugs. To be with him for any length of time is exhausting and invigorating in roughly equal proportions. He is perfectly well aware that he possesses "star quality," which is the lodestar of his life. In his case, it might be defined as the ability to project, without effort, the outline of a unique personality, which had never existed before him in print or paint.

Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years' time, exactly what we mean by "a very Noël Coward sort of person."

 

All text, quotations and music by Noël Coward included on this site are copyright to the writers or their representatives or NC Aventales (formerly known as The Noël Coward Estate).