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Exhibition
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A piece from the New York Times written by Philip Hoare and kindly donated to the website. First published on Sunday 12 December 1999, under the following headline:
As Mr Britannia, Coward Waived the Rules

There's an English expression about 'taking coals to Newcastle' which pretty much sums up Noel Coward's American career. Arriving in New York on the Aquitania in May 1921, his head buzzed with the speed of Manhattan and the pace of Broadway drama; back home, he injected that speed into the staid drawing-room drama of London's West End and in the process invented the Coward style. Five years later he returned to New York with his cocaine and toy-boy succes de scandale, The Vortex. In years to come, his sophisticated high comedies of Private Lives and Design For Living would in turn influence the screenplays of The Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib.

It was America which shaped Coward as much as his homeland. By 1945, disillusioned by a country which proscribed his sexuality, censored his work, and had rewarded him for wartime propaganda work in the US by fining him for breaching currency regulations, Coward would declare that the future lay outside England. But then, he'd already said as much back in 1926, when he was arrested for throwing flower baskets in the street and when he declared 'England's played out' and he intended to live and work in America. It is salutory to note that a man regarded as the century's most quintessential Englisman spent more than half his life out of his mother country.

Coward always confounds. He was not, as I have tried to contend in my biography, merely a hummable tunesmith who also supplied amusing matinees for coach parties. His early work crossed social and sexual boundaries; his seriously frivolous manner set a subversive role model for a generation; and he represents, still, a sly critique of a British Empire which, in his seven decades, he saw crumble into what he regarded as ignominy.

Ostensibly, Waiting in the Wings plays to that matinee brigade, wrapped up in their cosy reactionary stoles. Yet it is also Coward's best post-war play. Written in 1960, it had a rocky journey to eventual production. Frith Banbury was to direct it, but as Banbury told me, he himself 'loathed' the play, which he thought 'the most ghastly sentimentalising of old age'. After unaccustomed re-writes for the author, the play, directed by Peggy Webster, opened in Dublin on 6 August. Its cast was vintage West End (Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson and Marie Lohr); ironically, most of his cast were already destined for the sort of nursing home they would portray onstage; it seemed Coward was paying back the favours he'd enjoyed in his youth. (And how he would have enjoyed the idea of the sultry siren Lauren Bacall - who played Elvira in his CBS version of Blithe Spirit back in 1955 - appearing in the new production).

Waiting in the Wings was, however, not quite the sentimental piece Banbury accused it of being. Having seen The Caretaker that year, Coward had declared he was finally on Pinter's wavelength (and indeed, Pinter would return the compliment by saying he had been inspired by Coward). In his creative maturity, Noel considered that his play contained 'two of the best scenes I have ever written'. John Lahr has called it Coward's 'most powerful and passionate post-war play', noting, 'Death is what is really waiting in the wings.' This is less sentimentality than Coward reacting to the inexorable processes of age ('Time's winged chariot seems to be goosing me', he quipped; 'I said to Benita on the telephone that all I expect from my friends nowadays was that they should live through dinner'). How much more of a body-blow, then, was the critical battering it received - one reason this was also one of the last plays he ever wrote.

It is a nice counterpoint that the most critically praised of this year's Coward revivals in Britain is his last play. A Song At Twilight, starring Corin and Vanessa Redgrave and Kika Markham, took the problems of age and memory one step further. In the London production, Corin Redgrave portrays a Maughamesque writer confronted by past homosexual indiscretions (ironically, his own father is established to have had an affair with Coward himself during the Second World War). Playing a former mistress of his, Vanessa Redgrave delivers the killer line: 'Homosexual tendencies in the past? You're as queer as a coot and you have been all your life.' Brave words for Coward, then in his sixties, to write - let alone to have publicly aired when he himself played the Hugo Latymer character onstage. Tellingly, Vivian Matalon, who directed the play, told me that when it came to uttering those words, Coward wanted to cut them. Matalon stood firm; and they compromised by changing 'queer' to 'homosexual'. Doddering about on stage, often losing his lines ('Oh God, curse my ageing body' he cried during rehearsals), yet performing bravely, Coward had become a character out of Waiting In the Wings, albeit with an overtone of Death in Venice.

In these very personal battles - with the English establishment, and with himself - I'd contend we see the reason for Coward's currency in the 1990s. The irony present in his work chimes with our ironic age (I write in a country where even light entertainment on BBC 1 must be hosted by men in drag), a sense of irony which lay behind the success of last year's Twentieth-Century Blues album. Assembled by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys for the Red Hot Aids charity, it pulled together the likes of Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Sting, Marianne Faithfull and others to reinterpret Coward's songs. The exquisite decadence which Suede extracted from their 'Poor Little Rich Girl', evoking an addicted debutante crawling from room to room, or Faithfull's Weillesque reading of 'Mad About the Boy' seemed to time-travel periods of popular culture. The title track itself, sung by Elton John, is as good a theme tune for this century's end as any other. That anyone had bothered at all to cover Coward's songs - let alone this star-studded cast - was remarkable in itself.

When I began writing my biography of Coward in the early Nineties, you could sense a new interest in his work. Young directors like Sean Mathias were revamping plays such as Design For Living, underlining its yuppie menage a trois; Philip Prowse was to revive his wonderful Citizens Theatre production of The Vortex in LA with Rupert Everett as the cocaine-addicted Nicky Lancaster. Now Everett and hi playmate, Madonna, is considering a film of Quadrille, another late vintage Coward piece.

The culmination of this trend ought to have peaked this year, but back in London, there has been criticism of the Coward productions selected to celebrate the centenary. An excellent Franks' Private Lives directed by Philip Franks at the Royal National Theatre, and a quirky Hay Fever by Declan Donnellan at the Savoy didn't satisfy critics who wanted to know where the really ground-breaking reappraisal of Coward was. Why no production of Coward's overtly gay Semi Monde (revolutionary for 1927)? Or his anti-war polemic, Post-Mortem (1930)? They will have to wait until next year for the premiere of Coward's unproduced Volcano, a steamy Fifties tale of adultery in the Caribbean originally envisioned for Katharine Hepburn, now due for production by Mark Ashurst in a suitably art deco hotel on an island off the Devon coast. It seems there's a sort of posthumous self-censorship in operation. The literary critic D.W. Harding wrote of Jane Austen (one of Coward's favourite writers), that she was 'an ironist sentimentalized by her admirers.' Some say no-one has come along in 1999 to save Coward from himself, and prepare the ground for his survival into the next century.

But there have been landmarks. Last month saw the first ever academic Noel Coward convention, organised by Joel Kaplan at the University of Birmingham to coincide with the announcement that Coward's heir, and longtime companion, Graham Payn, intends to bequeath all of Coward's papers to the University. Earlier came the unveiling of statues to Coward in New York, Jamaica and London. The British Minister for Culture, Chris Smith, made a remarkably well-informed speech on the latter occasion, which seemed to indicate that Coward - as reactionary as the Twenties rebel had become in old age - was even now being drawn into the self-congratulatory phenomenon of 'Cool Brittania'. Coward, who had dubbed his last revival 'Dad's Renaissance', would have taken all this in his stride. 'I adore criticism' he once purred, 'as long as it is unalloyed praise'.

In October a quieter, more low-key ceremony was observed at Coward's last resting place, Firefly Hill in Jamaica, where his body was interred on 29 March 1973. Asked how he might be remembered by posterity, Coward replied simply, and with a certain degree of truth, 'By my charm'. Perhaps that is the answer. In an age in which it is at a premium, charm may be the most cogent reason, and argument, for Coward's survival.

Philip Hoare's biography of Noel Coward is published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, paperback by the University of Chicago Press.
 

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