- An article by Philip Hoare
in the Independent on Sunday
week, an Essex theatre will hold the world premiere of an unperformed,
unpublished Noel Coward play. Volcano, which has languished in
the archives since the 1950s, has been dusted down and directed
at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff, by television's favourite Inspector
DaIgliesh, Roy Marsden, with an exceptionally youthful cast and
an eye to the West End. Marsden, rehearsing his actors in the
local pub, is keen to point out the Pinteresque qualities of
this tale of frustrated passions on a tropical island - The Birthday
Party in Hawaiian shirts. "It will shock audiences because
of what it's tying to say about human relationships" says
Marsden, who seeks to break free from Cowardian clichés.
It's an admirable ambition, and one which Volcano might help
him fulfill. Written in 1956, when Coward was Britain's first
celebrity tax exile, it was the product of his laidback life
in the crumbling colonial relic of Jamaica.
Coward's reputation had taken a battering. The British public
were no longer satisfied with reruns of Brief Encounter, and
critics such as Beverley Baxter posed the question, "Did
Noel Coward survive the war?" Coward seemed a casualty of
revolution, and he had retreated to his island paradise to lick
Yet Volcano proves that he had not only taken on board the radical
changes of the time, but that his work had pre-empted them. The
kitchen-sink playwrights not only rated his work but acknowledged
its inspiration: Pinter would pay tribute to Coward's portrayal
of a fantastical class which "wasn't intended to be an accurate
representation... [it] was an abstraction, a world which became
his world"; the young turk Kenneth Tynan pronounced that
Pinter's "elliptical patter" owed much to Coward. And
when in 1956 John Osborne declared Coward "his own invention
and contribution to this century - Anyone who cannot see that
should keep well away from the theatre", it seemed that
the ageing Bright YoungThine could still cut it after all.
For decades Coward had successfully reinvented himself, from
the decadent hedonist of the 1920s, with his cocaine-and-toy-boy
succés de scandale, The Vortex (1924), to the sophisticated
yuppiedom of Design for Living (1932), and the arch-patriot
of In Which We Serve (1941). He would yet become a Las
Yegas cabaret star, posing surreally in the Nevada desert in
an evening suit with a cup of tea, a sort of cross between Bryan
Ferry and Elvis (both of whom owed something to Coward's conception
of the modern celebrity). Now Volcano comes out of the
past to redefine a star already used to more character changes
than David Bowie.
It's the freshness of the play, unencumbered by endless staid
productions and attempts to reproduce its creator's clipped tones,
that makes it a vital antidote to Joan Collins playing Private
Lives. But Volcano has deeper, darker themes, themselves
part of the reason why it has lain so long in the Coward vaults.
On a fictional Caribbean island, a widow in her early 40s, Adele
Shelley, is faced with the ghosts of her passionate past when
handsome Lothario Guy Littleton returns on a visit and seduces
a young married woman, Ellen Danbury When the lovers' respective
spouses, Melissa Littleton and Keith Danbury, arrive, the plot
is further complicated by the revelation that Keith also turns
out to have been in love with Guy.
- The play's overt discussion
of sex - and the inclusion of a gay relationship - was not what
Coward's now middle-aged audiences expected of him. His producer,
Binkie Beaumont, turned down the play on grounds of its construction;
but may have envisaged problems getting it past the censors of
the Lord Chamberlain's Office.
Then Katharine Hepburn, whom Coward had hoped would play Adele,
turned down the script (sent by Coward to Hepburn's house in
New York, where his agent recalled being greeted by a woman with
a mop, whom he took to be the cleaner, until she lifted her elbow
and asked him - in unmistakeably husky tones - to stick the script
under her arm). But the more pressing reason for the shelving
of Volcano was the fact that Coward had based its sexual intrigue
on a real-life situation.
Coward's Jamaican homes, Blue Harbour, and his clifflop chalet,
Firefly, were located on the louche north coast of the island,
a veritable ants nest of celebrities, from Ivor Novello to Claudette
Colbert, from Bette Davis to Errol Flynn. In pre-package-tour
days, they were left unbothered by the plebian hordes - as well
as the paparazzi - to carry on their affairs in private. Days
were spent idling by the pool over rum punches; evenings driving
to neighbouring villas to catch supper served by silent, white-coated
black servants who could be relied upon to keep their own counsel.
Coward had first come to Jamaica during the war, and had fallen
in love with the place. In 1947 he built Blue Harbour, and shortly
afterwards, when the celebrities arriving to stay became too
much, Firefly. Laurence Olivier came to smoke dope (he proclaimed
the grass grown on the estate next to Coward's the best in Jamaica),
and sunbathe naked by Coward's pool: the diplomat John Pringle
recalled the day he was invited to meet the king of English theatre,
and walked in to find Vivien Leigh draped decorously and strategically
over her husband's groin. John Gielgud could be found on Blue
Harbour's beachside balcony, "admiring his own profile",
as one veteran Jamaican writer observed; and Kate Hepburn would
zoom up the drive in a sports car, with Irene Selznick in the
Years later, when I interviewed Hepburn in her Upper Eastside
house, she told me how frustrating it was that Noel could never
be persuaded to play tennis, preferring to lie by his pool, naked,
of course, watching his friends. And of Coward's friends and
neighbours, he was most interested in the affair between lan
Fleming, who lived close by at Goldeneye, and Blanche Blackwell,
the glamorous scion of an old plantation family.
Blanche (whose son, Chris Blackwell, would go on to found the
Island record label) denied the possibility of an affair with
the womanising creator ofjames Bond. Determined to stop the rumour,
"One night I got on my horse over to his house," she
told me. "I said know what you think, and it isn't true'."
summer, romance did indeed develop his friends.
Meanwhile Fleming's society hostess wife Anne - the model for
Volcano's Melissa - was conducting her own affair with Hugh Gaitskell.
It was a complicated web of intrigue which gave Coward ample
material for his play. In Volcano themes of sexual love clash
with those of fidelity and loyalty, all to the ominous rumbling
of impending volcanic explosion - a metaphor which Roy Marsden
convincingly describes as "Ibsenesque". "You've
got an empire which is rapidly imploding," notes Marsden.
"and you're left with these islands of middle-class Englishmen,
living in a world they can no longer afford". The rumbling
of the volcano could alos be Jamaica's moves towards independence,
less than a decade away.
In the play's decaying hothouse atmosphere not unlike prime Tennessee
Williams, passion itself became a metaphor for a greater decay
- the decay of values which Coward diagnosed in the post-war
world. "You wreak too much havoc, swaggering through people's
lives touting your illusion that physical love is 'the one irreplaceable
ecstasy'," Adele tells Guy. "I'm tired of noise you
make with your shrill. boastful trumpeting.
Please go away and leave me alone." And she dashes to the
floor the shells which in real life the scuba-diving Fleming
brought Blanche Blackwell as love-tokens from the Caribbean reef.
The shattered shells seem to represent the shards into which
paradise is about to break.
It was a paradox of Coward's life that when he was happy in his
public life, his private life suffered: perhaps the neuroses
and breakdowns of the 1920s, during Coward's meteoric rise to
fame, betray the private cost of fame. He may have been the highest
earning author in the world in 1930, but he felt the ice thin
beneath his feet, and his solution was to escape to some exotic
clime where he wouldn't have to sing "Mad Dogs and Englishmen"
for the thousandth time.
Yet when his career "went down the dumper" (in Pet
Shop Boy and longtime Coward fan Neil Tennant's memorable phrase),
Coward's personal life provided the security he needed. At the
time of writing Volcano, he was comfortable in his partnership
with Graham Payn, a glamorous, glossy haired young actor from
South Africa, who provided the emotional stability Coward needed.
Anyone coming to Thursday night's opening with the usual preconceptions
will be surprised, to say the least. There's no pussyfooting
around the subject of sex and passion, as you might expect from
a playwright of Coward's vintage. Yet for anyone with a little
knowledge of the extraordinary trajectory of his career, it is
clear that the play is the missing link between the pre-war high
comedy (and deep tragedies) of Amanda and Elyot in Private Lives,
the self-portrait of Garry Essendine in Present Laughter, and
the almost shocking subjects of Coward's last play, Song at Twilight,
with its overtly gay themes of an ageing homosexual writer confronted
with his hypocrisy by his former wife.
Song at Twilight was produced in 1966, at the very end of Coward's
active life. In an act of incredible bravery, Coward himself
played the character of Sir Hugo Latymer (widely believed to
be an acerbic portrait of Somerset Maugham). But when it came
to the revealing line, delivered to Latymer by his ex-wife, "Homosexual
tendencies in the past? You're as queer as a coot and have been
all your life", Coward, trapped by own candour, found it
almost impossible to bear and changed the line. It was as though
he suddenly realised how much of himself he had revealed; as
though one of those nude poolside snaps from Blue Harbour had
been printed in the tabloid press.
But history changes things, as Coward knew. That year homosexuality
was decriminalised, the Lord Chamberlain let go his censoring
hold on the theatre. Song at Twilight indicates how far
he might have gone without the shadow of censor always looming
over him; and how far he might have continued, had not infirmity
claimed him. "Oh God, curse my ageing body!" he cried,
as he broke down in rehearsals.
Notably, Song at Twilight, directed by Sheridan Morley
and starring Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, was one of the more
successful productions to mark last year's centenary of Coward's
birth, a celebration somewhat undermined by the lack of vision
of other productions - something which this week's premiere of
Volcano will go some way to redress. Philip Prowse did remarkable
things with the embarrassingly imperialistic Cavalcade
at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, wringing Weimar ecadence out
of its "Twentieth-Century Blues" number; and Philip
Franks directed a wonderfully serious Private Lives at
the National which annoyed the critics by perceiving Strindbergian
drama in Coward's high comedy.
But where were the really ground-breaking productions? Why no
Semi-Monde, another riperformed Coward piece in which
half the cast are gay (an outrageous concept for 1926)? Or the
equally under-exposed Post-Mortem, a vitriolic anti-war
polemic, written in 1930? Without new blood, some reasoned, there
would be no way the Coward corpus would survive into a second
Part of the problem lay in the pre-empting of the 1999 centenary
by the events of the previous year. BBC2's Arena broadcast a
lavish three-and-a-half hour trilogy on Coward. At the same time
Neil Tennant assembled a starry array of British pop talent to
record Coward cover versions for the Red Hot Aids charity, Twentieth-Century
Blues, for which the likes of Sir Elton John, the Pet Shop Boys,
Sir Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, Robbie Willams and the Divine
Comedy radically reworked the Coward songbook. Never had anyone
extracted such drug-addicted decadence out of "Poor Little
Rich Girl" as did Suede's Brett Anderson, imbuing the 1920s
debutante with all the neuroses of a modern It Girl, "crawling
from room to room". The project quickly gathered critical
plaudits proposing Coward as the first Brit Pop artist, the true
creator of Cool Britannia.
To some extent, the sheer glamour of these two projects overshadowed
the events of 1999: the founding of the Noel Coward Society,
the reissue of every published Coward play by Methuen, and the
first ever academic Coward conference, organised by Joel Kaplan
at the University of Birmingham (where, it has now been revealed,
Graham Payn intends to deposit the Coward archive, currently
held in a Swiss bank vault, for scholarly research). Coward would
have been amazed to hear his work dissected by Oxbridge academics:
the results are about to be published by Methuen under the title
Look Back In Pleasure: Noel Coward Reassessed.
Even the culture secretary Chris Smith turned up to deliver a
remarkably well-informed speech at the unveiling, by the Queen
Mother at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, of a statue to commemorate
Coward's actual centenary on 16 December. Another statue was
set in place at Firefly, now owned (like Fleming's Goldeneye)
by Chris Blackwell, and visited by a new celebrity conclave of
Naomi Campbell, Bono, and Sean Connery all paying their respects
to the Master's last resting-place - his grave on the brow of
Firefly Hill, where he was buried in 1973.
Such events are a barometer of Coward's current standing. Far
from being consigned to the dustbins of theatrical history, interest
in Coward is greater than it has been for 50 years. The film
ofRelative Values, starringjuhe Andrews, Stephen Fry and Colin
Firth, is released in June; and among the many other Coward works
in preproduction, another late play, Quadiffle, is sitting in
Madonna's in-tray, and according to writer Mark Ashurst, who
has championed the revival, a film version is on the cards. Ironically,
the very plays which had seen Coward's critical credit fall are
now being made into movies.
Noel Coward has not only survived the 20th century, he has been
launched into the cyberspace of the 21st: the new Coward website
(www.noelcoward.net) registered 42,000 hits in its first month.
People are beginning to realise there's more to the Master than
cocktails and laughter.
"Volcano" opened on Wednesday last at the Palace Theatre,
Westcliff-on-Sea, tel.. 01702 342 564.
- Philip Hoare's book, Noel Coward..
A Biography " is published by Random House, £9.95.
"Look Back In Pleasure: Noel Coward Reassesed" will
be published later this year by Methuen.
- Copyright - The Noel Coward Society -