The Noel Coward Reader edited by Barry Day

The Noël Coward Reader BY Noel Coward. edited by Barry Day, Cameron Mackintosh. Knopf. Hardcover, 624 pages. $39.
The cover of The Noël Coward Reader

As the theater critic John Lahr once wrote, "Only when [Noel] Coward is frivolous does he become in any sense profound." There's proof of this throughout Barry Day's new book, The Noel Coward Reader, a selection of Coward's plays, lyrics, poetry, short stories, radio broadcasts, and excerpts from his diaries and letters. Here, Coward shifts between his "frivolous" best work, and his more serious (but less successful) attempts to make art that would endure beyond the tastes of the moment. As Day writes, Coward "was a great writer—except when he was trying to be a great writer."

The "Bright Young Things" of Coward's plays take pride in their insouciant disdain for banality. Coward embraced the success that greeted his brand of dry, urbane wit, and he has come to represent a particularly gauzy view of the 1920s and ’30s. Day writes, "Noel was pleased to note that the critics variously described the play as 'tenuous,' 'thin,' 'gossamer,' 'iridescent' and 'delightfully daring.' All of which connoted, to the public mind, 'cocktails,' 'evening dress,' 'repartee,' and irreverent allusions to copulation, thereby causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office." But as the Reader reveals, Coward also took a darker view of the era, and of his job as a writer. During World War II, Coward produced not only the jaunty, ironical "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans," but also the earnest final monologue of "This Happy Breed," in which a grandfather encourages his infant grandson not to let the despondence of wartime destroy his faith in the basic goodness of ordinary English people. "You belong to a race that's been bossy for years and the reason it's held on as long as it has is that nine times out of ten it's behaved decently and treated people right."

Coward was encouraged to write fiction by none other than Virginia Woolf. Philip Hoare notes in his study Noel Coward: A Biography that Coward’s “courting of Woolf was unabashed but is also evidence of Coward's aspiration to become a more serious writer than his public perceived him to be." I don't know if Woolf read the first short-story included here, "Me and the Girls," but after thirty pages of stream-of-consciousness-style journal entries, the reader feels like they're stuck in the corner at a tea party with someone's aunt Maisie holding forth about her scandalous career as a Floradora girl. How Coward does run on! His attempt to adopt the formal experimentation of modernism leaves the reader with a renewed appreciation for the zingy economy of his plays. In this context, they stand out like jewels in a rock pile.

In his best work, Coward is eager to laugh at himself. Some of the best of the lesser-known bits here (aside from an early work of poetry in praise of vegetables: "In a voice of soft staccato/We will speak of the tomato") are parodies Coward wrote of his plays "Private Lives"(1930) and "Design For Living"(1933): "Strictly Private Lives" and "Design For Rehearsing." From the latter:

ALFRED [Lunt]: Oh, God, I was so awful in that scene yesterday—just an
old stodgy Scandinavian Pudding.
NOEL: I thought you were so excellent.
ALFRED: No. No. No. I was awful—dreadful. I didn't sleep a wink all
night—tossing about and turning I was, and pacing the floor.
LYNN (Fontanne): Do you know what he did to me at 4:30 this morning?
NOEL: I tremble to think.
LYNN: His whole First Act and then we cooked some eggs.

Coward's frivolity, Lahr writes, "was an act of freedom, of disenchantment." That much is clear throughout the Reader. In "Private Lives," one of the characters, Elyot, says, "Let's be superficial and pity the poor philosophers," as he persuades his ex-wife, Amanda, to leave her new husband and run away with him. This collection confirms that underneath this rallying cry for superficiality was both a desire for freedom from convention, and a sincere belief in old-fashioned English decency.

Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based writer who blogs about books and culture at Maîtresse. Her first novel will be published next year by Editions Héloïse d'Ormesson.