Noel Coward On (And In) Theatre

Edited and with Commentary by Barry Day. Published by Knopf.

In his introduction, keeper of the flame, Barry Day, tells us Noel Coward (1899-1973) “often threatened to write his book on theater, but never quite got to it. Except…his opinions as evidenced in his published writing, interviews, plays, stories, verse, lyric and other people’s reminiscences over 60 years add up to a book. This one.”

Barry Day has been deep diving into Noel Coward’s life with dedication and insight for a great part of his own. His journey began while still an advertising executive on a visit to the artist’s Jamaican refuge. Finding it pillaged and in shambles, he helped rescue the house and its contents, later becoming Literary Advisor to The Coward Estate and Chair of The Noel Coward Archive Trust. Day has written and/or edited over 30 books. This is not, as they say, his first rodeo.

Young Master Coward as Slightly in Peter Pan 1913 by permission of the publishers

Theatrical acumen, generosity, enthusiasm, judgment, keen intelligence, frustration, and overriding wit shine through in Coward’s own words and those of others. Day adds salient explanation, observation, and cohesion.

Like Cecil Beaton, Noel Peirce Coward invented himself from whole cloth starting in childhood. Early Stages covers his first public performance at age six, and professional debut at 11. There’s even a review of the thespian as a mushroom in 1912. “The mad, mad world of powder and paint” had him by the collar and on the road. From children’s theater he graduated to ingénue roles and finally adult, seeming always to have in mind a carefully crafted image. Gertrude Lawrence, whom he met on tour as an adolescent, becomes his lifelong friend.

On Writing a Play (his are discussed individually) and On My Fellow Playwrights includes analysis, stories, point of view, and correspondence illuminating relationships with George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham, John Osborne, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and other marquee talents. Later these chapters include Coward’s own process.

“I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got it” Coward says in  On Acting, Actors, and Star Quality. The section addresses technical expertise, “ghastly thirty second changes,” tricks, “the general horror of rehearsal rooms,” keeping things fresh, and “the occupational disease of stage fright.” “If an actor is undisciplined enough to allow his own self-consciousness to intervene between himself and his talent, he should leave the theatrical profession,” Coward unequivocally states.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Theatre-Magazine-Company-Vandamm-Studio-photographer-Promotional-photograph-of-Gertrude-Lawrence-and-Noel-Coward-in-the-Broadway-production-of-Private-Lives-520x470.jpg
Theatre Magazine Company; Vandamm Studio, photographer Promotional photograph of Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward in the Broadway production of Private Lives. Wikimedia Commons

Coward found John Gielgud “a little false in his performance…but very effective, comments on Laurence Olivier and warmly about the Lunts…There are play excerpts, songs, poems, and photos. “You know you’ve arrived in the profession when you don’t have to read Stage every week”… “I would like to prove that talent counts for more than sequins and tits.”

Which of course leads to The Critics: Night after night my weary body slumps/Into my usual complimentary seat/Hedged in by those I envy and detest/The rich, the “chic,” the fashionably dressed… including, in part, Alexander Wollcott, Kenneth Tynan, and Graham Greene. Coward himself “spent a good deal of time…in writing to the various theatres for free seats…with a pompous little note in the first person…usually returned with callous regrets…”

In  Produced By and Directed By Coward reflects on his own experience in front of-“A.E. Matthews ambled through This Was a Man like a charming retriever who has buried a bone and can’t quite remember where” and behind  the footlights- a director who “robbed me of my Noel Coward mannerisms.”

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Noel Coward 1963 by Erling Mandelmann Wikimedia Creative Commons Share Alike

Musical Theater, Revues, and Cabaret focuses on individual productions historically and anecdotally as performer and author. Coward is proud of the lyrics for Sail Away, though not the book, and comments that Bea Lillie in High Spirits (the musicalization of Blithe Spirit) is as much like Madame Arcati as I am like Queen Victoria.”

The volume is an entertaining and illuminating cornucopia from which one might enjoyably sample, put down and sample again; in parts a primer for theater creatives, an immersive history, and the perfect gift for those with appreciation of style and wit the likes of which we’ll never see again.

Book Cover and Photo of Mr. Day Courtesy of the Publisher

About Alix Cohen (1186 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.