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Curmudgeon on Coward

The print edition of the Wall Street Journal (10 November) reviewed the newly released Letters of Noel Coward and wrote, “What emerges is the portrait of a complex, charming, driven, serious and, frankly, courageous artist.”

Coward was the toast of the London theatre and the international set when he wrote Hay Fever, Private Lives, and Blithe Spirit and the songs I’ll See You Again and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. During World War II, he wrote, starred-in and co-directed (with David Lean) the immensely popular and patriotic In Which We Serve. When it was done “he exhausted himself entertaining troops in the worst theaters of combat until the end of the war”.

No negatives, then, we hope. Alas!

When I first read the plays mentioned above I thought they were sparkling and witty. I reread them this weekend, and had a curmudgeonly response. I agreed with Edward Albee, who introduced them by saying that Coward “writes dialogue as well as any man going”, and I laughed aloud, but I felt gloomy when I was done.

The joy I feel with many comic British writers, including Wilde, whose work Coward did not like, was just completely missing. The quarrels of Coward’s husbands and wives were amusing, and true to life, but he never evoked for me what those other writers created – that there is a radiant purpose larger than our petty quarrels that calls us to be kind and true and brave. I want that in a comedy – shimmering, almost off-stage, but there.