The Noël Coward beat: At Lincoln Center library, his public lives come to life

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Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in 'Private Lives.' (New York Public Library)
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At Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts, the vagaries of time, of shifting critical reputation, the many hues of theatrical “truth,” all hover around Star Quality, the Library’s new Noël Coward exhibition. Coward’s singular theatrical world—acerbic, irreverent, and yet gossamer—is brought memorably to life.

Coward was astonishingly versatile and prolific, as actor, director, songwriter. His mother put him on stage as a tot—and that was exactly where he wanted to be. The exhibition features sketchbooks and manuscripts going back to adolescence. He was a social climber and celebrity hound, staunchly supportive of all things Windsor. Yet he was also an irreverent upstart, endorsing as protagonists in his work of the 1920s drug-abusing wastrels and adulterous wives. Early works now considered classics were often savaged by contemporary critics, even as they titillated and amused the paying audience. Coward and all he represented was loathed by many in the old theatrical guard.

By the end of the 1920s, he had begun to go a little soft, his works now informed by exactly the right quotient of syrup to become escapist cash cows in the depths of the Depression. After World War II, however, he was considered by many to be superannuated, synthetic, and frivolous. Director Martin Manulis once recalled to me how Marlon Brando, invited to audition for the Broadway production of Coward’s Present Laughter in 1946, sent back a stinging reply: “Does Mr. Coward realize that people are starving?” In his native country, Coward during the 1950s was rejected by Angry Young Men shaking up the British scene with raw slices of life like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Yet a revival of Coward’s 1925 Hay Fever at London’s National Theater in 1964 began an enduring reassessment. Certainly there was no shame in an unabashed embrace of hilarity. Certainly the mannerisms of 1920s London were no more antiquated than those of that same capital in the comedically-halcyon days of the Elizabethans or the Restoration. And certainly Coward’s work now assumed an additional retrospective relevance, since it could be seen as progenitor of a Mod absurdist like Joe Orton.

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Today many of Coward’s plays are staples in the international repertory—deservedly so. However they often make less of an effect than they should, in part because of the legacy of America’s self-styled disciples of Konstantin Stanislavsky, director and theorist in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Rather than the internal identification and motivation prized by Lee Strasberg and other influential coaches of the postwar years, at least as essential to Coward performance are questions of sound, energy, external technique.

Researching a 2004 biography of Tallulah Bankhead, I interviewed Buff Cobb, who played Sibyl, rival to Bankhead’s Amanda in her 1947 revival of Private Lives. It was produced by John C. Wilson, a long-term lover of Coward’s who by then remained his close professional associate. According to Cobb, Wilson wasn’t satisfied with the way that Cobb and actor Phil Arthur were playing a particular scene. He put a metronome at the foot of the Westport Country Playhouse stage and told them, “I want it played to this beat." That wasn’t to Cobb’s particular pleasure, but “years later it got through my head that that whole play was done to that beat,” she recalled. “It's a Noel Coward beat, which is quite different from any other playwright.”

Curated by Brad Rosenstein, the Library for the Performing Arts exhibition draws upon the resources of the Coward Estate, as well as the Library’s own collection and other archives. It was designed in collaboration with the Noel Coward Foundation, the Museum of Performance & Design (San Francisco), and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. In Star Quality, you can read Coward’s correspondence, assess his avocational pursuit of painting, and watch home movies he took at his British country house in the 1920s and ‘30s. You can also hear recorded songs, scenes, and monologues, see excerpts from film and television productions, as well as glimpse silent performance footage taken in London in the ‘20s and '30s.

Included is a startling excerpt from a 1956 television adaptation of Coward’s This Happy Breed, one of his England-will-prevail sagas, this one espousing the working class. (Coward wrote dramas, too, in addition to his numerous comedies.) Coward wanted as his leading lady long-term associate Edna Best, who was, however, then hospitalized after a nervous breakdown from which she never really recovered. Yet Coward insisted that she could do the TV performance, and amazingly she did. Coward and a somewhat battered looking Best enact a stark scene with chilling intensity. (I didn’t even know that this kinescope survived – why isn’t it available commercially?)

In 1934, Coward had directed S.N. Behrman’s Biography when it transferred to London after a great success on Broadway. But Ina Claire, who had triumphed in the play in New York, didn’t win the same success with it in London. Laurence Olivier, who acted in the London production, blamed Coward’s insistence on rapid-fire line delivery. Perhaps it was a temperamental disaffinity, for Behrman did things that Coward did not, incorporating troublesome political and ethical questions into his own drawing-room patter. Behrman was certainly a great playwright, but for me, comedy never needs high-minded justification. And yet the exhibition does make clear that through the years Coward's work gained a depth that perhaps hadn’t been there earlier on.

Noël Coward's final play, Suite in Three Keys, is a trilogy meant to be performed over two evenings. In the first piece of the trilogy, “A Song at Twilight,” Coward at 66 in the 1966 premiere took on the role of an aging author, a not-very-flattering composite of himself and Somerset Maugham. A woman with whom the author had an affair forty years before now confronts him with letters he’d written to a man who was the great love of his life. The unwelcome guest decries his dishonesty to her, to himself, to his own creative potential. “A Song at Twilight” ends with the immediate crisis blowing over. But the questions raised by the author’s brittle yet genuinely aggrieved voice from the past are not resolved. Coward’s own age, as well as the liberalizing temper of the era in which he was then living, made “A Song at Twilight” possible. It was nevertheless brave as well as shrewdly apropos. In Star Quality, we are given the welcome chance to immerse ourselves in the sensibility of this great master of comedic as well as creative and career timing.

'Star Quality' is on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center through August 18. All images courtesy New York Public Library.