1 MAY 1992, Page 31

Final victory to the silk dressing-gown

John Osborne

NOEL COWARD by Clive Fisher Weidenfeld, £17.99, pp.289 There is a quotation in this book which, quite literally, stopped my breath with dread identification. It is from a letter, written in 1935 from Noel Coward's loyal secretary, Lorn Loraine, to his mother:

We have got to go very, very easy on money and economise rigidly wherever it is possible. Mind you, I am pretty sure the shortage is only temporary and would never have arisen if it were not for the fact that all Noel's personal earnings have to go into a special tax account as soon as they are received. Still, the fact remains that money is definitely tight and has been for some months. Both bank accounts have overdrafts and there is very little coming in just now.

`There is very little coming in'. How often have I myself been subjected to this gleeful accountant's verdict. The author of this dull and artless biography adds his own jeering stricture:

Unfortunately, these reversals in prosperity [the poor devil was as good as broke] coincided with a lean period of creativity. There was no drop in the quantity of work Coward produced in the middle and late Thirties, but there is a fall in its level of invention.

A familiar tone of voice, and one that was addressed to me directly the other day when a man at lunch asked me what I did for a living. Usually, I say 'writer'. 'Play- wright' sounds rather presumptuous, like calling yourself a poet. Then he asked my name. Perhaps I should have equivocated and said Noel Coward or David Hare, but I owned up. 'Oh yes,' he said, with all the dislike and distrust my odd profession inspires. 'You've just had a come-back haven't you?'

Coward was a working-dog of his calling as actor and writer all his life. By the end of a retrieved career in cabaret he was also, in the unkind words of an American tabloid, 'the highest paid British tulip ever Imported into the United States'. It may seem that he had achieved the most envi- able life, doing all the things he wanted with minimal effort, hopping on and off steamships as he pleased. But behind it all there lay prodigious effort and the rewards often seem rather meagre. After a lifetime of what young men today would regard as masochistic drudgery, he was still unable to earn enough to appease the Inland Rev- enue and assure himself of some reward and comfort in a rather cruelly induced old age.

The reminder of the master of self- invention, limping finally off to a forward- ing address in Switzerland with the conso- lation of a last-minute knighthood confirms the impression of a rather inelegant exit from the world's stage of his own creation. No wonder he was perhaps over-effusive in his gratitude to America:

My own dear land which for years has robbed me of most of my earnings, withheld all official honours from me and . . . frequently, made me very unhappy.

The predominantly lower-middle class English Press could never restrain their spite against someone who must surely be of their own kind (from Twickenham, for God's sake), who had sustained a legend about himself and whatever such hacks think are the rewards of fame — ill- imagined debauchery, I suppose. But Coward's physical appetites were constrained by a thirst for work. He lived on chocolate and cigarettes. No gluttony there. As for sex, Mr Fisher's book promis- es revelations which simply don't exist, and for very good reason. Old Noel,' whatever his protestations about 'being no good at love', was too busy and self-preoccupied to be any good at it.

There simply isn't much left to be said about Coward, as this slovenly and point- less re-hash confirms. (Although I did learn that he wanted to play Madam Arcati him- self and that the Blithe Spirit of Elvira was named after Binkie Beaumont's house- keeper, the one who denounced my social promotion so roundly when it was suggest- ed I might move to Lord North Street, with the words, `No 'e's not ready for it yet'. She was right.) I had thought that Fisher or someone might come up with some insights about the nature of homosexual deceit and dis- sembling, but that now seems too much to expect. Coward's spirit of evasion is, at the last, impenetrable. Concealment was first nature to him and, most of all, he lacked any sense of awe, except at the prospect of his own next achievement. 'It's my best, it has "smash hit" written all over it', he wrote to Beaumont, his treacherous ally. Such a statement, on any terms, seems incomprehensible, no, meaningless.

As to my own feelings about him, I find that they have changed. For a long time I thought I had perhaps behaved churlishly and with not much lustre or imagination in the face of his own generosity to me. Then last year I came upon the telegram he sent to me from Switzerland: LOVE YOU NOEL'. What may have prompted it, I can't remember, but I was strangely astonished by its very lack of either implication or obligation.

We had many things in common: social backgrounds, more or less; professional progress; even the same slugging out with the Lord Chamberlain. The insulting assessments on his plays from that office almost defy belief. But I still feel that the Master did irreparable damage to my profession and all those in it. No one has yet managed to dispel the aura with which he surrounded the very word 'theatre', an abiding synonym for superficiality and deception. Intelligent people who read new novels if they can afford them and study the form carefully in their film-going remain wary about setting foot in the per- fidious playhouse. I see only too well what they mean.

I once said that it was impossible to imagine Coward at prayer, let alone on his knees. That may not be a fault, after all. Pride has never seemed to me to be a great sin, unlike avarice or envy. But I do believe he gave theatricality a bad name for good. The term 'kitchen sink' was a lead weight from the outset. The silk dressing-gown won the day, as the present applause for The Chalk Garden revival makes plain.

Finally, one of the recurring tediums of the chafingly off-hand Sunday Times/ Independent know-all, imagine-nothing style in which this book is written, is the

author's repeated reference to Coward's lack of education. He is not the first to seize upon it. Binkie used to relish saying, to myself of all people, 'Well, of course, you know — Noel's quite uneducated.' Mr Fisher went to Oxford. It is clear enough from this sneering and inept stab at dimin- ishing a talent which informed and altered the century, that slickness will get you anywhere these days, and with pretty paltry effort.

It is also plain that Noel Coward could put a sentence together better than any cocky little detractor from Academe or wherever. Perhaps those who seemed obsessed with what they call 'racism' or `sexism' might now turn their attention to this bizarre 'educationism'.