When they decided to redo his ancient play "Hay Fever" with Dame Edith Evans, Coward wrote,
I am thrilled and flattered and frankly a little flabbergasted that the National Theatre should have had the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine and to give it a cast that could play the Albanian telephone directory.
Once asked why he stuck the umlaut --- technically called a "diæresis" --- over the "e" in his first name, he said,
"I didn't put the dots over the 'e' in Noël. The language did. Otherwise it's not Noël but Nool!"
From his early days --- his first acting stint was in 1908 --- he worked hard at being Noël Coward. "An early press photograph showed him sitting up in bed holding a cigarette holder: 'I looked like an advanced Chinese decadent in the last phases of dope.'" He took to wearing turtle-neck Jerseys, and could say, later, "during the ensuing months I noticed more and more of our seedier West-End chorus boys parading about London in them." (He was born on the cusp of the 20th Century in --- don't laugh --- Middlesex. In our Google Image search, he is rarely seen without cigarette and cigarette holder: one of his bad habits that would ultimately do him in.)
§ § §
When I run across a book that I think of as moving or funny --- a crackerjack --- I invite readers to lay down my review and call up Amazon and order a copy. I now do that with Firefly --- in spades.
Ostensibly it is a novel, but it has much more going for it. Ms. Jenkins has evidently entered into the life of Coward with such agility, wit, and historical background that her writing becomes him, in all senses of the word. We see a seventy-year-old man who has retired himself to his estate, in Jamaica. There he plans to live out his days with old friends (who --- because he is such a grouch --- purposely choose not to live with him).
He is cared for by younger Jamaicans, mostly the amiable and charming Patrice. In fact, much of Firefly is a rich dialogue between Coward and Patrice. Since Coward is and always was a great admirer of young males, much of what happens here carries an overlay of lush, tropical passion. Except for one thing. Coward's diddling days are far gone, as he often notes with regret.
He has a keen vision, as proved by his plays and writings and the whole assemblage of his life ... so he does not hide from the fact that old age is not for the faint-of-heart. More, for him, it is a time of self-castigation. "When he lifts his eyes to his reflection it seems he is looking at an overgrown reptile."
He feels the familiar lurch of disappointment. He looks away. Whatever happened to the facelift?
§ § §
Youth and naked beauty were the key to making it in the gay world back then, but the later pictures of Coward show him less the comely actor, more looking like a used-car salesman from Stepney.
Still, he had charm and a life (and a life to his words) that could make anyone forget what Katherine Hepburn called "the rot of age." His wit still carries him along with the memories of a cast of characters who spent time with him: Alec Guiness, Judy Garland, David Niven, John Gielgud, Joyce Carey, and --- simply --- "Marlene."
And the overdramatic "nabob of sob," Johnny Ray, who sang, with excruciating passion,
I went walkin' down by the river
Feeling very sad inside
When all at once I saw in the sky
The little white cloud that cried
He told me he was very lonesome
And no one cared if he lived or died
And said sometimes the thunder and lightning
Make all little clouds hide
He said "Have faith in all kinds of weather"
"For the sun will always shine"
"Do your best and always remember"
"The dark clouds pass with time"
In retreat in Jamaica, Coward misses the fifties, a time when he could come on to a young reporter from The Express. Here it is presented as a mini-play:
SMITH: And away from the theatre. Do you have a happy private life?
COWARD: Yes. I am really very fortunate in that respect.
SMITH [blushing]: Do you have someone special to share it with?
COWARD: I do indeed, but there's always room for one more. You have a very sweet face and I suppose you find me devastatingly attractive?
SMITH: Well, I...
COWARD: Don't be coy. We could slip into the bedroom. No one need know.
SMITH: [dropping his pencil]: I'm getting married, Mr. Coward. Next June.
There's a lot of stuff going on here that may strike one as being somewhat off-kilter. A reporter for a scandal sheet could, we should think, be the last that one should be accosting ... especially in 1950s England, where homosexuality was still a felony. (A year before this interview, John Gielgud got himself in a pickle, was convicted of "persistently importuning male persons for an immoral purpose [then called "cottaging"] in a Chelsea mews, having been arrested for trying to pick up a man in a public lavatory.")
In light of this, what Coward is doing comes across as foolhardy, but his instincts were right: he never got entrapped, nor had he ever been forced to pay blackmail (as far as we know) ... even though, at least according to Jenkins, he had a randy sexual life at a time when showing homosexual tendencies was considered to be a mental disease in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, and, as well, by the law-makers of America and England.
Despite this oppressive background, here is Coward, showing himself as being far from cowardly, playfully teaching a young reporter the lengths to which he will go to shock and dismay.
Jenkins could have put together a thick biography, and it would have been read, commented on ... and then dropped. She did something far more subtle: she wove the story of (what we used to call) an "aging queen," one who lived his outlaw life to the fullest, ever poking the hoi polloi in the ass, as it were, with his 'differentness.'
She has chosen the novel form with which to let us look into final days --- as his mind is beginning to go, his body already gone: a funny old galoot, moving heavily though his last days, needing help getting in and out of the pool, in and out of the tub, in and out of bed, "his nose white, his face red," his feet grossly swollen --- a man who made love to so many others, now gazing down sadly at his blasted "flaccidity."
It feels like a bereavement. An unnecessary loss.
But, like Mehitabel, there's life in the old gal yet.
§ § §
Patrice, his sweet Jamaican, dances through these pages, in lovely counterpoint to this old playboy, one who can't leave his cigarettes alone. Nor his beer, whiskey, cocktails, and high calorie meals (sausage, potatoes, mousse). He resists any and all attempts of those around him to get him just to walk, at least Noël, just get out of your chair and walk to the corner bar, please, you're killing yourself with inaction (it's 1971; Coward will succumb in two years time).
Amidst all these failings, there's Patrice --- dark, slim, beautiful Patrice --- a dancer who jollies the old man, sometimes getting him pissed off with no more than the noise of his joy; Patrice, yanking the old man's chains, trying merely to keep him among the living: not with pity, certainly, but with a smart-ass by-play ... as daring and wistfully funny in this time, on this island, as Noël probably was in his own.
"Do you need anything, Boss?"
Noël purses his lips. "Well, now ... I wouldn't mind having a go on the back of Steve McQueen's motorbike, but as I'm quite incapacitated I think I'll stick with my book."
"I'll come back in half an hour, Boss. If I see Mr. McQueen hanging about the yard, I'll tell him that you're busy. I'm sure he'll be very disappointed."
"If he's wearing his leathers send him straight up. I'm weak, but I think I could manage it."
Yes, Noël can be pettish --- sometimes petty. He feels the world is "too noisy." Patrice is playing Jamaican calypso, Get up in the morning, slaving for bread. Noël grabs the radio, says "I'm not fond of calypso," drops the Grundig "over the balustrade where it smashes onto the concrete."
"No need to look so morose," Noël tells Patrice. "Nothing died here."
He watches Patrice as he walks with a curious grace towards the broken radio. He collects the pieces as if they were small shattered bones.
The Noël we have here is sad and funny, absent and yet mostly there, mawkish and grumpy, proud and vain, still witty, a boon to his friends (and those who take care of him) ... at once generous and petulant, vainglorious and sometimes pitiable, especially when considering the weight of the years. What is waiting for him over the hill.
§ § §
Running through Firefly --- both by the author and by the leading character --- is your typical English ironical exaggeration, one that will have Noël recklessly respond to a friend's description of a lovely young man: "Have him shaved, oiled and brought to my tent." Here we see the lack of romance of age ruffed by the edge of truth, as in the old couplet:
There's sand in the porridge and sand in the bed,
And if this is pleasure we'd rather be dead.
Noël had a touch of neo-colonial worldliness about him, but a mad dog about him as well ... a dryness that could erupt in witty, self-mocking song,
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The Japanese don't care to, the Chinese wouldn't dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one,
But Englishmen detest a siesta ...
In the Philippines there are lovely screens,
to protect you from the glare,
In the Malay states there are hats like plates,
which the Britishers won't wear,
At twelve noon the natives swoon, and
no further work is done ---
But Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
He is a mad dog, and an old one, with the same self-mockery which forty years ago let him compose (and sing),
Mad about the boy
I know it's silly
But I'm mad about the boy
And even Dr Freud cannot explain
Those vexing dreams
I've had about the boy
My doctor can't advise me
He'd help me if he could
Three time he's tried to psychoanalayse me
But it's just no good
Mad about the boy
I know it's stupid to be mad about the boy
I'm so ashamed of it but must admit the sleepless nights I've had
About the boy...
§ § §
When, years ago, we were reviewing Alberto Moravia's A Woman of Rome, we wrote,"Moravia knows the heart of women as acutely as a Flaubert or a Tolstoi. As with Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Memoirs of a Geisha, one wonders how a man --- I almost said "a mere man" --- can penetrate, and penetrate so deeply, the heart of woman."
It's not mere knowledge. The author has incorporated in his world the soul of women, he has become woman --- and in this transformation, he makes Adriana such that we, too, become her. At the same time, the men he creates are [equally] perfect. We should think of Moravia as a chess master, one who not only plays beautifully, but carves the various pieces as well: Gino the small-time thief and chauffeur, Sonzogno the hood, with his "muscles of steel," Giacomo the intellectual student revolutionary, Astarita the police official. All of them are swept up by this whore, all reacting to her in a different way, all smitten by her, all destroyed by her.
In the same way, Jenkins has managed to get inside this seventy-year old dandy with a mix of humor and pathos. She presents us with a self-abusing harsh old goat, dying (he knows), funny (he knows), a sob-sister (he knows). It's not a cowardly Coward; more, it's one that we would all have loved to have known.
Since that is impossible, we're lucky in Firefly to have the second best thing; to be able to sit in the same room with Noël, along with the sighs and gruff laughter and night-terrors. This shameless old man who is (he knows) to leave us soon enough, but who, Noël being Noël, can leave us with such memories, such memories.
And always, there's the great, comic back-and-forth with this young, rougish, all-too-wise Patrice, soon to be leaving for England, moving on. And so he'll ask the questions that the rest of us, in the presence of Sir Noël, would probably never have the heart (nor the daring) to utter.
He asks about Patrice's cousin:
"Won't his family miss him?"
"His mama will be weeping and howling," says Patrice, "but the mamas of his five children will be singing and dancing. He is not a good father, Mr. Coward, he has no interest in his boys, only in his music."
"He has five sons?"
"Five that he knows of."
"I thought he looked particularly fertile."
"You never wanted children, Mr. Coward?"
"Not for a second."
"You have loved a woman, Boss?" he asks, with a roguish glint in his eye. "Not once? Not ever?"
Noël laughs. "If you mean have I ever had sex with a woman, the answer is no. It would, I imagine, be like sleeping with a porpoise. Have I ever loved a woman? Perhaps."
Patrice leans back, the basket wobbling as he drapes his arms across the window frame like a cormorant resting its wings. "So you are a definite homosexual, Boss?"
"I like to give them a hand."
"This part of the island is full of men who love men."
"Does it bother you?"
"Of course not." He shrugs. "Why should it?"--- Lolita Lark