The Noël Coward Night Thread (2/8)

Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973) was a celebrated British playwright, songwriter, actor and wit. I was introduced to his work by the 1945 film of his play Blithe Spirit. A writer accidentally summons the ghost of his late first wife to torment his second wife. Hijinks ensue. His musical theater partnerships with the likes of Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Martin and Elaine Stritch produced songs ranging from sentimental to satirical to salty.

In her one woman show, At Liberty, Stritch recounted her first meeting with Coward. He came to see her backstage after the opening of her flop musical Goldilocks.

Stritchey, your attempt to keep it light, keep it gay, keep it fragrant, impossible I’m afraid…. Take heart Stritchey. Any leading lady who doesn’t do a double take when a nine-foot bear asks her to dance is my kind of actress.

Elaine Stritch, At Liberty

Three years later Stritch opened on Broadway in the Noel Coward musical Sail Away. Critics were mixed on the show but raved about Stritch’s performance.

Coward played “don’t ask, don’t tell” most of his life. Though his dialogue crackled with gay sensibility he would cast himself as the heterosexual hero in his plays. In 1966 this would change. Coward wrote himself the part of a closeted gay author in A Song At Twilight. He is blackmailed by an actress who once served as his beard. The work gave him a chance to reflect on a life in the closet while still maintaining some distance. He placed the most progressive arguments for gay rights in the leading lady’s mouth.

We’re living in the 1960’s, not the 1890’s… In the opinion of all sensible, unprejudiced people, that law has become archaic and is nonsensical… It won’t exist much longer.

Noel Coward, A Song at Twilight

And he was correct. In 1967, sex between two men over 21 and “in private” was decriminalized. Interestingly sex between women was already legal. Allegedly Queen Victoria never criminalized it as she claimed “women don’t do such things.

For a jolt of camp, check out the 1956 Broadcast of Blithe Spirit starring Noel Coward opposite Lauren Bacall.