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Relative Values: Coward and His Characters

By August B. C. March
From Midsummer Magazine, 1998

 

To truly understand and enjoy Relative Values, one must know more of its creator: playwright Noël Coward. As Charles Morey, who is directing this year’s production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, says, the characters of Relative Values are Noël Coward “down to their shoes”; and a number of critics over the years have pointed out the similarities between Coward’s plays and the persona he so carefully perpetuated.

Of course, Coward also wrote extensively about himself: in poetry, short articles, and three autobiographies; but we can get a wider viewpoint by reading what others have said about him: critics, contemporaries, and students. So, as a place to start, assembled below are a number of quotes from various sources that say something about Coward. Obviously many people adored him and loved his plays, while others focused on his supposed shallowness.

The quotes below are not arranged in any specific order, nor are they meant to present any specific viewpoint. On the contrary, they reflect a wide variety of opinions and styles. However, as one studies Coward and his work, it soon becomes evident that, whatever one thinks, Coward’s plays are, at the very least, very amusing and entertainingand more than capable of allowing one to spend an enjoyable evening in the theatre. Perhaps that is all Coward ever wanted.

So, let’s be off, starting with some recent comments by the director of this year’s production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“In Coward’s earlier comedies, it is the spirit of anarchy and a plea for unlaced high spirits in the face of stifling conformity that drive the plays. Throughout Relative Values Coward’s anarchic comedic sensibility continues to reign, but alongside the flippancy there is a rueful and occasionally bitter longing for a lost order, a world of ‘manners’ in which comedies of manners are not obsolete. But Coward never takes himself seriously for very long. The very tone of his discussion of ‘relative values’ suggests that Coward’s primary concern is what it has always been—the comic undermining of the pretentious, the dull, and the moralistic by the forces of wit, intelligence, and taste. The leading characters of Relative Values are Noël Coward creations down to their shoes. Like Coward himself, they view themselves and the world about them with supreme amusement and ironic detachment.”
—Charles Morey, “Director’s Notes,” Souvenir Program, Utah Shakespeare Festival, 1998

“Coward’s wit was all his own. His professionalism, his stagecraft and his late-discovered talent as a cabaret artist who wowed audiences in Las Vegas as effortlessly as he had sung with Marlene Dietrich in Paris bars owed everything to his upbringing, and to a mother who was determined to make a star of him. The fact that she removed little Noël from his first school when the teachers refused to tie his shoelaces speaks volumes.”
—Miranda Seymour, “A Talent to Amuse,” The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1996, p. 7

“The public image of Coward, smoking in a silk dressing gown at midday, was a fiction. Beyond the desire to make enough money to support his family, Coward was driven by the kind of passion for fame that requires boundless determination and energy. Rising early and going to bed after a performance with a comforting plate of nursery-style food, Coward focused all of his energies on writing and on making use of a widening circle of influential friends that included Rebecca West and W. Somerset Maugham.”
—Seymour, p. 7

“His ruthlessness could be bloodcurdling. When his close friend Joyce Carey threatened to become his rival with her hugely successful play Sweet Aloes, Coward, so it was said, began encouraging her to concentrate on acting rather than writing.”
—Seymour, p. 7

“According to a friend, until The Vortex, his stage hit of 1924, ‘nobody called anyone “Darling” except as a declaration of love.’ Today, everyone in show business from Hugh Grant to Zsa Zsa Gabor, as well as a substantial proportion of more general cocktail-party goers, calls everyone else ‘Dah-ling.’ Coward himself had been calling everyone ‘darling’—his mum’s lodger, the fishmonger—since his Edwardian boyhood in the London suburbs. It’s surely not insignificant that, as a writer, his greatest contribution to the language was to strip a word of its passion and intensity and make it a mere unfelt throwaway”
—Mark Steyn, “Books, Arts, and Manners: Very Noël Coward,” National Review, September 16, 1996, p. 60

“The old line that deep down he was shallow might have been written for Coward. The best of his comedies illustrate the paradox of his talent: his depth is on the surface; he’s only profound when he’s being trivial.”
—Steyn, p. 62

“Born on the eve of the new century, he personified the deliriums of the age: momentum, industry, output, fame, and enchantment.”
—John Lahr, “Charm’s Way: How Noël Coward Amused Himself,” The New Yorker, September 9, 1996, p. 86

“Coward was in perpetual flight from his fragile life to his secure public one. His performing self was unrelenting and, finally, attenuating.”
—Lahr, p. 87

“The pace of Coward’s best comedies, which are light, streamlined, and apparently without plot, is also emblematic of his era: it captures the desperation beneath the gaiety of postwar British life.”
—Lahr, p. 87

“And now comes Noël Coward, with brilliant fireworks that flare energetically and die out inconsequentially. . . . In the solid excellences of life he pokes and pecks. He makes the most of the show of a little knowledge. His generation has been given bits of Freud to think about. Repressions, inferiorities, have moved glibly on their tongues and dangerously in their minds. Coward’s plays have about them the mental unsteadiness of half-realized truths, given a dangerously innocuous setting. But they act well, in a deftly handled way.”
—Montrose J. Moses, Representative British Dramas, Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1931, p. 749

“Mr. Coward knows how to make the most of flimsiness. And this gives his actors unlimited opportunities to play all sorts of variations on the musical notes of the dialogue. The printed play reveals that line for line there is in it arrant simplicity of the commonplace order. But it springs to life when the tongue rattles it. This may not be the highest order of playwriting, but it takes a genuine ability to create it. . . . Mr. Coward is skilled in the surface movement of life which he can suggest by a light exuberance of dialogue, a very excellent quality. But there is a deeper movement he has not yet realized fully in a play. He skates on the surface. He strums his piano lightly. And so does he strum upon our sympathies.”
—Moses, p. 749


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