Thursday, January 08, 2009


That's Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence above. If you ever read a Noel Coward play, you might have come away wondering what all the fuss was about. The plays are good, but not great. Why, you might have wondered, was the man so famous? Come to think of it, why was his actor/singer friend Gertrude Lawrence so popular?

Thanks to YouTube we have an answer. YouTube won't allow the clip to be embedded, so I can't put it up here, but here's the next best thing: a link to a five-minute clip from Coward's play "Private Lives," recorded in 1931. Watch it now, then come back for commentary!

Wasn't that great!!!!!!!!????? Coward was a genius, but he wrote for his own unique performance style, and in the hands of anyone else the plays may come off as flaccid. You can't make those lines work unless you're willing to commit to style and go way over the top with them. Coward himself found that hard to do as the years wore on. I don't think the middle-aged Coward could have pulled it off, even with the help of Lawrence.

The reason I put this up is to underline the point that style and technique is everything in entertainment. The most professionally useful quote I've ever encountered came from Paul Fussell, who was talking about poetry when he wrote (paraphrase):  "you'll never be a poet unless you love words more than content. How you say something is even more important than what you say." That goes for cartooning and animation too. Content is important but technique trumps content.

More Coward and Lawrence above. For contrast here's how modern actors Alan Rickman ("Snape" in the Harry Potter films) and Lindsay Duncan handle the same play:

If the link doesn't work, you can find the piece on YouTube under the title: "Noel Coward: Private Lives (Interviews)."

They 're proud that they do the piece without style, searching instead for the truth in their parts. Honestly, truth is over-valued in the theater. What we need now is less truth and more technique.

Stephen, a commenter, provides us with these additional links:

(YouTube title: NoelCoward in New York - I went To a Marvelous Party)

(Stephen Fry's address to the Noel Coward Society)


Hans Flagon said...

A little scenery chewing never hurt anyone. I will have to actually watch the clip sometime- I hope I am inerpreting your take of it being over the top without the benefit of seeing for myself. I'll be back.

Unfortunately, I think that Big A Acting! is simply harder to get away with. Melodrama has become unpopular, when it is exactly what is needed more of these days.

Part of this is because, the examples of when it was popular, are simply not exposed to people as much as it was in the days when there were only four television networks, and nothing to fill the space but old films; films they almost actively avoid showing today.

Actively avoiding ones culture creates all sorts of maladies.

Anonymous said...

Well observed, Eddie. I'd add that Coward's 'successor' (and Vice President of the Noel Coward Society!) would second your observations:

If you ever happen to hear the album 'Noel Coward in New York', you can hear the same thing you mention. The lyrics of the songs are all wonderful, and some songs like 'What's Going to Happen to the Tots' are absolutely accurate predictions of the way we live now, but it's Coward's performances that makes them incomparable.

Michael Sporn said...

That's a wonderful post with some great observations. I am a fan of Coward's work. His songs are brilliant, but the porblem is that you have to listen to them to appreciate them. Too much work for most people these days.

Lester Hunt said...

Great post, Eddie -- except that "Private Lives" is a great play! It's all about the contrast between the mask of gentility and reason that life presents and the often chaotic and destructive passions that it conceals (the latter is what the "private lives" in the title refers to). The fact that it is not nearly as appealing to most people as it used to be might have to do with the fact that the mask is wearing pretty thin. Gentility? What's that?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Hans: Interesting point! It's important to study melodrama because that form provides great opportunity for acting when it's done right.

Stephen: Holy Cow! Thanks for the great links! The Stephen Fry piece is terrific, and the song has to be one of his very best recordings! I'll go back and add these to the article!

Michael: Thanks! I wish Coward had been more sympathetic to film during his golden age in the late 20s and early 30s. It would have promoted him to a wider audience.

Lester: Maybe I spoke too soon. I never heard the play all the way through.

Anonymous said...

Most film journals cite Coward's "In Which We Serve" as his best motion picture work. Are they on the level or full of bunk?

pappy d said...

What a performance!

I love the easy careless rhythm of the posh banter. Every casually tossed-off line makes some oblique reference to the raging emotions underneath. Rich people were so well-behaved before the Great War.

I can understand Coward's aversion to film. The camera doesn't keep itself at a respectful distance. It's up in your face trying to pry the subtext out of you. It's Coward's jealously-guarded prerogative to favor you with his inner world, or not.

There used to be a British tradition at social gatherings of trotting out the children to perform songs or recitations. Looking back, it seems like a great way for a kid to improve his social confidence before a sympathetic audience. Little Noel used to throw a tantrum if he wasn't asked to perform.

Live performance with a live audience must be a great way to learn show biz. So many of the old agents & executives started as performers or theater ushers. Since broadcasting, the conversation is one-way. The audience has faded into an abstraction called the masses. Now we have focus groups whose focus is manipulating public opinion & most of our entertainment is a by-product of marketing.

The Jerk said...

i read once in a groucho marx biography where someone described passing by his hotel room and hearing him laugh out loud, and came in to see what was so funny, and turns out he was reading a noel coward novel, and that coward was one of groucho's favorite writers. And having read some of Coward's fiction myself, i can understand why. it's hilarious, way better than his plays.

Anonymous said...

It's like how those clips of random people doing Python skits were terrible even though the "content" was the same.

You're either funny or you aren't, there are a lot of comedians who work very hard at their craft and obsess over their sets but they just don't have the right attitude for comedy. The same goes for cartoonists, some people just aren't funny. this guy is a good example of someone who's gotten where he is through VERY hard work and dedication, from the minute he steps out on the stage he is ON and has every second timed out, His set is well crafted but I just don't find him funny,he has the wrong attitude.

Norm Macdonald has the perfect attitude for a comedian, he doesn't care

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this comic Eddie? The arts a bit crude but its hilarious

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: In which we serve? Is that the one where coward is a sea captain? It's just OK.

Pappy: Down with focus groups!

A Noel Coward novel? I didn't know that he wrote novels.

Anon: Interesting contrast. Mc Donald does have the better attitude.

Anon: They're funny, but I'm an artist...I need to see good drawings!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the art is crude in Achewood but Id rather read something funny but crudely drawn, than the sort of comics you get when an extremely talented artist with a lame sense of humor tries to be funny

Guys like John K and Don Martin are huge exceptions but generally when you read a cartoonists bio and it says "So and so doesn't remember when he wasn't drawing" etc. their stuff is probably going to have a lame sensibility to it

Anonymous said...

Is there any chance of the old Ren And Stimpy's getting syndicated? I think they'd get a huge following.
Who came up with the "rubber walrus protector" gag? That scene is the best thing ever

Anonymous said...

Most of the Rent and Stimpy clips seem to be mostly fanmade mashups and video scratching weirdness

Hans Flagon said...

Okay, I listened to Coward and Lawrence, and I don't think either were over the top, the impression I got from your article before I watched. I agree with Pappy D's take.

When linking to the audio, I was totally unaware I had seen the scene before. I remember the scene from Olivier doing it. It was slightly more natural in that film. I can't speak for Alan Rickmans version.

But Coward the actor serves Coward the writers words well, with the blunted emotion, and the truth breaking out underneath. Just a bit more theatricality.

As far as Anons comment on random people redoing Python skits, I stumbled upon such the other day, not really realizing how common it was on YouTube, in a discussion of who wrote that shark boats skipper monologue in Jaws, the clip they pulled into the blog post was some one recreating same, not nearly as well

I'm reminded how deadpan I was in high school Drama, trying to be natural, when that really isn't what is needed for the stage, you have to give it a little push. The emotion has to read.

Also I haven't seen the Philadelphia Story in years, but caught a clip the other night, realizing, gee, those big soliloquies aren't terribly natural at all. Didn't stop me from loving the film. Too Bad no one has the guts to be so wordy anymore. I like films before the MPAA ratings came into being, because things had to be made clear in OTHER ways.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Hans: Haw! If that seemed tame to you, then I can only imagine what you'd consider was really over the top. You sound like a guy who eats so much spicy food that eating a chili pepper doesn't phase you!

Anon: Rubber walrus protector? Hmmm, maybe Vincent came up with it. I'm not sure. Better ask John.

Anonymous said...

The best part of that Norm MacDonald appearance in Part 3:

The very last line is the funniest thing I've ever seen on a talk show in my entire life.

I read an interview with Norm that said that when he tells a joke, he never remembers or tries to remember the set-up. He only memorizes the punchline.

That way he's free to play around with the set-up, and since he's so naturally funny, his set-up is always the funniest part of the joke. Norm mutters a lot and says "you know" and "there" a lot, which makes him my favourite comedian in the world.

The Jerk said...

i may be mistaken as to whether it was a novel, but it was certainly a work by noel coward. Still, I do have a vague recollection of having seen a noel coward tome which was too large to have been a play, back when i worked in the library in college...p'raps twas a compilation of various short works, or something like this:

p.s. here is a playlist of videos in which coward performs, many from around 1955ish:

Hans Flagon said...

Eddie, I think Coward is merely being 'direct' in his presentation, to make sure the audience knows that the words, which are saying one thing, and underlying emotional Tone, which says another, are at odds, as is called for in the drama.

He is not in the same league as the most memorable (to me) overacting of Rod Steiger, which I have mentioned here before, anonymously. In "The Loved One" the level of performance is appropriate to the wildness of tale, in "The Big Knife", which is preetty much as IMDB first review describes, it is riveting for -other reasons-.

Mama Mia THATS a spicy meat a ball a!.

Jenny Lerew said...

I have to put in a vote for "In Which We Serve". Certainly it's dated--it's a straightforward British WW2 propaganda epic. But Coward cared hugely about it, it has a great cast-and his co-director was terrific: David Lean in his first directing gig I believe.
In his diaries I seem to remember Noel being determined to be believable as the husband of (also great) Celia Johnson and a HMS admiral or captain and veddy proper father and commander... I thought he did well. Of course, it's not a comedy. Even so.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Hans: Yeah, Steiger was great in that!

Jenny: True, he was good in it, and the film may be better than I indicated, but i was still disappointed to see Coward under-used.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jerk: Thanks a million for the links, especially the Gutenberg book. I'll preuse it when I can. The author's preface was hilarious!

Gill said...

Having studied Private Lives in some detail I believe this... that Noel wrote this play for him and Gertie to act as themselves. If you look closely at Noel’s relationship with Gert as she told him to call her you will note that it was not unlike that of Elyot and Amanda in fact the only section of the play that is fake is the ending where by the two go off together. It was as if Noel and Gertrude wanted to play out there characters as if they were themselves in different lives or settings or perhaps with different sexual preferences which is more to the point.

One last thing, I did find that when Penelope Keith and co star in Private Lives (also to be found in all 10 parts on you tube) they can equally become the characters completely thus making the thing wholly believable.

Anyway tell me what you think...