This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the August 1956 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
“Mr Coward will see you on Wednesday at 12.30,” said his secretary on the telephone, and at noon on Wednesday I set off on my bicycle in the scorching sun to meet Mr Noel Coward. My first introduction to his work had been “Cavalcade” at Drury Lane in 1931, a tremendous success both then and later in the film version. Since that time, I have read, seen and acted in many of Mr. Coward’s plays, so it was with more than ordinary interest that I looked forward to meeting him.
He was strolling with the photographer in the garden of his newly-acquired house, “Spithead Lodge,” when I arrived, and for some reason I was unprepared for the casual informality of his manner. His open-necked shirt and Bermuda shorts no doubt contributed to this impression, but his attitude in general was characterized by a quiet charm and amiability that is unexpected in one whose success rests largely upon his scathing witticisms and cynical commentaries on human nature.
Mr Hamilton was posing him for photographs. “Wherever I sit, he makes me sit somewhere else,” said Mr Coward plaintively, moving from chair to chair. It was suggested that he might be photographed in a “characteristic” attitude, reading or writing. “But it’s fairly well-known that I read and write” he commented, “after forty-six years of plays.” (He made his first stage appearance at the age of ten.) “Press photographers at rehearsal invariably have me reading the script of my new play with my leading lady, which is something one never does,” he went on, “but press photographers think that is what the public likes. Nobody knows what the public likes.”
“What do you think the public likes?” I asked him.
“The public likes to be entertained. They pay for their seats at the theatre for entertainment, not to be educated, not to listen to propaganda. The school is the place for education, not the theatre. Occasionally, of course, it is good to expose social evils, as Ibsen did through his plays and Dickens through his novels, but it has to be extremely well done not to be a bore.”
Mr Coward has bought Spithead Lodge, a charming old Bermuda house, and Watergate, the cottage at the entrance to the drive. The windows look out over the Great Sound, and only a stone’s throw away is Spithead where Eugene O’Neill wrote many of his plays, including “Mourning Becomes Electra.” Workmen were busy with cement-mixers and wheel-barrows, and the house was still in process of being arranged, for all the furniture has been shipped out here from his home in England. There are two grand pianos in the drawing-room which were specially tropicalized before being packed; and seventy-four large packing-cases full of books are waiting to be unpacked and arranged in the air-conditioned room that will be Mr Coward’s study. The rest of the house will not be air-conditioned—”I love the heat,” he said, “the only thing I mind are the insects.” For most of the year he will live in Bermuda, and spend the cooler months at his other home in Jamaica. He chose Bermuda for his main place of residence because of its pleasant climate, its proximity to New York where many of his future activities are centred, and because it provides a contrast to Jamaica and the more tropical islands of the West Indies. From time to time it will be necessary for him to return to England for the production of new plays, but since 1948 he has not spent more than a couple of months a year in England.
His recent TV appearances in the U.S.A. were an enormous success. Of course they entailed a tremendous amount of work—writing new songs, re-arranging old ones, orchestrating and rehearsing enough material to occupy ninety minutes, as in his program with Mary Martin—”rehearsing till you know it so well that you could do it in your sleep,” he said,— “all this makes demands that only a person of extraordinary ability and energy could accomplish.
His current play, “South Sea Bubble,” in which Vivien Leigh plays the lead is a great hit in London, although some of the reviews were unfavourable. “Plays of mine which have bad notices generally run for a year,” was his ironic comment. “The critics were unanimous in their condemnation of “Private Lives” and this has now become a classic.” “South Sea Bubble” is concerned with the efforts of the wife of the Socialist Governor of an island in the South Seas to convert the son of a native politician from his die-hard Tory outlook. In his preface to the new edition of “Cavalcade” Mr Coward described himself as being “bleakly uninterested in politics.” He now modifies this to being “bleakly uninterested in politicians,” and this play satirizes the manoeuvres of the political leaders in a small community.
In the autumn Mr. Coward’s newest play, “Nude with Violin,” will have its première in Dublin with Sir John Gielgud in the lead, then after a short tour it will open in London on 24th September. Mr Coward has a genius for the apt, and often ambiguous, title. Three volumes of his autobiography have been called “Present Indicative,” “Future Indefinite,” and “Past Imperfect.” I suggested that having settled in Bermuda he might produce a fourth called “Future Perfect.”
His main activities, once his house is in order, will be to write, to read, to swim and to paint pictures. He has no plans for reviving the theatre in Bermuda nor for producing TV scripts here. He is at present engaged on a new novel, about one-third of which is completed, and this, which he has had no time to work on since November, he is most anxious to get on with.
He will also make recordings with Columbia. He has a very high opinion of Columbia’s producer, Mr. Goddard Lieberson, whose wife, Vera Zorina, will be remembered for her appearance at the Bermudiana Theatre in Christopher Fry’s “The Lady’s Not For Burning” and “Phoenix Too Frequent.” Mr. Lieberson personally supervised Mr Coward’s recordings in Las Vegas.
Although he spends much of his spare time in painting, Mr Coward does not design the sets for his plays. Cecil Beaton was responsible for the sets for “Quadrille,” Dora Zinkeison did “After the Ball,” Mr Coward’s musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” and Gladys Calthrop has designed sets and acted as art director for some of his films.
One of his special interests which he has had to renounce on leaving England is the Actors’ Orphanage at Chertsey in Surrey. This is a home for the children of actors who are dead or unable to care for their families, and Mr Coward has been president for twenty years. Each year, a special performance called “Night of 100 Stars” is given at the London Palladium to raise money for this most deserving charity. All the top-ranking stars give their services free and the show is organized by Charles Russell and Lance Hamilton. Among those who appeared at this year’s show on June 28th were the Oliviers,
Tyrone Power, Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly, and a clear profit of £12,000 was made, all of which goes to the Orphanage. Sir Laurence Olivier has succeeded Mr Coward as president.
In answer to my enquiry as to whether he would take any part in public life in Bermuda, Mr Coward replied, “No —unless it is something for the Royal Navy. I have been associated with the Royal Navy all my life—that is one of my greatest prides. I am on the Admiralty List and will do anything for the Navy.” He went on to talk of his work in conjunction with Lord Louis Mountbatten who was anxious to form the Royal Navy Film Corporation, the purpose of which was to equip all vessels of the Navy, except sloops and submarines, with films and projectors. Mr Coward’s contribution to the scheme included visiting all the ships of the Home and Mediterranean Fleets to ascertain what the sailors liked in the way of films. This ambitious project was fully realized before the outbreak of World War II. The sinking of Earl Mountbatten’s ship, H.M.S. Kelly, during the war provided Mr Coward with the basis for the film “In Which We Serve,” acknowledged by many as his finest work. Incidentally, his only public appearance in Bermuda to date has been at the fete at Admiralty House organized by the Ladies’ Guild in aid of the Bermuda Sailors’ Home.
Asked what he liked to read, Mr Coward answered, “Practically everything. Modern writers like Hester Chapman and Rosamund Lehman; the Victorians—Trollope, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, George Eliot; and poetry —again the Victorians, Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, Wordsworth, not Browning particularly, Francis Thompson, Keats, Sir Philip Sydney, and above all, Shakespeare.” In architecture he likes the simplicity of plain lines and dislikes “twisted Gothic.” He loves to cook, and loathes badly cooked food. His preferences run to charcoal-broiled roasts, and to discreet steaks and good seasoning in plain food well cooked. He does not like milk in omelettes and scrambled eggs; he does not like water in cabbage, nor tapioca, nor floury boiled potatoes, nor eggs kept in a refrigerator with oranges.
His main preoccupation, however, is people. “The writer must know people before he can write,” he stated. “I know all kinds and conditions of people and they are all fascinating. I am fascinated by all forms of human life, and my characters are composites of many real persons. But to put them in their appropriate background the author must get into the right atmosphere himself. This is a gift.” When one compares “Cavalcade” with “Design For Living” for example, or “In Which We Serve” with “Bitter-Sweet” one realizes the enormous range of his creative ability in terms of character, theme and atmosphere. Asked if he might use Bermuda as the scene of a play or novel, Mr Coward was non-committal. It is curious that in spite of the fact that many first-rate writers have had their homes here, no really outstanding work of fiction or drama has been written with Bermuda as its locale-excepting, of course, “The Tempest,” for which Shakespeare is supposed to have used the reports of the Bermuda Company to supply local colour for Prospero’s island. Perhaps it has been left for Mr Coward to rectify this omission.