My Life With Noël Coward
Payn with Barry Day--With Coward's Never Before Published Theatre Writings
Noël Coward left a rich legacy of music, plays and personal diaries. According to Graham
Payn, his friend and lover for thirty years as well as his literary executor and author (with Barry
Day) of My Life With Noël Coward, dozens of productions of Coward's plays are currently on stage or in preparation
somewhere in the world. These have
assumed a certain pecking order, the top three being Blithe Spirit,. Private Lives and Fallen Angel the top
three. That's not to take away from the pull of other Coward plays. A revival of Hay Fever during last summer's Berkshire Theatre Festival season was a sold out before it opened. Present Laughter which will start previewing as this review is being posted has already created a buzz. making the just published paperback edition of
this memoir Coward particularly timely.
Besides providing those planning to see Present Laughter with a wealth of facts and comments
about the play, My Life With Noël Coward is a
good read, generously sprinkled as it is with anecdotal material and photographs.
True to the book's title, Payn lets the reader get to know him as well as Coward, but, unlike a
lot of actors when they take pen in hand, he exercises admirable restraint, never veering from the
memoir's focus-- Noël
Coward. He applies the same restraint to the wealth of theatrical icons who played important
professional and personal parts in the Coward Saga. When Payn discusses someone famous it's
because that person played more than a walk-on part in Coward's life. Thus the celebrities who
appear in these pages serve to enrich this portrait of a multi-talented, complex personality. In
turn, we see Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Maggie Smith, Beatrice Lillie,
Laurence Olivier, The Lunts, Mary Martin and many other luminaries through the sharp lens of Coward's
private, after-the-party observations. All told we come away from this book with a newfound
admiration for Coward as a giving as well as an immensely gifted man. And while he is the star
of the enterprise, getting to know and like Payn is an added pleasure.
Interesting as the biographical and anecdotal materials are, two of the major assets of
My Life With Noël Coward are Payn's comments on his responsibilities
as literary executor in chapter 14 and the newly added "Book Three" which contains
Coward's never before published theater writings.
Since this review is being written as Present Laughter goes into previews at the Walter Kerr,
here are some pertinent facts and comments pertaining to it:
- The play is the most autobiographical of all Coward's plays. The main character, playwright Garry Essendine, is
Noël right down to the last Sulka dressing gown." What's more all the other characters are
amalgamations of other members of his intimate circle generally known as the "family."
- Other actors who have played the leading role since the play opened in 1939, many actors have
tried to fill Coward's footsteps, many of them failing because they tried to "carbon-copy" a true original and proving Payn's observation about just that "how original an 'original' can be.
- The one actor who most decidedly steered clear of the carbon-copy path was George C. Scott in
the 1982 Broadway revival. He played Essendine as a sort of latter-day John Barrymore with
"pouting profile and pseudo-Shakespearean rumble." While it's hard to guess at what path Frank
Langella will take, it's unlikely that he'll try to be Coward any more than Scott.
- If you go to the play after reading My Life With Noël Coward, pay
careful attention to the part of Morris. In a 1965 revival, Graham Payn, at Coward's insistence,
played that small part so he could show that "he can talk."
- Also check out Joanna's hair style. When Judy Campbell, one of Coward's favorite actresses,
toured with him, he tried to get her to get rid of the "fall" she wore. However, it stayed in
because photographer Cecil Beaton adored...though according to Campbell he'd often put his
elbow on it when she leaned back on the sofa so that at times the false bit would come off.
- In case you saw the London revival of Present Laughter which starred Tom Conti, don't expect the same
ending. In his discussion about his rights as literary executor to approve or disapprove textual
changes, Payn notes that he erred in allowing Conti to change the ending so that Monica becomes
part of the final scene, pointing out that even a minor change can, in the long run affect the
balance of a carefully crafted play.
- Finally bear in mind Coward's dictum on the playing of comedy: "The whole of comedy depends
on timing--and if you are really on your toes, you play the audience and you control the laughter.
You mustn't ever let the audience get out of hand." We hope that Langella and company succeed!
In case you can't find My Life With Noël Coward at your local library or book store, the Payn memoir, as well as
some other Coward books can be found at the internet's Amazon book store.
My Life With Noël Coward
The Noel Coward Diaries also by Graham Payn
Cole, The Sophisticates by Stephen Citron--a music expert analyzes many Coward and Cole
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