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Noël Coward: The Playwright’s Craft in a Changing Theatre

Russell Jackson
Methuen Drama
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Noël Coward

Noël Coward is not only popular with theatregoers but also students, academics and biographers. As a result, there is already a large canon of literature regarding his life and work, including volumes written by Coward himself. Therefore, in order to justify penning yet another tome about The Master, an author needs to find a new angle.

Russell Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Drama at the University of Birmingham, has used diligence and a great deal of hard work to discover fresh perspectives about Coward’s writing, primarily the plays.

Rather than merely accepting the standard, published texts, Professor Jackson has tracked down source documents including manuscripts and typescripts, allowing him to present different versions of some parts of both major and minor plays, including a number that were never produced, possibly in some cases because they were too frank about homosexuality.

This book will therefore be of most interest to two distinct groups: scholars and theatre directors. The former will be in their element as they explore ways in which scripts were improved as they move through the production process, while the latter might find new ways of interpreting certain moments or actions or could even decide that earlier verbal constructions were preferable.

A slight problem for those reading this volume is that not only did Coward write at speed, but he appears to have been remarkably accurate, thereby obviating the need for major changes to texts that had often been generated from ideas in little more than a week and occasionally even less than that.

For some, the highlights may be the interactions with his performing stars, never more so than when the Lunts rebelled while performing Quadrille and were effectively given carte blanche by the writer to change it in any way that they liked. They did.

In addition to the deep textual analysis, this volume, which is structured chronologically, puts the plays into context and also summarises the critical responses, which followed a sad trajectory, from the major successes of the '20s and '30s such as Private Lives, Hay Fever and a little later Blithe Spirit to disdain by the '50s and '60s in works that are now only revived as novelties.

On the more positive side, even if the critics were critical, audiences still flocked to see plays by a man whom they held in the highest regard, possibly because he remained a stuffy but witty old man when much of the world was desperate to hear from angry young ones.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher