Design for loving

Noel Coward's centenary finds him overpraised and undervalued. David Jays suggests we forget the man

"I have read the Oscar Wilde letters," Noel Coward wrote in his diary in 1962, "and have come to the reluctant conclusion that he was one of the silliest, most conceited and unattractive characters that ever existed . . . a posing, artificial old queen." While history increasingly salutes the importance of being Oscar (as postmodern theorist, masquerading genius), it is Coward's work, even in his centenary year, that may appear mired in vapid old queenery. Has his glittery style become no more than a nostalgia accessory, part of the 1930s window dressing, alongside cocktails and cigarette holders? Or is his vivacious flippancy still relevant? It is time to forget the man and reinvent the work.

There is something about Coward that makes people come over all Ned Sherrin. They refer to Coward as "The Master", rolling over in abject capitulation to his clipped mystique. Perhaps they relish being peppered with the pea-shooter rattle of his recordings, or hope that the strict discipline of the well-made play will give contemporary drama a brisk seeing-to. For these Sherrins, Coward's legendary theatrical mastery depends on being smart rather than intellectual, teasing rather than vulgar, well dressed and well spoken. Yet these are qualities of only his weakest work, typical of the Coward who ended up as the Queen Mum's fawning court jester, who loathed Waiting for Godot ("pretentious gibberish without any claim to importance whatsoever") and Death of a Salesman, who redefined his art as light entertainment and tootled off to Sandringham to sing quite literally for his supper.

This Coward is memorialised in "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and a twitter of anecdotes. Chortling coves such as Sherrin, Sheridan Morley and Richard Briers cultivate his air of knowing wit, link it to the devoted name-dropping of his social career and produce volumes of pointless reminiscence. What exactly did Coward say to Gertie or Tallulah, darling Marlene or madcap Bea Lillie? And who the hell cares? Cowardian anecdotes are epitaphs for a lost world. It is dead and gone, lady, the stage-struck realm of mid-century idols who disdained the movies, blanched at brutal new drama and frittered away their light comedy and exquisite sentimentality on plays that have blown away like leaves.

What remains compelling in Coward is his sourness. When the Pet Shop Boys assembled an album of his songs last year, some of the numbers failed miserably - Vic Reeves intoning "Mrs Worthington", Dame Elton belting out "Twentieth Century Blues". What worked best were the jaded songs about dragging your tired ass round the block once too often in the name of pleasure. Brett Anderson of Suede's "Poor Little Rich Girl" or Marianne Faithfull's "Mad About the Boy" were weary with self-disgust, their scrawny voices clinging to dubious desire. It's this queasy, doubting, smacked-out side of the author that feels contemporary.

In an age where pharmaceutical delights, retro nostalgia and the ravenous void of the Millennium Dome have probably put paid to the very notion of fun, Coward's social jeremiads live again. Even his earliest success, The Vortex (1924), was twitchy with disgust for the gilded life that, as in the best fables, it helped its author attain. When Derek Jarman saw a 1980s revival with Rupert Everett, he moaned, "It's a ghastly play, dahlings, brilliant but defeated," and derided "this precious trivial world, magnified by boredom". The Vortex is indeed resplendently trivial and hysterical. But it set a pattern that still resonates, defining a desire both magnetic and self-loathing. Amanda and Elyot will surely attract and repel each other long after Private Lives (1930) ends, as will the triumphant troilists of Design for Living (1933). And even if Laura and Alec had fled together after their Brief Encounter (1945), their hapless contempt for the desirous state would have accompanied them.

Coward's plays also create an erotic ideal of androgyny. Terry Castle has written a deliriously fizzy critical study of Coward and Radclyffe Hall, demonstrating how their discreetly coded personae met in a shared territory of slicked-back hair, severe evening dress and teasing dressing gowns. Between the wars, Cecil Beaton wrote, "all sorts of men suddenly wanted to look like Noel Coward - sleek and satiny, clipped and well groomed, with a cigarette, a telephone, or a cocktail at hand". During the 1920s and 1930s Coward developed an iconography of androgyny - a celebrated photo with Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives poses them as near-reflections of fashionable sheen, with otter-slim shoulders and cigarette holders cocked for combat.

But this sexual image slips beyond the wardrobe. Coward particularly enjoyed Virginia Woolf's Orlando, whose hero/heroine shifts shape through time, space and gender. He wrote to thank her for "the lovely 'unbuttoned' feeling you've given me", and his plays, though obsessed with clothes, celebrate the opportunity to "unbutton". Coward's insolently louche heroes often follow their secret hearts to an area at once terribly knowing and perpetually adolescent. Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser capture this brilliantly in the National Theatre's current Private Lives, she a shimmering voluptuary, he waving balletic little paws. Their magnificent punch-ups are less lovers' tiffs than really satisfying cat-fights. So many Coward characters slouch in trademark silk pyjamas that the atmosphere resembles an adult slumber party, an erotic well of irresponsible indulgence. The love triangle in Design for Living, like Amanda and Elyot, never even consider having children, and behave like incestuous siblings. Hay Fever has a family at its centre, but the aptly named Bliss clan is giddily selfish, and parents exchange partners with their own children as if to deny any gap. Their bower of bliss is, like Spenser's in The Fairie Queene, a honeyed diversion from the demands of adult responsibility.

Our own contemporary culture clutches queasily at youth, venerating smiling flesh, visiting the tea-time telly of childhood, remaking angular adult dramas such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pygmalion and Othello into Hollywood high-school popcorn. We want our loved ones to be best mates, top shags and true romances all in one, and the way to achieve that is to postpone adult realities, to battle the threatened effects of gravity on both body and spirits. Coward states the lure of this desirous ideal as smartly as anyone but has his own doubts about where it leads. Stanley Kubrick asked him to star in Lolita, which would have been canny casting. The quasi-adolescent cocoon of Cowardian relationships so often verges on creepiness (Hitchcock, another cinematic connoisseur of perversity, was also drawn to him, making a silent movie of Easy Virtue in 1927).

Modern Coward productions are becoming increasingly flagrant. If his dialogue evaded censorship by cultivating a shiny evasiveness nicked by innuendo, contemporary audiences are hungrier for overt meaning. Rupert Everett's highly strung hero in The Vortex may have been engaged to Bunty Mainwaring, but the way he played "Mad About the Boy" at the piano scattered tell-tale hairpins. Sean Mathias recently directed a puppyish, physical Design for Living which shared a pair of pyjamas between two blokes to help join the dots of its bisexual triangle. And Philip Franks has been slated by some for the emotive blatancy of his uproarious Private Lives at the National.

But critics of this approach forget that Coward's best plays have always been swollen with passion. Even as the protagonists struggle to shelter in chatter about travel ("Very big, China") and train timetables, their ardour is released in bodily explosions, such as Elyot and Amanda's furniture-trashing fisticuffs, Blithe Spirit's destructively stroppy poltergeists or the billowing laughter that engulfs the stage at the end of Design for Living. Even the pained Brief Encounter (Coward's screenplay was based on his one-act Still Life) disdains mimsy repression in favour of an almost unbearable torrent of emotion. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard meet when he removes a speck of grit from her eye, and it is Johnson's huge bush-baby eyes that form the pooling canvas of the film's emotional journey. They brim with tears, bulge with anxiety, crease with rattling laughter, until the very screen seems flooded with emotion and the rain pours down and the Banbury cakes tumble all over the floor.

Full heart and bitten tongue prop up the bar of classic gay culture. Part of Coward's enduring significance is his influence on the imagery of 20th-century homosexuality, which would happily enrage him. Although the odd queen squeaks through his work (especially in the delirious antics of his early, banned Semi-Monde), only his last full-length play, A Song of Twilight, centres around the compromising past of a (married) homosexual writer. For most of his career Coward obviously considered himself to be giving a perfect imitation of a heterosexual but in the process formulated a cosmopolitan homosexual identity. In 1929 he told Cecil Beaton that he "studied his own 'facade' " and confessed, "I take ruthless stock of myself in the mirror before going out. A polo jumper or unfortunate tie exposes one to danger." All the vigilant elements of his armour - the jauntily clipped speech (originally developed to conceal a lisp), the flippancy and sentiment, the polished exterior - were adopted by a certain type of queen. Like Wilde, Coward helped create the modern queer. And like Wilde, he played with the conventions of romantic comedy to fashion a body of work that, at its best, is passionate, bitter and rude.

Noel Coward's complete works are republished by Methuen; "Private Lives" continues its run in rep at the National Theatre (0171-452 3000)

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war