All Hail Saint Noël! The Master Canonized, Again

Call me an old killjoy, if you must, but I find I can’t take much more of the Noël Coward 100th-birthday celebrations. They seem to have been going on for a century. Not since the centennial of the birth of Queen Victoria have we known anything like it. Why, Shakespeare himself never had it so good.

Only yesterday, my local Salvation Army Santa was ringing his bell, beaming as he sang, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Well, I’m kidding. He was singing, “Even Clergymen Are Naughty Now and Then,” followed by a rousing rendition of “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.”

The myth of Coward’s birth is quite well known by now. Baby Noël was born on Dec. 16, 1899, in a barn in South London. Three kings of showbiz followed a star to his ever so humble home where his Mum proudly declared: “I’m mad about the boy. I know I’m potty, but I’m mad about the boy. He sets me ‘eart on fire with love’s desire, in fact I’ve got it bad about the boy.” And the three kings knelt before the cot of Baby Noël, who was looking as inscrutable as a heavily doped Chinese illusionist, and asked his Mum: “Has the lad ever thought of a life on the boards?”

“Oooh,” said his Mum. “We were rather ‘oping for a life at sea. You know what I always say? Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington. Don’t put your daughter on the stage. Well, there’s something in that, mark my words.” And the three kings of showbiz replied in unison: “But we’re mad about the boy! It’s simply scrumptious to be mad about the boy!”

And the rest is a little too much history, I’m afraid. It’s true-as the Master said about himself-that he adored criticism as long as it was unalloyed praise. But the centennial elevation of Noël Coward to sainthood is surely too exalted even for him. We are suffering from unalloyed overload. On both sides of the Atlantic, from sea to shining sea, we continue the indiscriminate celebration of Saint Noël with praise for absolutely everything he ever wrote, including I and T.

Naturally his plays and musicals are being revived-though from major to minor to terribly minor. Coward was his own invention, as John Osborne said about him admiringly. And Coward himself famously and shrewdly defined his talent as “a talent to amuse.” To amuse, to entertain-to cheer us all up-is no small, stylish thing. To write, as Coward did, two or three of the best light comedies in the English language is to be on intimate terms with posterity.

But, alas, it isn’t enough for those of his admirers who worship at the shrine. Coward’s most recent biographer, Philip Hoare, is a revisionist case in point. He makes claims for the current Broadway revival of Coward’s near-forgotten 1960 Waiting in the Wings that the play can’t possibly fulfill. Set in a retirement home for actresses, the wry comedy isn’t quite the metaphysical poem on death that Mr. Hoare suggests it is. Nor-as he also claims astonishingly-is it for a single second influenced by Harold Pinter, of all innocent people. He’s got Cowardesque so mixed up with Pinteresque, it’s burlesque!

The pleasure of the Broadway production of Waiting in the Wings , starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, is found less in one of the Master’s last plays, and wholly in the winning ways of its delightful ensemble. Here I ought to mention, perhaps, that I know Ms. Bacall and am glad to know her. Or as Coward might have put it with an arched eyebrow: “Must we have full disclosure, dear?” It’s just great to see the lady back on stage again.

A Bacall is a Bacall is a Bacall. She’s playing some old broad called Lotta in a retirement home, if you please. Ms. Bacall herself is not about to retire at any time-anywhere. She’s not the retiring kind. But no matter! She touches us and is a beautiful foil to Rosemary Harris’ lofty grande dame, May Davenport, played by Ms. Harris with the hauteur of a Duchess of Devonshire gracing all with her regal presence and needlepoint.

The two stars and the big ensemble of great character actors-including Barnard Hughes, Dana Ivey, Simon Jones, Patricia Conolly and, particularly, Rosemary Murphy and Elizabeth Wilson-keep Waiting in the Wings afloat. There’s only one thing wrong with the play-the play. Its creaky sentimentality was clobbered by the critics in 1960, and the same will happen today. The script has been revised by one Jeremy Sams (which will have Coward spinning in his grave). The production has the peculiar credit, “As Revisited by Jeremy Sams.” And we trust Mr. Sams won’t be revisiting again any time soon. No Coward he. He’s cut an onstage death scene lest-I can only guess-the matinee crowd drops dead with fright.

What actually happens in the play? Lotta and May have had a 30-year feud (which will be bravely resolved with stiff upper lips); one beloved poor dear, an unexpected pyromaniac, tries to set fire to the retirement home (and will have to be carted off to the nut house); a ruthless lady journalist-who’s really a good egg-writes an undercover story about them all (for reasons I couldn’t quite follow); a 100-year-old offstage character dies suddenly during a jolly New Year’s Eve sing-along; Lotta’s surly prodigal son returns briefly; and there’s a question whether or not enough money can be raised to build a solarium.

As if that weren’t excitement enough, there’s also a theater outing within the play when the ladies who wait in the wings go to the London Palladium to see a heartthrob who plays the zither. A zither ? At the dawning of the Age of Aquarius?

Had Coward laced any of this uninspired stuff of his later years with his customary sustained wit, no one would give a hoot about the plot, such as it is. But we needn’t belabor the point any further. For once, with the Master who from 1930 to 1941 wrote his masterly works, Private Lives , Design for Living , Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter , the play isn’t the thing. With Waiting in the Wings , the actors are.

All Hail Saint Noël! The Master Canonized, Again