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Noel, Noel.

Noel Coward never said he was gay. But his hints helped pave the way for today's openness

During a career that spanned more than half a century, most of it spent in the heady glare of footlights or flashbulbs, he never came clean. Noel Coward, the gifted Englishman who would have celebrated his 100th birthday in December, went to his grave without publicly acknowledging his homosexuality. Though his stature is unassailable--as an actor, playwright, director, screenwriter, composer, lyricist, novelist, painter, and bon vivant, he was arguably the most versatile talent of our time--Coward's silence might seem to make him the most politically incorrect gay icon of the 20th century.

But revolutions are not won overnight, and aggressive stands against oppression have a disturbing tendency to backfire in unpleasant ways (see late--18th-century France or 20th-century Russia). Coward was born in 1899, on the cusp of a new century but just a few years after Oscar Wilde was jailed for sodomy. He lived in fear that a similar fate might befall him, and even as he endlessly courted the public eye, he studiously kept his sex life a secret.

And yet, in a paradox that Wilde would have appreciated, Coward--more than any other playwright and possibly any other artist--paved the way for the growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality that marked the past hundred years. For if his wildly popular plays--Private Lives, Hay Fever, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter--all feature superficially heterosexual plots and characters, they are also coded depictions of situations and attitudes that by the end of the century would be clearly recognizable as the gay male experience.

There were plenty of clues. In Design for Living the tug-of-war between Otto and Leo for Gilda is a war neither wants to win: The real battle is against social and sexual restrictions of all kinds. (In fact, Otto, Leo, and Gilda wind up in a happy menage a trois.) And when Leo vanquishes Gilda's straitlaced lover Ernest at the curtain ("We have our own decencies ... we have our own ethics"), it's hard not to think Coward was expecting certain members of the audience to read between the lines.

In Present Laughter the promiscuity and flamboyance of self-absorbed actor Garry Essendine are the play's very subject, with bisexuality occasionally hinted at, as when the butler announces, "The gentleman's in the office, and the lady's in the spare room, if you want either of them." In Private Lives Elyot and Amanda volubly and mutually disdain the "normal"--the play is an insistent debunking of the conventions of heterosexual romance by a pair of incessantly flippant heterosexuals.

In essence Coward acclimated English society to a homosexual sensibility before it realized what it was welcoming into the parlor. He gave audiences a taste for the irreverence and artifice of camp that couldn't be erased when its link to gay experience was finally acknowledged. It has been a staple of our stages, screens, and living rooms ever since.

It thus seems appropriate to be celebrating his birthday on the eve of a new millennium. London tributes have included well-received productions of several Coward works, most prominently Song at Twilight--Coward's only play to deal overtly with homosexuality--currently playing in the West End and starring Corin and Vanessa Redgrave.

New York joined the party with Twiggy in the Coward-Gertrude Lawrence tribute If Love Were All this summer, followed by Elaine Stritch's briefly reprising her starring role in the 1961 musical Sail Away, a Carnegie Hall concert tribute on December 3, and the first Broadway production of Waiting in the Wings, starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, which opened on December 16, Coward's birthday.

Critic Kenneth Tynan once observed, "Even the youngest of us will know in 50 years' time what we meant by a `very Noel Coward sort of person.'" Indeed. Without really speaking its name, Coward put homosexual experience center stage, and audiences delighted in it. He made it as Indispensable to civilized culture as the dry martini.

RELATED ARTICLE: Barbed ire

Onstage and off, Coward was king of the verbal put-down, Here, a taste of the master's wit

Noel Coward called such luminaries as Dietrich, Garland, Burton, Taylor, Sinatra, the Oliviers, and the queen mother his friends. They called him "the master," partly due to their awe of his peerless, sometimes scabrous wit--a weapon he unleashed liberally on friends and foes alike.

On learning of the self-inflicted death of a rather dim actor acquaintance, Coward asked how he'd died. When told the man had "shot his brains out," Coward commented, "He must have been a marvelous shot!"

He could conjure the perfect retort in any situation. As he exited the stage door of a West End theater, the usual assemblage of star seekers and autograph hounds waited outside. One brave soul approached him and inquired, "How did you like the play, Mr. Coward?" Coward--who hadn't--tactfully responded, "I liked the acting enormously." "I didn't even like the acting," said the stage-door critic, "but who am I to argue with a self-appointed genius?" "Precisely, my dear, who indeed?" came the riposte as Coward climbed into his waiting limousine.

To his credit, Coward didn't shy away from turning his acid tongue on himself. When asked why he accepted a part in the film Around the World in Eighty Days, he answered, "I was fascinated to see that the script described my role as `superior and ineffably smug.' It was clearly typecasting."--Jeremy Kinser

Charles Isherwood is chief theater critic for Variety.
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Title Annotation:Noel Coward's conveyed a homosexual aura, although Coward never admitted being a homesexual himself
Author:Isherwood, Charles
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 18, 2000
Words:913
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