Noel: the last stately homo of England?

Homosexuality was once the love that dared not speak its name. Some gay men preferred it that way.

"The only thing that really saddens me over my demise is that I shall not be here to read the nonsense that will be written about me... There will be books proving conclusively that I was homosexual and books proving that I was not. There will be detailed and inaccurate analyses of my motives for writing this or that... What a pity I shan't be here to enjoy them!"

It is a pity that Noel Coward isn't here to enjoy dissection of his motives, for in the run up to next year's centenary of his birth, analysis shall be plentiful. This week alone, a three-part Arena documentary begins on BBC2, two photographic exhibitions examining the Coward image open and an album of Coward's greatest hits, Twentieth Century Blues - with accompanying concert-film - has been arranged to raise money for the Red Hot Aids Charitable Trust.

Which is ironic. Coward's attitude towards the relationship between entertainment and social education was blunt. As he once famously snapped: "If it's a play with a message, I shan't dress."

Further irony: Blues has been executive-produced by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. Like Coward, Tennant is a composer, lyricist, iconic celebrity, he possesses the qualifactions to be seen as a Cowardian artist - including the element of homosexuality. As a gay artist - or artist who is gay - Tennant has made the personal and political tracery of his sexuality very much the subtext of his performance. Decades apart, he shares with Coward the artistic implication of his homosexuality - as wit, melancholy or critique - rather than announcing a separatist declaration. When Tennant "came out" four years ago, he reversed the usual sensationalism attendant on such statements by assuming that everyone knew already - itself a neat example of Cowardian paradox. And also a casual way of saying that, like Coward, he was not about to be co-opted into anyone's agenda.

This irony is intensified, not so much by the fact that Coward disliked pop music (he thought the Beatles "talentless") or plays with messages, but by the Master's deep disapproval, as a gay man, of publicly flaunted sexuality. "Any sexual activities when over-advertised are tasteless", he remarked in his Diaries, displaying the fastidious self-control out of which he had created himself as an ultra-English genius.

Despite his avoidance of "intellectual" circles, Coward can be linked to Auden and Forster as a modernist artist, whose homosexuality found its voice through social satire. With a gay manipulation of the line of mannered English wit, artists such as Coward and Auden could disguise devastating critiques of English society as fashionable entertainment. It was only when the disguise was exposed, as in the case of Wilde, that a betrayed society felt the need for revenge.

A consequence of the post-Wildean atmosphere was to create a homosexual underground in which the codification of feelings was a daily necessity. And in any assessment of Coward's genius, however harshly PC or sensitive to the oppression of the times, one is faced with an accomplished wearer of masks for whom ambivalence would be the dynamo of internal contradiction which sparked his creativity. As Leo in Design For Living declares: "It's all a question of brittle painted masks. We wear them as protection. Modern life forces us to."

In this much, Coward as the dandyfied socialite whose true sexuality was forced to be covert, is related by temperament to Marcel Proust's self-diagnosis as "the many gentlemen of whom I am comprised". Coward was perhaps less concerned with the political significance of his sexuality (see box) than he was by the translation of his many selves - from Nicky the Oedipally-fixated dope fiend in The Vortex to Captain Kinross in In Which We Serve - into the esperanto of popular entertainment. Reinterpreted, the entire span of Coward's career takes on a secondary role as an act of disclosure, accompanied by a gradual thawing of the social climate towards homosexuality.

For homosexual men throughout the inter-war years, and beyond to the Wolfenden Report of 1955 and the De-criminalisation Act of 1967, the trajectory of Coward's invention of himself can be taken as a mirror of their own predicament. As Quentin Crisp discovered in the 1930s, there was great hostility towards a "self-evident and effeminate homosexual" not simply from the bigots within heterosexual society, but also from the straight- acting mass of covert homosexuals. This situation gives added pathos to the conclusion of Coward's diary entry concerning the "tasteless" advertisment of sexuality: "...as long as these barbarous laws exist it should be remembered that homosexuality is a penal offence and should be considered as such socially, although not morally. This places on the natural homo a burden of responsibility to himself, his friends and society which he is too prone to forget."

Such an attitude seems to mark the point where a "Noelism" becomes a personal policy decision, demanding fortitude in the face of injustice. Thus, for Coward to be perceived as a dashing, heterosexual matinee idol, came his admission to Cecil Beaton that "one must dress in armour every day".

In his biography, Philip Hoare stresses Coward's powers of objective self-invention as a means of getting away with coded homosexual wit, and, more importantly, the psychological stresses of being forced to live in hiding with regard to sexuality. Referring to the Coward classic, Green Carnations, Hoare comments: "It was Noel's comment on the Uranian decadents, purveyors of a camp sensibility he eschewed. The homosexual overtone was an `open secret'; the audience privately understood, but pretended otherwise." In Design For Living the conclusion of the sexual algebra between the two male and one female characters has been defined by John Lahr as "the victory of the disguised gay world over the straight one". Shocking for its period, Design For Living also shows Coward as someone who may be hoping to be found out. Put together, the avant-garde sexuality of The Vortex and Design For Living, when joined by Green Carnations, shows an artist who has made his private prison the subject-matter of his public art. He could not have done more to employ his "talent to amuse" as self- defence.

In "I'll Follow My Secret Heart", from Conversation Piece, Coward makes a statement of emotional intent which could find its rock equivalent in John Lennon's lament for Brian Epstein, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away". And this continual relationship with a masked identity would stay with Coward to his play, Song At Twilight, produced in the more sexually relaxed Sixties. The principal characters of Carlotta and Latymer can be seen as representing Coward's opposed natures and, perhaps, even a "coming out". Carlotta attempts to blackmail Latymer with the love letters he once wrote to a young man. He refuses to be blackmailed. Coward claimed the character was based on Somerset Maugham.

Ultimately, it is the tension between the desire to be open and the instinct to remain closed which provided Coward with the complex identity that made his mere presence, and last film appearance, in The Italian Job a profound statement about Englishness, honesty and irony. Coward understood the strength to be gained from keeping people guessing. To claim him now as a further diamond in the gay crown jewels misunderstands and misrepresents the deadly serious side of Coward's nature that rose above all personal pain: "One's real inside self is a private place, and should always stay like that. It is no one else's business."

Secrecy can hurt the soul but it is, as always, the greater part of glamour.

Designs on life

"The Times came out with the news that the magistrate's court in London had voted down the proposed plan for altering the barbarous law about homosexuality. It is hard to believe, in this scientific, psychiatric age... that a group of bigoted old gentlemen should have the power to make British justice a laughing stock. To regard homosexuality either as a disease or a vice is, as we know, archaic and ignorant. To attempt by law or punishment to eliminate it is as foolish as to try to eliminate hair colouring and skin pigmentation." November 1955

"I have read The Charioteer by Miss Renault. I'd wish she stick to recreating the glory that was Greece and not fuck about with dear old modern homos." August 1960

"The Homosexual Bill has passed through the House of Commons with a majority of 55 votes. I read the debate in the Telegraph. Really, some of the opposition speeches were so bigoted, ignorant and silly that one can hardly believe that adult minds... should be so basically idiotic... Nothing will convince the bigots, but the blackmailers will be discouraged and fewer haunted, terrified young men will commit suicide." February 1966

"It's not that I'm homosexual constantly, it is just that I give them a helping hand from time to time." March 1966

Extracts from `Noel Coward's Diaries', Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pounds 15

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    General Cover Teacher

    £120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:TEACHERS REQUIREDWe are...

    Year 6 Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistant ...

    Year 4 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently recruiting...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?