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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