Noel Coward: On writing

N CowardWent to see one of Noel Coward’s earlier plays, Fallen Angels, last week in Brighton. A very enjoyable light romp he penned back in 1925. It was well-acted and hugely entertaining. We stumped up a few quid for the programme book too and this was particularly good in that it contained a short biography of Coward and some quotable quotes. This one particularly caught my attention:

“When I’m writing I’m at my desk and hope that by lunchtime something will have happened. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until about ten to one. Sometimes it flows from the word go. You can’t tell. But you can only do it by doing it regularly. My advice to aspiring actors is to write, and try where possible in doing so to use a little critical faculty. Sit down at the desk and wait until something happens. Write. Work, and above all read everything you can lay your hands on. All of Shakespeare, all of Shaw, all Dickens. It’s quite enough to feed the brain and I find when reading a great classic I nearly always come away with knowledge and a penny.”

In popular memory, Coward comes across as a brilliant and witty dilettante, perfectly at home in the high society of his era, a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We think of him arising at midday to dash off a three-act play before running out for a dinner with visiting Hollywood A-listers. But this was a studied persona he cultivated carefully. After all, he was an actor himself. In fact, Coward was a hard worker who often drove himself relentlessly in achieving what he wanted out of his craft. He may have affected an air of witty aloofness but behind this image was a writer who laboured long and hard, often insecure about how his work, and he himself, would be perceived by others. And his words of advice above appear sound wisdom based on experience. Don’t stop writing. Read everything you can.

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