Noël Coward at the End
When I was still a teenager and interested in all things theatrical, I had an LP of Noël Coward in Concert that included “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” perhaps the signature song of the British entertainer, playwright, and composer, who would shortly reach the end of his lengthy and successful career. (He died in 1973). Coward’s twilight years are imaginatively reconstructed in Janette Jenkins’s delightful romp: Firefly. The novel speculates about Coward’s declining years at Firefly, in Blue Harbor, Jamaica, where he owned property. The novel suggests that—like the firefly itself—this phase of Coward’s life will quickly burn out. It’s an engaging metaphor successfully employed by Jenkins who has obviously read every scrap of information about the man, though there are other colorful personalities whose lives also sputtered at the end of their careers (many of them mentioned in the novel): Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland to name only three.
In 1971, the time of Jenkins’s story, Coward (Sir Noël Coward, mind you) is seventy-one years. He’s frail, wears false teeth, and pretty much survives on booze and sleeping pills. A household of retainers take care of him—most important is Patrice, who wants Coward to take him to London so that he can get a job at the Ritz. Clearly, Patrice realizes that Coward’s days are numbered. He’s decent, not unfaithful, but he’s waiting and, in fact, eventually gets Coward to write him a letter of recommendation for the Ritz position. And that might be said to be the major event of the otherwise inert story. I don’t mean for that statement to be negative because it’s not plot that propels the story but Coward’s colorful memories of his flamboyant life, especially his early theatrical successes. He was famous and he never let anyone forget it. He knew everyone, or as he liked to say, everyone knew him.
Much of the story is given over to Coward’s memories–and many of them are sexual. During the era in which he lived (and especially during the declining years) Conrad would have been regarded as a flaming faggot, though by the time of the story he appears to be impotent. Still, he can’t stop recalling all the men he’s picked up–in public toilets, in bars, and on the street. ”Boys. There had always been boys.” Most of the images that float through his memories or in this dreams begin with specific references to the theater or people he knew much earlier in his life and then they segue into his more erotic fantasies:
“He pictures nude young men glistening with oil. Rooms appear with tasseled silk cushions thrown across the floor, towers of fruit, small turquoise pools. Gold. A debauched sultan’s palace. He watches a plump Arab boy. A curly-headed blonde. The Greek type. He watches Graham [one of his lovers] going at it hammer and tongs with someone else. A stranger. A groaner. But you can’t plan your dreams and the men evaporate into the darkness. They shrug their shoulders and throw him a wave as they close the door firmly behind them.”
Notice that Coward is watching, not participating. The dialogue is often explicit, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Coward seems much older than his actual years. “The tired, flabby weight of his body” befuddles him. The memories of his childhood growing up in a boarding house are followed by those of his early successes (at age twenty-five) in the theatre. In his old age, they seem like another life, a totally different era. On one occasion, in the present time, he overhears two school girls talking about him. “He’s famous…. Or he used to be. He wrote all those awful stuffy plays about the aristocracy. You know, they had butlers, wore silk dressing gowns, they puffed their fags through long cigarette holders and (she affects a high snooty voice) ‘Could somebody pass me a cocktail?’”
And, sure enough—as in the lyrics of his celebrated song—this bitter, old Englishman goes out in the Jamaican mid-day sun and gets sunstroke. As the antidote to his illness and Patrice’s eventual departure, Sir Noël Coward retreats to his bed and reads a book from his childhood. That book and the others from his formative years that appear frequently in Firefly imply an arrested childhood, a refusal to grow up. The early books may have been the cause. Too much Peter Pan.
Janette Jenkins: Firefly
Europa Editions, 165 pp., $15
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.