Remembered for his immaculate style, blade-sharp wit and a sense of flamboyant poise alongside his richly prolific career, Noël Coward is an undeniable icon of British theatre and film. Though, in spite of his numerous successes, Coward follows the tradition of virtually all great creatives. To contrast the peaks of one’s career, there must also be failures. To fail is to open a door; enabling these lows to bloom into greatness. Find out more here in Mad About The Boy.
Image on the left courtesy of Margaret London
“I don’t believe in astrology. The only stars I can blame for my failures are those that walk about the stage.”
Image courtesy of Margaret London
From Design for Living to Blithe Spirit, Coward’s plays continue to see revivals decades on from their initial heyday. There is an enduring appeal to his style of skilful humour and the lens through which he depicts the pettiness of upper-middle class society. To watch any interview with Coward is to understand that the wit demonstrated in his work was part of his very being. Effortlessly charismatic and with an endless flow of intelligence and humour always to hand, Coward could be summed up simply as ‘sharp’.
“Thousands of people have talent. I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head. The one and only thing that counts is: do you have staying power?”
However, this perceived ease is not necessarily a reflection of the entire reality of Coward’s career. Prior to his first critical and financial success, in the form of 1924 play The Vortex, many a scathing quote can be found in various reviews of his earliest works.
“When Mr Coward has learned that tea-table chitter-chatter had better remain the prerogative of women he will write more interesting plays than he now seems likely to write.”
St. John Greer Ervine
Had such reviews deterred Coward, we would now be left without classic comedies such as Fallen Angels and Hay Fever. Both of these plays arrived in the aftermath of The Vortex’s success. However, a perhaps overlooked yet recurring theme in Coward’s life and career appears to be one of turbulence.
Three years after the rave reviews and financial success of The Vortex and the productions that followed, Sirocco debuts in 1927 and is met with boos and a largely unfavourable critical reception. The first flop after Coward’s recent successes.
“Well, if I’m going to have a flop, I like it to be a rouser. I didn’t despair at all. What made it much more interesting was that my mother, who is slightly deaf, thought the booing was cheering.”
Image courtesy of Margaret London
A flop wouldn’t get in the way of Coward quickly becoming one of the world’s highest-earning writers by 1929. However, in a return to writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, Coward saw yet another dip in his career as his works of the 1940s and 1950s failed to match the popularity of previous plays.
But the pattern of peaks and valleys in his career would continue and this was the case throughout his whole life. As a chameleon of professions, Coward was impossible to pin-down. Acting, singing, writing, directing; jumping from one thing to another and always with unmatched suave and charm, perhaps his odds of getting stuck in a rut simply didn’t exist.
Failures nestled amongst often staggering achievements are sometimes overshadowed when taking a retrospective look at creative greats throughout history. However, to overlook these lower points is to disregard their importance. Without them, there wouldn’t be the motivation or space for a comeback. You can find many instances of this across many creative fields.
When you think of iconic, influential designers, one of the first names that likely springs to mind is Yves Saint Laurent. As a pioneer of modern womenswear, Saint Laurent popularised what had been viewed as typically ‘masculine’ fashion for female wearers with perhaps the most famous of these innovations being the legendary Le Smoking tuxedo suit.
“I prefer to shock rather than to bore through repetition.”
Yves Saint Laurent
Before the beloved house of Yves Saint Laurent came to be, Saint Laurent would face hardships in both his personal life and his design career. Having progressed from an assistant to Christian Dior to head designer of the house in 1957, succeeding his mentor, at the age of 21, Saint Laurent had a glowing career at an unfathomably young age. His 1957 collection was met with wide appeal from both the public and press and Saint Laurent was met with stardom.
However, the following year, this approval was proven to be fleeting. Fall 1958 could be considered the first great blow to Saint Laurent’s career and would start a domino effect of misfortune that gained momentum in 1960 with his conscription to the military. Rumours circulated that efforts to pressure the government out of conscripting Saint Laurent had actually been reversed as a result of the poorly received 1958 collection.
After 20 traumatic days in the French Army, Saint Laurent would be admitted to hospital as the result of stress from hazing rituals at the hands of fellow soldiers. Here, he not only sustained heavy sedation and electroshock therapy but received the news that he had been fired from Dior.
Following this news, Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé went on to found their own fashion house: Yves Saint Laurent. And the rest is history. It’s impossible to imagine where fashion would be today without Saint Laurent’s revolutionary collections and how the landscape of womenswear would now look had he never faced career-changing failure at Dior.
“Chanel freed women, and I empowered them.”
Yves Saint Laurent
What about a legendary performer of an entirely different field? Pop icon Cher is one of the biggest names in music. She has persisted as an icon throughout her decades of stardom but with the peaks of her career there have been numerous lows from which she has bounced back.
Depending on your generation, you are maybe most familiar with a particular version of Cher. It could be the charismatic co-host of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour; maybe it’s the face gracing the silver screen in Moonstruck or The Witches of Eastwick; or perhaps the autotune-drenched vocals of pop classic Believe. She is a chameleon in the world of entertainment.
“All of us invent ourselves. Some of us just have more imagination than others.“
But, arguably, each evolution in her career has bloomed in the aftermath of failure. The biggest of her comebacks is perhaps 1998’s Believe. After the disappointing performance of her ‘unconventional’ 1995 album It’s A Man’s World, Cher leaned into dance music. This is a move she had been reluctant to make but, after years of songwriting efforts, the eponymous hit single from Believe would be born.
An instant hit, this track reached the no.1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. This was the second time in Cher’s career that this had been achieved with a 33-year gap between Believe’s success and her previous no.1 on the chart in the form of I Got You Babe. This newfound success re-solidified her status as a musical force to be reckoned with and demonstrated that sometimes a low point in one’s career can be the perfect launchpad for innovation.
“You can be sad for one verse, but you can’t be sad for two.”
To look at these three very disparate figures in popular culture; Cher, Yves Saint Laurent and Noël Coward; it may not be immediately obvious that they would share similarities in their careers. However, the common denominator amongst their biggest successes is the significance of failure as a predecessor. We are all familiar with the dramatic image of the phoenix rising from the ashes. This is a metaphor that can be applied to creative output in the face of adversity or disappointment.
Mad About The Boy- The Noël Coward Story, a film chronicling the icon of stage and screen’s life, sees a cinematic release across the UK and Ireland on 2nd June. Narrated by Alan Cumming and with Rupert Everett as the voice of Noël Coward, this collage of archival material, unseen home videos and fascinating stories is not to be missed.
You can find out more about the film on Altitude Film Entertainment’s website Here
If you enjoyed reading Mad About The Boy, why not try Murakami on Screen.
.Cent Magazine, London. Be Inspired; Get Involved.