Over the years, as devoted lovers of theatre, TACT has looked to early works by great writers as a way to gain further insight into their work. This season our Salon Series will be focusing exclusively on the very first works – written, published, or produced – of four iconic writers: two American and two from Great Britain.
Our first rarity of the season comes to us from an extremely young Noël Coward, written in 1919 when he was just 19. Coward, who was born into an unexceptional suburban Middlesex middle class family, was determined at a very early age to be something special. He began to work professionally as an actor at the age of 11 and apart from a brief nine months spent in the British Army – a minor head injury secured him an early honorable medical discharge – continued to work in the theatre as an actor, playwright, song writer, director, and manager, until he died in 1973.
I’ll Leave It To You began at the suggestion of Broadway producer Gilbert Miller. Miller, who had taken an early interest in Coward, gave him an outline for a light comedy Miller wanted written for Charles Hawtrey, a popular comedian of the day, and, coincidentally, a performer Noël had worked with as a child and had particularly admired. “I was always extremely wary,” wrote Noël later, “of writing based on someone else’s idea, but I was hardly in any position, as an unproduced playwright and out-of-work actor and failed song-writer, to turn down Gilbert’s suggestion. In three days I completed this amiable, innocuous and deeply unpretentious little comedy.”
Miller seemed reasonably pleased and agreed to present the play at the Gaiety, Manchester, in April 1920, stating that, if all were to go well, the show would move to London and be offered to Mr. Hawtrey.
Set right after the Great War, I’ll Leave It To You finds a family of sibling slackers and their distraught mother caught short of cash and prospects in the economic downturn. Enter a long lost uncle with a life-threatening malady, mining interests in South American and promises of a bequeathal with some interesting strings attached.
“The dialogue on the whole was amusing and unpretentious, and the construction was not bad,” Noël noted, “I was naturally entranced with it, and had the foresight to write myself a wonderful part, and, at least in Manchester, my youth seemed to attract some attention in the press.’
The Manchester Guardian was one publication that concurred: “Mr. Coward’s new play is perhaps the neatest thing of its sort we have had lately in Manchester.” Other local reviews were good, and one ran the first-ever profile on the young Noël : “There is something freakish, Puck-like about the narrow slant of his grey-green eyes, the tilt of his eyebrows, the sleek backward rush of his hair. He is lithe as a fawn; and if you told him, with perfect truth, that he was one of the best three dancers in London, his grieved surprise at hearing of the other two would only be equaled by his incredulity.” Somewhat prophetic, no?
Despite the play’s successful first week, the wives of Gilbert Miller and Charles Hawtrey appeared in Noël ’s dress-room to announce that, on reflection, the play didn’t have a hope of being a hit in London and they were off to cable their husbands accordingly. Noël, undefeated and enraged, went out and promptly found new management: Lady Wyndham (formerly the actress Mary Moore – the widow of Sir Charles Wyndham who had built the well-known British theatre chain). Noël, still six months shy of his twenty-first birthday, had to have his father sign the contact on his behalf.
‘I’ll Leave It To You’ opened at the Wyndham’s New Theatre (which today, interestingly enough, is called The Noël Coward Theatre) in London on July 21, 1920 to first night cheers and generally good reviews. Critics were clearly impressed by Noël’s announcement that he had written the whole thing in three days, “whereas often my plays take me a whole week.” The notices , however, were not selling ones and in the middle of summer – and a terrible heat wave – the play performed a mere thirty-seven performances.
Yet it did Coward considerable good. The Scotsman called him “an amazing youth” and The Sunday Chronicle dubbed him “an infant prodigy.” There were also several “Boy Author Makes Good” press profiles; in one of which Lady Wyndham described Noël as “Britain’s Sacha Guitry. “In The Daily Mail Coward gave a detailed glimpse into his writing technique: ‘With “I’ll Leave It To You,” I wrote the first and last acts within a day, working from nine to five with, of course, a short lunch break. The second act took me two days – it was very much harder. I roughly schemed out the plot and then I let the play take its own way. I find all the technical details, of entrances and exits and so on, just work themselves out as I write at white heat…I hardly alter the line of the play once it is written.” Coward also managed to sell the amateur rights to the play to Samuel French and an American production (his first in the US) opened in Boston in 1923. Noël himself admitted to The Globe: “The success of it all has been a bit dazzling. This may be an age of youth, but it does not always happen that young people get their chance of success. I have been exceptionally lucky; I made up my mind that I would have one of my plays produced in London by the time I was twenty, and I hope to soon be my own manager as well.”
Coward went on to do just that a so much more: playwright, composer, lyricist, director, actor and performer of stage, screen and cabaret performer his name has become synonymous with elegant sophisticated insouciance. And we knew him when…