- Noël Coward and the Avuncular Shaw
A child actor since he was eleven, Noël Coward spent nine months in the British army in 1918, after which roles like Slightly in Peter Pan and the schoolboy Charley in Charley’s Aunt were no longer credible. As a juvenile, he had often played opposite Esmé Wynne, already known for the children’s musical Where the Rainbow Ends, which included Coward, Hermione Gingold, and Jack Hawkins. Prematurely political, Esmé fueled Coward’s rebellious nature. “We were rooted and grounded in Bernard Shaw who said the majority were always wrong,” and like G.B.S. they were wartime pacifists; yet as Coward reached draft age, he was called up, proved medically fragile and was invalided out before the Armistice. Seeking parts he could play himself once he became twenty on 16 December 1919, he wrote a comedy, I’ll Leave It to You, which, despite good notices, closed in five weeks. It was his fourth attempt, the earlier three written and wisely discarded by the time he was seventeen.
Trying his hand at fiction at eighteen, before his army call-up, he had written a novel, Cats and Dogs, after Shaw’s comedy You Never Can Tell, with a pert pair based on G.B.S.’s teenage twins Philip and Dolly. According to Coward’s biographer Cole Lesley, Coward’s “bright young things prattled away with unparalleled vivacity for nearly eighty thousand words until the story mercifully and untidily came to an end.” It seemed unpublishable, but he recalled it after he saw a matinée of Shaw’s comedy at the Garrick, and in 1921, chancing that he could play the impetuous brother if he were aged somewhat, Coward turned the novel he had “filched unscrupulously” from Shaw (as he described it at a literary luncheon forty-three years later) into a play, The Young Idea. Coward’s stage brother and sister, rather than twins, as in Shaw, were now twenty-one and eighteen. [End Page 156]
To display his own characters where their inhibitions might be loosened, Shaw set his comedy at a beachfront resort hotel; Coward moved the action to a lodge in hunt country. You Never Can Tell had focused its irony on the encounters with staid Victorian manners of the play’s precocious twins, who had grown up in sunny Madeira under their feminist mother’s tutelage. Coward had first learned of the world beyond London at fifteen, when he was invited by the socialite Mrs. Astley Cooper, an eccentric “old duck” enchanted by his acting, to her country house at Hambleton Hall, and then to her Italian villa at Alassio. The Madeira of You Never Can Tell became Lombardy, and added Continental sophistication to young Coward’s ripening social verve. Shaw’s play, the exotic backgrounds for his impertinent siblings and the mothering Mrs. Cooper in Alassio, contributed most of the ingredients to The Young Idea, which Coward updated from the 1890s with postwar pleasure-seekers and their openly easy morals.
Confessing his guilt about the obvious plagiarism, but hoping to see the comedy staged, Coward offered his script to John Vedrenne, who had produced Shaw’s plays in the great Court Theatre seasons (1904–7) and beyond. Although Coward feared Shaw’s wrath, Vedrenne sent the script to G.B.S., asking if he had any objections. Shaw returned the pages promptly with constructive interlinear comments to the author, including suggestions for rewriting the last act. Still, when Vedrenne told Shaw that he was unpersuaded about production and was returning Coward’s pages, G.B.S. on 27 June 1921 wrote encouragingly to the young playwright, whom he did not realize had intended to play the key role himself,
I gather from Mr Vedrenne that he turned the play down because he had some misgivings about trying to repeat the old success of the twins in You Never Can Tell, and was not quite sure that you had pulled off the final scene which I suggested. But when once a manager has entertained a play at all, his reasons for discarding it are pretty sure to be business and circumstantial ones...