“Caviar or Marmalade? Reassessing Nöel Coward”

MLA Special Session

Thursday, 7 January 2016, 12:00-1:15PM

“Caviar or Marmalade? Reassessing Nöel Coward” considers anew a central figure of twentieth-century popular culture, reading as literature and appreciating as cultural critique the work of this celebrated playwright, poet, composer, journalist, wit, dandy, bon vivant, and spy. Despite the vertical expansion of the new modernist studies to encompass popular culture, Coward remains a marginal figure within the field, yet he stands ripe for reappraisal, just as Wilde did half a century ago. This special session will cast Coward as an object for ongoing scholarly critique by inviting discussion about Coward’s unique contributions to, as well as his particular perspective on, subjects including genre, identity, critical inheritance, and modernism. The session will feature three papers and will conclude with a fifteen-minute Q&A.

Penelope Farfan’s “Designs for Living: Nöel Coward’s Modernism” investigates Coward’s self-reflexive engagement with modernism and examines the ways in which Design for Living links modernist artistic practice to the transformation of conventional heterosexual relationships. Taking the aesthetic self-reflexivity and social renovations of Design for Living as a cue and considering the play’s extensions of Ibsen’s thematic concerns, Farfan examines Coward’s particular modernism as well as what is at stake in the designation “modernist” for Coward studies and in a “modernist Coward.” Samuel Gladden’s “Fallen Angels: Coward Resuscitates Wilde” finds in Fallen Angels an echo of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, albeit one inflected by the decades between Coward’s work and Wilde’s. Gladden argues that Fallen Angels collapses late-Victorian distinctions of gender and propriety to offer up a set piece at once decadent and progressive, wallowing in self-indulgence while gesturing toward a new model for relationships, romance, and rhetorical play and calling for new possibilities in identity, performance, and desire in the age to come—all tendencies apparent in other major works, including Hay Fever and The Vortex. Sos Eltis’s “Repression and Restraint: Coward’s Staging of Character and the Unspoken” reflects on Coward’s 1969 diary entry decrying modern trends in literature and the theatre and argues that Coward’s juxtaposition of restraint with garishness and subtlety with vulgarity valorizes the tangential understatement, subtextual undercurrents, and tactical flippancy that characterized Coward’s comic dialogue and required an acting style rooted in restraint. Eltis investigates Coward’s concept of identity in Easy Virtue, Post Mortem, and A Song at Twilight to show how that concept develops across the decades and to interrogate how his notions of repression, restraint, desire, instinct, and the unconscious relate to his stagecraft and the performance styles required or deployed in his plays.

Scholarly attention to the works of Nöel Coward has been light, consisting of a handful of articles in academic journals, a presentation here and there, and a listing in the Dictionary of National Biography. Scholars attending to Coward include Archie K. Loss (Journal of Modern Literature 11.2 [1984]), Alan Sinfield (Representations 36 [1991]), Penelope Farfan (Modern Drama 48.4 [2005]), Sos Eltis (Modern Drama 51.2 [2008]), Donald Anderson (Modern Drama 54.1 [2011]), and Alex Feldman (Modern Drama 54.4 [2011]). Terry Castle’s study of Coward and Radclyffe Hall (Columbia UP, 1996) provides a rare book-length scholarly perspective, although most other books—biographies, memoirs, and collections of letters, journals, and other writing—appeal primarily to a trade press audience. The presentations comprising “Caviar or Marmalade?” address this gap in scholarship in ways that will appeal to a broad audience, particularly given the presenters’ specializations in theatre and performance, literary history and culture, and gender and sexuality. Collectively, these presentations pit Coward at the center of cultural change and read his work as profound cultural critique. A CFP for an edited collection will follow shortly after the MLA convention with the expectation that this special session will have stimulated renewed scholarly consideration of the work of this seminal twentieth-century figure.

Sos Eltis is Tutorial Fellow in English at Brasenose College, Oxford, where she focuses on Victorian and Modern Literature with a special interest in drama. Her books include Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde (Oxford University Press, 1996) and Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage, 1800-1930 (Oxford University Press, 2013). Her essays include “Bringing out the Acid: Noël Coward, Harold Pinter, Ivy Compton-Burnett and the Uses of Camp” (in Modern Drama), “The Fallen Woman on Stage: Maidens, Magdalens, and the Emancipated Female” (in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Drama), and “Suffrage, Sex, and the Single Girl: The Fallen Woman in Edwardian Feminist Drama” (in English Literature in Transition). She has also published work on Wilde in numerous edited collections.

Penelope Farfan is Professor of Drama at the University of Calgary, specializing in dramatic literature, theatre history, and modernist studies. Farfan’s research focuses on modern and contemporary theatre, drama, and performance. She is the author of Women, Modernism, and Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2004, 2007) and the editor (with Lesley Ferris) of Contemporary Women Playwrights: Into the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, 2013). She has also served as the editor of Theatre Journal and has held research fellowships and grants from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Calgary Institute for the Humanities, the Killam Trust, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Samuel Lyndon Gladden is Professor of Literature and Associate Dean of the School of Human Sciences and Humanities at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. His books include Shelley’s Textual Seductions: Plotting Utopia in the Erotic and Political Works (Routledge, 2001) and a critical edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (Broadview, 2011). He has also written essays on teaching Wilde’s Salome (in the MLA’s Approaches to Teaching Oscar Wilde), Mary Shelley (in Studies in Romanticism), Wilkie Collins (in Victorian Literature and Culture), Bram Stoker (in English Language Notes), and the transition from late Victorianism to Modernism (in the Victorians Institute Journal). Currently, he is at work on a study of Wilde’s use of religious motifs, and he plans to issue a call for a collection of essays on Coward following the 2016 MLA convention.

For more information, contact Samuel Gladden at gladden@uhcl.edu.