Emily McGinn: A Look at Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”

Noël Coward released “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”in 1931 as part of his The Third Little Show Revue. The song remains one of his most popular works and many people still used the phrase “mad dogs and Englishmen” from this song. The song has also been referenced throughout popular culture, such as being performed on The Judy Garland Show and The Muppet Show. The construction of this song is unique as Coward claimed to have written it while on a train without any assistance from instruments, or even pen and paper. The song is easily one of Coward’s best-known hits, beloved for many reasons including the fact that singers must perform the song in a speak-sing style due to the complicated rhythms Coward created. The song is a wonderful example of Coward’s art style and is quintessential to the Coward we love.

            Coward wrote “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” with the backdrop of British colonialism. The British Empire was thriving, and although Coward centers the lyrics on British identity, he also provides commentary on Britain’s global position as well as the many colonial subjects under British rule.

            Below is a transcription of Coward’s handwritten lyrics of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” in the early stages of the song, along with additions made to the song later in the process. This reveals how truly talented Coward was at songwriting. He was able to compose these intricate lyrics and rhythms very quickly and with little revision made to the original lyrics themselves.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Verse 1

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire
To tear their clothes off and persprie.
It's one of those rules that the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is much too sultry
And one must avoid its ultry-violet ray.
Papalaka papalaka papalaka boo,
Papalaka papalaka papalaka boo,
Digariga digariga digariga doo,
Digariga digariga digariga doo,
The native grieve when the white men leave their huts,
Because they're obviously definitely nuts!

The misspelling of perspire and ultra are purposeful to fit the rhythm scheme Coward created. Further, the “papalaka” and “digariga” lines were ultimately not included in the final published version of the song. In his original plan, Coward planned for the “natives” in the show to sing those lines. These lines were most likely to play off the idea of what many in Britain perceived the native people in the different colonies to be like.

Refrain 1

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don't care to.
The Chinese wouldn't dare to,
Hindoos and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one.
But Englishmen detest a siesta.
In the Philippines
There are lovely screens
To protect you from the glare.
In the Malay States
There are hats like plates
Which the Britishers won't wear.
At twelve noon
The natives swoon
And no further work is done.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.

In the refrain Coward especially stresses the structure of the British Empire and how they maintain control of foreign land. While he does seem to make fun of how the British constantly work, the message ultimately criticizes the motivation of colonialism.

Verse 2

It's such a surprise for the Eastern eyes to see
That though the English are effete,
They're quite impervious to heat,
When the white man rides every native hides in glee,
For all the simple creatures hope he
Will impale his solar topee on a tree.
Bolyboly bolyboly bolyboly baa,
Bolyboly bolyboly bolyboly baa,
Habaninny habaninny habaninny haa,
Habaninny habaninny habaninny haa,
It seems such a shame
When the English claim
The earth
That they give rise to such hilarity and mirth.

The “bolyboly” and “habininny” lines were also removed in the final song, and the “natives” of the show were also originally attended to sing the lines.

Refrain 2

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The toughest Burmese bandit
Can never understand it.
In Rangoon the heat of noon
Is just what the natives shun.
They put their Scotch or Rye down
And lie down.
In a jungle town
Where the sun beats down
To the rage of man and beast
The English garb
Of the English sahib
Merely gets a bit more creased.
In Bangkok
At twelve o'clock
They foam at the mouth and run,
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit

This refrain marks the end of Coward’s handwritten lyrics. The lyrics below were added later to the second refrain to finish out the song and follows the same pattern of referencing countries who think the English the English are too focused on capitalism and the Empire.

Deplores this foolish habit.
In Hongkong
They strike a gong
And fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who's in late.
In the mangrove swamps
Where the python romps
There is peace from twelve till two.
Even caribous
Lie around and snooze;
For there's nothing else to do.
In Bengal
To move at all
Is seldom, if ever done.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday sun.

As we can see,  Coward tells the story of British imperialism with “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”. Born in 1899, Coward grew up under the mantra “the sun never set on the British Empire.” This mentality was still very popular in the late 1920’s to early 1930’s when Coward composed the song. Coward took this idea and created a satire of it, trying to show the British do not truly rule the world by playing off the idea of the English believing they had a better work ethic than the natives in the colonies. Coward’s playful suggestion is that the countries mentioned in this song did not share the stubbornness and sense of superiority as the British. The British government imposed their systems on foreign lands without any regard for the indigenous people. In “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, Coward makes fun of the British government and the Englishmen’s sense of superiority. Coward later used this song in his Vegas show which became a huge hit; his style and delivery of the song charmed audiences regardless of their feelings on colonialism.

Works Cited:

“Noël Coward Archive Trust.” . Noël Coward Archive Trust,  https://www.noelcoward.com/archive-trust.

Coward, Noël. Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Noël Coward Archive Trust

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