Rheanne Walton: “What Could Be Duller Than That?” – Noel Coward and the Bright Young Things

The Bright Young People were the talk of the town in London in the 1920s. Known for large, frivolous parties, the group of young aristocrats, socialites, and artists were often featured in newspapers for their wild all-night scavenger hunts around the town and other antics. A fair few well-known names are thought to have been part of the group, including playwright Noel Coward. The group’s aesthetic and membership had a large effect on Coward’s work, particularly earlier on in his career. 

A well-known Coward song, first featured in Cochran’s 1931 revue and going on to feature in Oh, Coward! called “Bright Young People” explores some of Coward’s thoughts on the group. He calls them puerile, and the line “What could be duller than that?” is often repeated, featuring ridiculous and over-the-top examples of what might be seen as typical behavior of the group by the general public. In general, the piece makes fun of the Bright Young Things, and points out how they may have viewed gender and sexuality in ways antithetical to the common thought of the time (“I dress as a woman and scream with delight” and “Doctors… take a degree if they found out our sex”) but it seems largely to be poking fun at the group and making the argument, not invalidly, that the Bright Young Things were extremely affected and frivolous in his 1931 song (and in some interpretations of his play Semi-Monde). Even so, Coward himself displayed both of these qualities. The aura of wealth and affectation he sought to give off was not dissimilar from the air of the Bright Young Things, and not dissimilar from general though in the 1920s, though Coward kept the aesthetic throughout his life. 

Similar themes populate much of Coward’s work. The Vortex, also known for its controversiality at the time of its first performance, features themes of wealth and drugs (and, in the undertones, homosexuality). Nicky Lancaster is a talented young composer focused on fashion, a character who would easily fit in with Coward’s friends. Private Lives features important themes of sexuality, as well. 

Cecil Beaton is also featured in the song Bright Young People, as Coward says “The next war will be photographed, and lost, by Cecil Beaton”. Beaton and Coward seem to have much in common. Beaton, too, was an artist, and a central figure of the Bright Young Things membership, as well as being an artist, like Coward, and heavily characterized by ambition. In addition, both were not born to aristocratic families, with Beaton’s father owning a timber business and Coward’s being a piano-salesman. Both men also work hard to craft upper-class personas. Beaton was a photographer, diarist, and theatre designer, and followed much of Noel’s career, at points positively and at others not so much. After Beaton gave Coward’s Fallen Angels a bad review in 1925, Coward lambasted Beaton’s style and undulating walk, before telling him in private that “it is important not to let the public have a loophole to lampoon you”. He broke down his own persona to Beaton, describing how his aesthetic fit into the gender roles of the period—his rugged voice and firm movements, all thought out, all a façade for the public. Unlike Beaton, Coward had the defense mechanism of attempting not to look queer in order to defend himself. Beaton and Coward continued to be connected throughout their lives—in 1949, Beaton designed for Coward’s show Look After Lulu. From the hay-day of the Bright Young Things in the 1920s to their old age. Cecil visited Noel when he was 72 and Les Avants, where they sung songs of their younger days, and even attended Coward’s funeral. Both men had large effects on each other’s lives and were connected through the Bright Young People. 

Beaton’s supposed mentor, Beverley Nichols was also connected to Coward through the Bright Young People. In fact, according to Sitwell, Nichols was actually the first Bright Young Person, due to his quick rise to the upper-class through his literary success and his serial gossip column appearances. Responding to a claim that he, Coward, and Evelyn Waugh were the chief illuminati of the Bright Young people, Nichols claimed that they were far too busy and, in fact, were the greatest critics of the group, though we now know all three were indeed a part of the movement. Nichols, in fact, helped provide a bridge between the traditional upper-class ball and the wild partying of the ‘20s. Nichols and Coward both spent time in New York in the 1920s, which was a haven of “male brothels and rough-trade pick-ups” (Hoare). In his book A Case of Human Bondage, Beverley states that “Whenever Noel walks into a room spotlights automatically switch towards him”. Nichols also fought for the performance of Coward’s Semi-Monde, and though that did not occur at the time, it speaks volumes that Nichols enjoyed the play that so heavily relied on the spirit of the Bright Young People. Generally, Nichols supported Coward, calling his works extremely charming, with the exception of Cavalcade, to which Nichols, a pacifist, was extremely opposed. The two men, first connected through the Bright Young Things, continued to be connected throughout their lives. 

Another friend of Coward’s who was also a prominent Bright Young thing is Brenda Dean Paul. Violet Coward’s (Noel’s beloved mother) boarding house happened to be nearby the Dean Paul household where Sir Aubrey Dean Paul and his wife, Polish, lesbian composer Poldowski, lived. Their daughter Brenda became known for her status as a Bright Young Thing. Lady Dean Paul recalled the Cowards as good friends, and that both families were poor. Brenda was drawn into the world of parties at sixteen, and it became her principle occupation for around a decade. Dean Paul’s memoirs are vital to study of the Bright Young People, and her connections, including hers with Noel, were an important part of pulling her into this world of parties.  

Moving on, though, from Noel’s connections, I would now like to discuss the connections to the Bright Young Things featured in Noel’s plays. I think that perhaps the most important example of this is the aforementioned Semi-Monde, featuring a great deal of partying, wealth, and themes of frivolity, carelessness, and sexual experimentation. It could easily feature members of the Bright Young People. The large cast of characters are focused on alcohol, socialization and little else, and in the end, they all stay exactly where they started, continuing their lives having learned very little. The bisexuality of the play was extremely risqué for the period, which is why it went unperformed. 

Overall, the Bright Young Things are represented in many forms throughout Coward’s work, and clearly had a long-lasting effect on his lifestyle and aesthetic. His portrayal of himself as a wealthy, aristocratic, famous figure began with the Bright Young Things and continued throughout his days. 

Works Cited:

Hoare, Philip. Noël Coward: a Biography. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.  

Coward, Noel. Bright Young People(Lyrics from The Lyrics of Noel Coward. Bloomsbury, 1965.) 

“London Society’s Thrilling All-Night Treasure Hunts.” The Philidelphia Inquirer, 7 Sept. 1924. 

Sinfield, Alan. “Private Lives/Public Theater: Noel Coward and the Politics of Homosexual Representation.” Representations, no. 36, 1991, pp. 43–63. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928631. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021. 

Taylor, D. J. Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 

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