Sir Noël Pierce Coward (1899-1973), a British playwright, director, painter, actor, and author, among other things, dabbled within all areas of art during his lifetime. Coward’s friends even referred to him as “The Master” (“Biography.”) due to his constant involvement in and influence upon the arts. Today, we remember him for his countless contributions to the arts, but what is equally important is his impact on the development of British nationalism and British identity in post-World War Britain.
Coward’s professional career in the arts began at age 12, when he became a child actor on stage as Prince Mussel from The Goldfish (1911). His next debut was in 1924 when his play The Vortex began performances. While this show is considered Coward’s breakthrough in playwriting, it also was a turning point for him because it helped him become more well-known in both the West End and on Broadway. From there, he continued his work as a playwright, even staying active during World War II, where he actually served as an unofficial spy for the Foreign Office (Osborne). Post-World War I and during World War II, much of Coward’s work focused on the themes of nationalism, war, and the soldiers, all of which became symbols for British nationalism and British identity. In fact, some of Noël Coward’s most popular works were his wartime plays and films. Two of his wartime screenplays, In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945) quickly became classics in British Cinema (“Biography.”).
Of Coward’s wartime plays, Cavalcade is one of the best at exemplifying British nationalism and establishing part of the British identity. Cavalcade, an epic play, premiered in 1931 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The play famously condenses the previous three decades of British history (1900-1930) into a three act play. Many of the most significant events of British history during that period are displayed on stage, such as the sinking of the Titanic and the first World War. It follows the life of an upper-class British family and their reactions and actions to British historical events starting from the Boer War in 1900 and ending with the conclusion of World War I.
The reception of Cavalcade was overwhelmingly positive, with it quickly becoming a fan-favorite of many people in Britain. According to many one critic from the opening of the show, Coward could never do anything that would top Cavalcade (“‘Cavalcade’ at Old Drury”). More importantly, the political message that is not so subtly hidden within the play quickly became a symbol of British nationalism. Regarding the songs within the play, one critic in 1931 said that the songs, “…help to set the pulses stirring and quicken the national consciousness” (“The Passing Shows”). The critics of the 1930s praised the play’s ability to capture the heart of the British Empire and its patriotic conception of Britain (“The England of Ours”). Some critics went so far as to call it the “national drama” (“The England of Ours”) due to its keen representation of British cultural life.
Cavalcade was clearly written as a British propaganda piece and it ended up as being considered a patriotic anthem for a Britain who was struggling to recover from the First World War. The war in general caused discontinuity in Britain, especially economically; prior to the war, London was the world’s greatest financial center; however, in the post-war period, they were fighting to keep London in that position. Britain took a massive financial toll after World War I (“Aftermath: Counting the Costs”). In total, it is estimated that the cost of World War I was $208 billion and caused the global depression in the 1920s (“Aftermaths: Counting the Costs”). The post-war period was also home to much suspicion and economic nationalism, a sentiment that is echoed in various different areas (Marwick 10-11). Following World War I, there was a resurgence in nationalism and the idea of sovereignty in Britain. This conception of British nationalism is what embodied the society Coward was writing to and, thus, wanted to embody in Cavalcade.
Cavalcade was not an outlier when it comes to nationalistic interpretations on the British stage during this period, as the British public witnessed an increase in propaganda in the late 1930s and early 1940s with the start of World War II. With the increasing tensions between Germany and the rest of the world, Britain started looking to form alliances, especially with the United States. Along with some other pieces of arts and culture, Noël Coward’s movie version of Cavalcade played a role in strengthening those relations. It is stated that, “…the successes of Great Britain… these are the things that moved America- and they have just happened.” (Hachey and Lindsay 126). What should be taken from this is that the cultures of America and Britain complement each other, or as the author notes, “…America is modeled on English standards” (Hachey and Lindsay 122). This allows British arts and culture to influence and build connections between the United States and Britain, and it just so happened that Cavalcade was one of those works. Not only did Coward create a work that acted as propaganda for British nationalism, he created a work that represented British identity in the arts in other countries.
“Aftermath: Counting the Costs .” The National Archives, 4 June 1926, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/aftermath/counting_cost.htm.
“Biography.” Noël Coward, http://www.noelcoward.com/biography.
“‘Cavalcade’ at Old Drury: Noël Coward’s Greatest.” The Tatler, 18, Nov. 1931
Hachey, Thomas E., and R. C. Lindsay. “Winning Friends and Influencing Policy: British Strategy to Woo America in 1937.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 55, no. 2, 1971, pp. 120–129. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4634683. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.
Marwick, Arthur. “The Impact of the First World War on British Society.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 3, no. 1, 1968, pp. 51–63. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/259966. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.
Osborne, Robert, and Ap. “Coward’s Double Life as Secret Agent Man.” The Hollywood Reporter, 19 Feb. 2011, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cowards-double-life-as-secret-156830%29.
“The Passing Shows: Cavalcade at Old Drury Lane.” The Tatler, 11, Nov. 1931
“The England of Ours – In Peace and War, Joy and Sorrow.” The Sketch, 21, Oct. 1931