Volcano: Noël Coward’s Caribbean Play

Volcano was written in 1956 when Noël Coward was suffering the dubious status of having become Britain’s first celebrity tax exile. The play – unperformed in his lifetime – is the product of his laidback life in Jamaica, and of a period during which he was regarded as a crumbling colonial relic outmoded by a post-war Labour government and the rowdy commotions of the Angry Young Men back home—as Philip Hoare reports in this article for theartdesk.com.

Coward’s reputation had taken a battering in the post-war years. The British public were no longer satisfied with reruns of Brief Encounter, and critics such as Beverley Baxter posed the question, “Did Noel Coward survive the war?” Coward seemed to be a casualty of revolution, and he had retreated to his island paradise to lick his wounds.

In Volcano he proved that he had taken on board the radical new changes of the post-war world, but that his work had pre-empted those changes. As he wrote Volcano, he was in the process of becoming a Las Vegas cabaret star, posing surreally in the Nevada desert in an evening suit with a cup of tea, a cross between Bryan Ferry and Elvis. One might say he had more image changes than Lady Gaga. And Volcano is an explosive example of the manner in which he could confound his critics.

Coward had based its sexual intrigue on a real-life situation

On Samola, a fictional Caribbean island but all too evidently Jamaica, a widow in her early forties, Adela Shelley (Jenny Seagrove in a new touring production), is faced with the ghosts of her passionate past when Guy Littleton, a handsome Lothario, returns on a visit – and in the process seduces a young married woman, Ellen Danbury (Dawn Steele). When Melissa Littleton and Keith Danbury, their respective spouses, arrive, the plot is further complicated.

The play’s overt discussion of sex was not what Coward’s now middle-aged audiences expected of him. His producer, Binkie Beaumont, turned it down on grounds of its construction; but may have envisaged problems getting it past the censors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (an old enemy for Coward). Then Katharine Hepburn, whom Coward had hoped would play Adela, turned it down too. But the more pressing reason for the shelving of Volcano was the fact that Coward had based its sexual intrigue on a real-life situation.

Coward’s Jamaican home, Blue Harbour, and his clifftop chalet, Firefly, were set on the fashionable, if not louche north coast of the island, a veritable ants’-nest of celebrities, from Ivor Novello and Edward Molyneaux to Claudette Colbert, from Bette Davis and Clara Bow to Errol Flynn.

In the days before cheap air travel, celebrities here were left unbothered by the plebeian hordes – and the paparazzi – to carry on their affairs in private. Days would be spent idling by the pool over rum punches; evenings driving to neighbouring villas to drink more rum and eat supper served by silent, white-coated black servants who could be relied upon to keep their own counsel.

Here Laurence Olivier came to smoke dope and sunbathe naked by Coward’s pool. John Gielgud could be found on the balcony, “admiring his own profile”, as one veteran Jamaican writer, Maurice Cargill observed. Coward’s attitude to guests was equivocal. As one of the characters in Volcano says, “The most beautiful thing about having people to stay is when they leave.” He relished his solitude in Jamaica – and later built a second house on top of the hill, Firefly – partly because the noise of the sea ended up driving him mad, but also so that he could escape his visitors.

Another guest was Hepburn, who would zoom up the drive in a sports car with Irene Selznick in the passenger seat. When I interviewed Miss Hepburn in her Upper Eastside house in 1992, she told me how she was frustrated by the Master’s lack of interest in exercise. He was more fascinated by the activities of his friends’ and neighbours’ love-lives, it seemed. And none were more intriguing than that of Ian Fleming – who lived close by in his house, Goldeneye – and Blanche Blackwell, the glamorous scion of an old plantation family, at Bolt House.

For the original report go to http://www.theartsdesk.com/theatre/noel-cowards-volcano

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