Noël Coward

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Cavalcade and This Happy Breed: Remaking the Nation’s Past

Noël Coward’s song-and-dance spectacular Cavalcade was an enormous success when it premiered in 1931, running at Drury Lane for over a year. Cavalcade begins on New Year’s Eve 1899, with a well-to-do family, the Marryots of Mayfair, toasting the new century as master and servant prepare to travel to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. On one hand, the play’s popularity rests on its evocation of simpler times; the other hand, Cavalcade’s relentless movement, energy and technical extravagance are a symptom of the modern restlessness that its characters decry: the past scored and choreographed and replayed in fast-forward.
This Happy Breed (1942) takes a more intimate approach, presenting two families, next-door neighbours the Gibbons and the Mitchells, as emblematic of English working-class experience between 1919 and 1939. While it in some ways resembles J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways (1937), Coward’s domestic history of the interwar years is both more stoically optimistic and more sternly dismissive of socialist ideas.
In this paper I argue that Coward’s connected visions the early twentieth century have been highly influential on both stage and television drama. From Theatre Workshop’s Oh! What A Lovely War (1963) to Beth Steel’s play The House of Shades (2022), and from the costume dramas Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975) and Downton Abbey (2010-2015) to the situation comedy Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-1974), each owes something to the potent mix of irony and nostalgia in these otherwise dissimilar works.

Period15 Jun 2023
Event typeConference
LocationBirmingham, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational