The Haunting Influence of the Past in Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed

‘you can say your prayers till kingdom come if you like,/
but you can’t expect me to, not after all I’ve seen. I don’t ‘old with/
a God who just singles a few out to be nice to, and let’s all the/
others rot.’
-Noel Coward, This Happy Breed, p. 9.

Time, a continual progression of events in the past, present and the future, clearly informs the events of Noel Coward’s 1939 play This Happy Breed. In particular, Coward enforces the idea of past experiences having a direct effect upon one’s perception of both the present and the future. His play, set in a post-War Britain struggling with the aftershocks of World War One, details the hindering of family life through an inability to let go of the past; this inability is mirrored further through the hindered progression of British society within the novels confines. It is perhaps through Coward’s representation of his main protagonist Frank Gibbons that this is demonstrated most prolifically. Frank’s importance clearly drives from his experiences as a World War One soldier; this preoccupation with past trauma subsequently comes to affect his life in the present. Both Frank and his neighbor, Bob Mitchell, demonstrate inabilities to escape past experiences. In Scene Two’s stage directions, Coward informs the reader that ‘they are both in ordinary suits but wearing their war medals. They are both a little bit drunk.’1 Despite having returned to their ‘ordinary’ lives in pre-war Britain, both men decide to wear their war medals; this juxtaposition shows a clear collusion of the mundane with the horrific experiences of the war itself. This collusion is adopted by Frank, who continues to reminisce almost fondly on his time in the war. However, it is made apparent that this collusion of past and present does not have a positive impact on the men; despite Frank’s reminiscing, both veterans develop patterns of binge-drinking. Throughout each scene in the play, the men can be found attempting to avoid past traumatic memories by remarking ‘Let’s have a drink. I’m feeling a bit low’ (p. 120). The men, caught between continual remembrances of the past and an ardent wish to forget, find themselves caught in a web of post-traumatic stress; this stress threatens to hinder their cognitive function, impairing the regulation of their memory information.2

The ongoing relationship between past and present informs the sense of cynicism prevalent throughout This Happy Breed. Frank, although presented as a relatively positive figure when speaking of the past, refuses to follow Ethel and Sylvia’s religious reliance on an omnipotent, all-loving God. His lack of faith is shown in a dispute between himself and his wife, in which he declares:

‘you can say your prayers till kingdom come if you like,/
but you can’t expect me to, not after all I’ve seen. I don’t ‘old with/
a God who just singles a few out to be nice to, and let’s all the/
others rot’ (p. 9).

The process of re-Christianization in Britain, prevalent during the interwar years and exemplified in Frank’s hypochondriac sister Sylvia, proved a shock to many returning soldiers who felt that their religious ties had been severely weakened by the experience of war.3 Not only did past trauma deter soldiers from religious faith, but it also hindered faith in both government and the future of Britain itself. Noel Coward detested the idea of appeasement to the foreign enemy, using his fictional characters to represent the voice of a nation who believed it would never stop war from happened again. The nations division on the issue of appeasement is shown through the dialogue between Sylvia and Frank in Act Three, Scene Two. As Sylvia talks of appeasement, ‘they’re cheering because we’ve been saved from war’; however, Frank retorts this by replying ‘I’ll believe that when I see it’ (p. 116). Frank’s past experiences on the front line are clearly suggested by Coward to give Frank greater knowledge of the political proceedings; this subsequently results in the audience placing trust in his prediction of the near future. The audience finds themselves, like Frank asking ‘when the next war’ll be?’ (p. 84). Throughout the play, Coward clearly questions the reliance of the British people on the government to prevent a life of war. World War One severely dampened Britain’s spirit, despite a reliance on a high-spirited mentality. This high-spirited mentality is often now viewed by historians as part of the ‘Myth of the Blitz, which saw a union of all social classes in their quest to defeat Nazism; British citizens attempted to make sense of the frightening and chaotic reality of wartime life, often comparing it to incompatible heroic mythology in order to keep morale high.4 Coward appears to explore the true reality of British nationalism and spirit through his text, doing so by introducing the audience to the tired people of London and the nation. The citizens future is shown to rely on the prevention of war reoccurring. Given the perspective of afforded to the modern reader, is historically shown that this did not occur; history, in the form of a second war with Germany, repeats itself.

Coward’s society, tired and cynical, also informs the youth present in his narrative. As Reg and Sam rally in the General Strike of 1926, it becomes apparent that the war has destroyed the spirit and youth of the country. As Frank remarks to Reg:

‘…a kid of your age talking about blood and sweat and capitalism. When I was rising twenty I had a damn sight more cheerful things to talk about than that, I can tell you’ (p.50).

The nation, hampered by the actualities of war, finds itself grown old before its time. Unlike past generations who were encouraged to spend their leisure time in carefree dance halls and cinemas, the youth during and post war were forcibly made to join organisations that encourage self-discipline.5 Evidently, the pasts implication of the war had a domino effect on the future of the country and its generations to come. The reader watches Sam and Reg mirroring the men before them, attempting to heroically save the future of their country by reinforcing their masculinity through violence, just as Frank and Bob did.

Coward maintains Frank’s cynicality throughout the play, providing the audience with a realistic description of the crumbling state of society. As it is remarked in the dialogue, ‘Now that’s all over (war) and we’re going on as best as we can as though nothing had happened [..] the country suddenly got tired- it’s tired now’ (p. 51). London, in particular, thus becomes a city failing to regain its strength; the damage of war is shown to have drained the city of its past spirit, whilst remaining fearful of looming war and the uncertainty of appeasement. Coward clearly draws on the reality of London’s emergence as a shell-shocked nation after the events of World War One; the traumatic shock extended past just those who served on the frontline and permeated into almost every family the home who still feared air-raids and the loss of their loved ones.6 The country had hit a stand-still during the aftermath of war; fear was a doctrine internalized by everyone who continued to live in the past and fear the future. People find themselves lost and without place in community, waiting for deployment and purpose to move forward.

Coward’s This Happy Breed thus demonstrates the difficulty of both the individual and collective to shake the effects of the past from their respective futures. This difficulty is formed by the way in which the characters attempt to escape their disjointed and corrupted worlds by switching from the present to the past through literature and inebriation. Coward’s depiction of the Gibbons family is one that can be related to by his wartime audience. The play functions as almost a guide in accepting the reality of the past and the need for family ties as they await the fate of London’s future.

References
Featured Image- Cover Image taken from a poster promoting the 1944 adaptation of the play, as directed by the David Lean. This Happy Breed, dir. David Lean (Prestige Pictures, 1944)

1. Noel Coward, This Happy Breed (London: Samuel French, 1945), p.79. All other references are to this edition and are given parenthetically.

2. D. H. Barrat and others, ‘Cognitive Functioning and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’, The American Journal of Psychology, 153 (1996), pp. 1492-1494.

3. Michael Snape, Secularisation in the Christian World (London: Routledge, 2016) p. 312.

4. Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz (London: Random House, 1992) p.14.

5. Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 90.

6. Suzie Grogan, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2014) p. 1.

Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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