Odd literary feuds: Greene vs Coward

From Norman Sherry’s The Life of Graham Greene:

“Greene suddenly and without warning began to assail one of the original talents of the world of theatre—Noel Coward. There was no obvious reason for seeing Coward as his bête noire. Perhaps for Greene the ever-popular Coward was a suspect talent, though periodically Greene felt an almost insane urge to lash out, working off some of his bile in a review.”

Three savage reviews later, Coward responded in verse.

Dear Mr Graham Greene, I yearn
So much to know why you should burn
With such fierce indignation at
The very fact that I exist.
I’ve been unable to resist
Sitting up later than I need
To read in ‘The Spectator’ what
Appears to be no more, no less
Than shocking manners. I confess
Bewilderment. I’ve seldom seen
Another brother-writer press
Such disadvantage with such mean
Intent to hurt. You must have been
For years, in secret, nourishing
A rich, rip-snorting, flourishing
Black hatred for my very guts!
Surely all these envenomed cuts
At my integrity and taste
Must be a waste of your own time?
What is my crime, beyond success?
(But you have been successful too
It can’t be that) I know a few
Politer critics than yourself
Who simply hate my plays
But do they state their sharp dispraise
With such surprising, rising bile?
Oh dear me no, they merely smile.
A patronizing smile perhaps
But then these journalistic chaps
Unlike ourselves, dear Mr Greene,
(Authors I mean) are apt to sneer
At what they fear to be apart
From what they conceive as art.
You have descried (also with keen
Sadistic joy) my little book
About Australia, one look
At which should prove, all faults aside,
That I had tried, dear Mr Greene,
To do a job. You then implied
That I had run away, afraid,
A renegade. I can’t surmise
Why you should view your fellow men
With such unfriendly, jaundiced eyes.
But then, we’re strangers. I can find
No clue, no key to your dark mind.
I’ve read your books as they appear
And I’ve enjoyed them all. (Nearly all.)
I’ve racked my brains in a sincere
But vain endeavour to recall
If, anytime or anywhere,
In Bloomsbury or Belgrave Square,
In Paris or Pekin or Bude,
I have, unwittingly, been rude,
Or inadvertently upset you.
(Did I once meet you and forget you?
Have I ever been your debtor?
Did you once write me a letter
That I never got—or what?)
If I knew, I shouldn’t worry.
All this anguish, all this flurry,
This humiliating scene
That I’m making, Mr Greene,
Is a plea for an explanation
For a just justification
By what strange Gods you feel yourself empowered
To vent this wild expenditure of spleen
Upon yours most sincerely
Noel Coward.

A month later, Greene reviewed Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, calling it “a weary exhibition of bad taste”. So much for the soothing power of verse, though twelve years later, the feud had finally died down, and Greene rented Coward’s house in Jamaica as a holiday home. A curious footnote: Coward acted the part of Hawthorne in the film version of Greene’s Our Man In Havana.





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