Noel Langley was a South African playwright, a screenwriter, and a comic novelist of the London theatre. I say ‘comic’, because that’s how the very sparse online references describe his few novels. Possibly this is because his most famous novel, The Land of Green Ginger, was delightfully enjoyable, as were his screenplays: The Wizard of Oz (1939), A Christmas Carol (1951), Ivanhoe (1952) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952). Apparently he invented Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
I had no idea that he had this illustrious future when I bought his novel There’s A Porpoise Close Behind Us (1936) on a horrible wet day in Whitby, some years ago. It’s his second novel, but the hits of his later career completely obscured with their brightness anything less successful that had preceded them. Is this a loss to literature?
It’s certainly a loss to theatre literature. Porpoise is about the struggles of Robin Gardner (shiny new playwright) and Diana Shand (ingénue actress) as they attempt to Arrive in 1930s London theatreland. The plot is built around an enthusiastic characterisation of theatre types as Langley saw them in the 1930s: horrible men prey on innocent young starlets and playwrights; archness, coyness and feyness are de rigueur; and delightful fairy godmothers rescue the innocents from the terrible temptations that surround the stage. Langley’s vitriol in his descriptions of venality, dishonesty, lying, attempted date rape and malice is a real surprise.
All is not gay in the garden of The Theatre, and those characters who are gay are dangerous. Here’s an example:
… and then the door opened and the Middleton came in in his pyjamas and dressing-gown to wish him good night. He sat on the bed for a minute or two to discuss the evening and to sympathise with Robin, and express relief that Tullio was earning all their keeps, and then unexpectedly leant right forward until his face was within a few inches of Robin’s, and gazed at him fixedly, and it suddenly occurred to Robin with shattering clarity that the Middleton was queer and was going to kiss him.
Shock, disillusion, incredulity, and disgust struggled within him for first place, and he slid his head away and felt sick. As soon as he moved the Middleton leant back as if nothing were wrong, but he was breathing unevenly and had gone white. He was angry with himself for trying to work too swiftly, and the guarded defence in Robin’s eyes showed him clearly that he had burnt his boats behind him.
He rose, with his back to Robin, and stood without moving for a minute. Then he turned and smiled and said ‘Good night’ in a perfectly ordinary voice and went out.
Curtain. This scene is theatrical in the way that Noel Coward is theatrical: the suppression of expressing emotions, movements designed to be appreciated on a stage. It is theatrical in a cinematic way, with the reader’s attention drawn to the close-ups, the dramatic immobility, the wooed one shrinking away from an unwanted seduction move, so the reader can feel the fear. Langley is also writing like Georgette Heyer: this scene (apart from the modern costume) is so like any of her scenes in which a powerful man approaches a shrinking heroine with intent to kidnap, or at least forcibly remove her domino or loo-mask. This was how popular entertainment of Langley’s day was supposed to deliver romance and passionate moments. The slight detail that this was a man attempting to seduce another man is really not very important, compared to the drama of the attempt, and the dignified retreat enhanced by controlled anger, leaving behind the enormously interesting question of what will the Middleton do next? Robin behaves like a schoolboy, standing up for himself, but is less self-assured than a spirited heroine of the romantic novel or film, because he is a jolly good sort, and also in love with a girl. Queerness is prominently displayed in the theatreland of the novel, but Langley would like to make it quite clear that heterosexuality was the expected norm, thank you very much. No doubt the then illegality of homosexual acts had everything to do with this: the campness in the narrative voice throughout the novel contradicts the publisher’s obvious contractual requirement here.
This pointed reminder of some very conservative conventions makes Porpoise rather uncomfortable to read. But not completely awkward: it is funny, with parodies and pointed in-jokes about the arts employed on stage and offstage to upstage the opposition. The star leads are so naïve and honest, they are simply asking to be corrupted, and it so nearly happens. They are, however, such wimps, and with so little idea about self-preservation, that I gave up rooting for them halfway through, and settled down to enjoy the villains who ramp through the pages with gusto. The evil lead, Mr Garstin Bannock , has no redeeming features at all, whereas the very equivocal Mr Middleton can be charming when he chooses to be nice. Which isn’t very often. Lottie Klutterbuck, the terrifically powerful American star actress, could be the world’s most awful stage monster but she, thankfully, is on Robin and Diana’s side.
The zip and verve in the writing make Porpoise, for all its pretentious title and arch little ways, a jolly good read, even if you clench your teeth from time to time. The plot brings us triumphantly to a final public trouncing of the opposition as a magnificent finale, so there is something epic to look forward to, to cleanse the palate of this world’s corruptions.