Lilian Braithwaite & Noel Coward, stars of The Vortex.
- Play title: The Vortex
- Author: Noel Coward
- Published: 1924
- Page count: 106
Noel Coward’s, The Vortex, is a period melodrama that was first published in 1924. Many of Coward’s later plays are more famous but this first major hit was decidedly risqué in its day. The play tells the story of the Lancaster household, with Florence, the narcissistic matriarch, and Nicky, her musically talented but confused son. Florence Lancaster dates a string of young, male admirers and that causes scandal due to her married status. In this work, Coward captures the lifestyles of rich, selfish, vain people who attend the theatre and opera, have multiple residences, drink cocktails in the afternoon and are driven in chauffeured cars. The dramatic events of the play revolve around Nicky’s recent engagement to a girl called Bunty and how this clashes with his mother’s current relationship with her beau named Tom. The themes of the play include drug abuse, parental responsibility, and homosexuality.
Ways to access the text: reading/listening.
Coward’s play is available online via the Internet Archive under the title “The Vortex : Noel Coward.”
However, if you would prefer to listen to an audiobook version then one is available on YouTube. The title of the audiobook is “Vortex – Noel Coward – BBC Saturday Night Theatre” and the running time is 1hr and 29mins.
Why read/listen to The Vortex?
While melodrama is a term that may be used derogatorily, it also captures the sensational pop of champagne corks and the zing of catty one-liners! Coward’s play evokes a bygone era of upper-class, English privilege, and the author fills each scene with exaggerated characters and thinly veiled taboo subjects. If you like cut-glass accents and witty repartee, then this is the play for you. Admittedly, the play has aged but this may be viewed in a positive light because the world that Coward describes is almost alien to a modern reader and therefore more entrancing. As an example of Coward’s wit, the character “Pawnie” is introduced with the innuendo laden title of “an elderly maiden gentleman.” Pawnie gives embodiment to the overweening vanity and male effeminacy that are core topics in the play. It is possible to encapsulate the overall tone of the play in Pawnie’s succinct description of Nicky – “he’s divinely selfish; all amusing people are.” Coward explores a world of artifice that is shown to be unsustainable because in the end the truth shatters everything in a most dramatic manner.
A neglectful mother.
Florence Lancaster is not the maternal type. She is almost fifty but still feels quite young and is considered attractive by men half her age whom she often dates. In modern terms, one would say that she is a liberated woman. However, in the era of 1920’s England her behaviour is considered scandalous and invites gossip. Coward depicts a woman who is unfaithful to her husband but more importantly in terms of the play’s plot, neglectful of her son Nicky. Coward lays the blame for everything that goes wrong on Florence, as explored in the final scene. It is made clear to the reader that Florence does not conform to the socially approved gender role of caring, affectionate mother and she also fails morally. What is interesting for a reader is the masterful way that Coward constructs the entire final scene, which depicts a confrontation between mother and son, without naming the one thing that is the core of the problem. This was probably due to censorship issues and/or the moral sensitivities of the time. However, the constant side-stepping and refusal to name what Florence is really being accused of due to her neglect is quite fascinating.
A young man’s habit.
Nicky Lancaster is a drug addict. We first receive hints that something is amiss from his jittery manner and later there is an actual admission. However, Coward gives the character, Nicky, several masks in the play and the identity that is revealed is often not exactly what we expect. To begin, one may look at two of Nicky’s overlapping masks, the neurotic and the drug addict. As Nicky is depicted from the start as slightly neurotic in temperament, the idea of him using cocaine or any other hard drug is not immediately evident. For example, the introductory description of Nicky to the reader is as a man who “is tall and pale, with thin, nervous hands.” Then later in the same scene just after Nicky describes himself as “hectic and nervy” he overreacts to a comment made by Bunty with an unexpected, angry outburst, saying, “shut up – shut up.” Also, when he plays the wind-up gramophone for his family and friends, he invariably “plays the records too fast.” Even though these are substantial hints at a subtext, it is not until his friend, Helen, takes a “divine little box” from his pocket when searching for a match that the secret is outed, at least to her. Although not named, the drug is most likely cocaine. In a later private discussion, Helen confronts Nicky by saying, “I should give up drugs if I were you.” Apparently, Nicky’s habit had not gone unnoticed because Helen had suspected for some time. Yet, the salient point here is that the signs need to be read correctly in order to identify the underlying issue. Nicky defends himself against Helen’s warnings, saying, “I only take just the tiniest little bit, once in a blue moon.” The topic is effectively dropped until the final scene when Nicky confesses to this mother by way of showing her the “small gold box” which Florence first understands as drugs, and then she promptly throws it out of the window. By proving that not even a mother may know, Coward shows how one problem can easily camouflage another and this is a motif in the play.
In terms of a sensational twist to the story, then yes, the idea of a young musician returning from Paris with a cocaine habit, especially in the 1920’s, is indeed shocking. Yet, the revelation does not contribute to the plot in any significant manner except to explain the young man’s pallid looks and generally overwrought demeanor. Drug addiction does not explain why Nicky’s engagement ends abruptly nor does it explain his confrontation with his mother. One need only look to the specific dialogues in the play to confirm these points. An astute reader may indeed have guessed that Nicky uses drugs from the early clues in the text but then how should one address the more frequent clues that indicate that Nicky is gay. After all, this is a topic that is never broached. Therefore, one needs to consider what taboos Noel Coward could discuss in his work and which needed to remain unspoken. Coward is obviously substituting the taboo that he could tentatively speak of, namely drugs, and leaves Nicky’s homosexuality as an inferred truth. This strange substitution of one taboo for another within the plot leads to an imbalance, an incongruity in the story unless one deciphers Coward’s full meaning. It is also necessary to digress here and state that what is blatantly clear to a modern audience may have been much more obscure for a 1920’s audience. It is crucial for Nicky to make some big revelation in the story, to be truthful about himself, if he is to expect his mother to confess her mistakes. It was probably impossible for Coward, both from a censorship aspect and a commercial viewpoint, to have a play’s central character out himself as homosexual in the 1920’s. Therefore, drug addiction is used to mimic the shocking confession that is indeed required to bring the narrative to its crisis moment. It is one theatrical mask that obscures another, the confessed drug addict versus the hidden homosexual. The commonality between drug users and homosexuals, in the moralistic terms of the early 20th century, would have been licentiousness, selfishness, and eventual ruin. As such, it is a fitting ruse employed by the playwright.
The evidence of Nicky’s homosexuality, like his drug use, is based on shrewd observation. There are numerous early clues such as Nicky’s good friend, John Bagot, to whom he reads his mother’s letters. This act of sharing displays a level of intimacy between the men. The surname Bagot is also strongly indicative of a derogatory term for gay men which was indeed spelled with one g in America in the 1920’s, a time when Coward himself had visited New York. Noel Coward was a gay man so is more likely to have been familiar with slang terms for the gay community. Though it may seem strange to think that Coward would slyly allude to such a term, it would have been a clever in-joke for fellow gay men in the audience. However, it is the dialogue between Tom and Bunty that is the strongest indication that people perceive Nicky as gay. For example, Tom is not aware of the romantic relationship between Nicky and Bunty when he first arrives at the Lancaster household. Therefore, when Bunty monopolizes Tom in conversation and Nicky unexpectedly storms out, which Bunty explains as jealousy, then Tom misconstrues the situation, saying, “why … is he …?” The inference here is that Nicky is attracted to Tom and therefore a homosexual, confirmed by Tom’s further innuendo by referring to Nicky as “that type” and “that sort of chap” with the closing comment of “you know – up in the air – effeminate.” It is precisely at this moment that Bunty laughs and says, “I’ve just realized something” which is apparently that her fiancé is a gay man. When Bunty finally breaks off the relationship with Nicky she says, “you’re not in love with me, really – you couldn’t be!” Nicky admits that he is not facing up to things properly, but homosexuality is never actually named.
Noel Coward, as playwright and gay man, had an unenviable challenge in writing The Vortex. In this play he must commit a form of subterfuge using language in order to explain the problems of gay life. For example, he cannot use any explicit term to denote Nicky’s homosexuality and yet the playwright’s aim is clearly to convey to readers the kind of entrapment that gay men felt. Nicky is unable to face the truth of his sexuality when confronted by his fiancé, and he is even unable to fully admit it to himself because one presumes that he would have married Bunty had she not ended the relationship. If one accepts that Coward uses subterfuge then one example of how he does get the message out is via psychological projection. For example, when Nicky is arguing with his mother about her lovers and he says, “it was something you couldn’t help, wasn’t it – something that’s always been the same in you since you were quite, quite young -?” Nicky is evidently referring to himself here and his own sexuality. In the next line, Nicky says, “I’m nothing – I’ve grown up all wrong.” Such an admission from Nicky underscores that Coward’s play is more than just melodrama, it is a play that struggles to express something that could not legitimately be said publicly at that time. The play depicts Nicky’s utter confusion and self-hatred yet the playwright himself was barred from expressing a plain truth in 1920’s England, the truth that Nicky is gay.
When the play was written, drug taking and homosexual practices were both seen as habitual acts. As such, Nicky’s ruination in either case would have been perceived as his own choice. Yet, there is a distinct difference in how these two ‘habits’ would have been penalized. The English law covering drugs was the “Dangerous Drugs Act 1920” which continued to treat addiction as a medical problem. On the other hand, the law that covered homosexual practices, namely the “Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885,” meant gay men could face imprisonment for up to two years. This law became known as the “Blackmailer’s Charter” because it put gay men in such a vulnerable position. In the context of the play, Nicky is supported by Helen and later by his mother when he reveals his drug habit. It is not clear how either of these women would react if he had said he was a homosexual. This does not mean they do not suspect or even know it – the problem is the public admission and the unavoidable repercussions. Also, drug use is a habit that is curable in medical terms, homosexuality is evidently not. Coward masks Nicky’s homosexuality and depicts him instead as a drug addict yet the truth of the play is reached by paying attention to the playwright’s constant use of ellipses and the language of innuendo. These literal gaps and constant hints are what the truth must be constructed from given the restrictions of the era. Ultimately, it is an admission that actually counts, and Nicky can only safely admit to using drugs but never to the bigger taboo. Coward will not and possibly cannot name the young man’s true habit because it is sexual and therefore guarantees ruin. One can reasonably assert that the playwright’s own career would also have been seriously tainted or ended had his play been more explicit. Few plays deliver a message so clearly yet simultaneously say nothing at all.
Noel Coward’s play has a climactic final scene where an angry son confronts his mother about her sexual conduct. For many readers, this scene will appear oddly familiar and that is due to the remarkable similarity to a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the young prince confronts his mother, Queen Gertrude. Both scenes are defined by anger that tilts towards outright rage. Nicky says to his mother, “I’m straining every nerve to keep myself under control … if you lie to me and try to evade me any more – I won’t be answerable for what might happen.” Similarly, Hamlet tells Queen Gertrude, “Sit you down; you shall not budge; / You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” and the vehemence of his orders make her fear that he will murder her. What is striking about both scenes is the moral disgust of a son at his mother’s sexual liaisons. In both cases the sons look for and finally gain promises regarding future behaviour from their respective mothers. Queen Gertrude is made to feel shame over her hasty marriage to old King Hamlet’s inferior brother, Claudius, and she promises to keep Hamlet’s secret (that he is not mad but very sane and cunning). In Coward’s play, Nicky commands that his mother will not “have any more lovers … you’re going to be my mother for once” and Florence finally submits, saying, “yes, yes – I’ll try.” While the two scenes are quite similar, an added connection may be made with reference to Sigmund Freud. It was Freud who diagnosed Hamlet’s Oedipal complex in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, which reveals the young prince’s desire to sleep with his mother. When one considers Coward’s play, it is also a young man’s sexual urges that are in question, in this case, Nicky’s. The allusion that Coward makes by recreating the scene from Hamlet has the purpose of exposing what Florence is really being accused of, and that it relates directly to her son’s sexuality.
One may quibble about Coward’s use of such an iconic scene from a great play to make a point in a melodramatic work. Yet, the playwright does bring the scene securely into the 20th century. There is a cocaine addicted son, apparently homosexual, threatening his mother in her bedroom late at night on the same day that his fiancé breaks up with him. In the case of Hamlet, Freud explains the prince’s prurient thoughts, for example how his mother lays “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” as evidence of his sexual desire for his mother, and his jealousy of her current lover, King Claudius. However, we have yet to explain Nicky’s sexual dilemma from clues in the similarities between the two scenes. The crucial question in The Vortex, comes when Florence asks Nicky, “what are you accusing me of having done?” and his strange answer is “can’t you see yet! … look at me.” The implication is that Nicky’s ‘problem’ is clear for all to see. This suggests that Nicky cannot hide his sexuality and there is evidence to support this as Tom and then Bunty seem to conclude that he is not the marrying type as well as accusations of being effeminate. The scene between Nicky and his mother is well crafted by Coward because it is rich in content. For example, if Nicky’s sexuality can be ‘read’ then surely his mother would have noticed. After all, she is close friends with Pawnie who is depicted as an elderly homosexual. It seems that Florence has indeed noticed because when Nicky declares that he has “a slight confession to make” then her response is firstly to gauge the gravity of it by repeating “confession?” but then swiftly says, “go away – go away.” Florence may not want to hear what she already knows. Nicky’s problem, as has already been established, cannot be named so drug use suffices as the confession. The informative parallel with the Shakespearean scene may be understood as follows – Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s sex life and chastises her, but the secret of the scene is that he is sexually attracted to his mother whereas Nicky obsesses over his mother’s sex life and chastises her, but the secret of the scene is that he is homosexual and seeks the very reason for his sexuality. In both Shakespeare’s and Coward’s separate scenes, a young man is being forced to confront a quite taboo element of his own sexuality and in each case his mother somehow holds the key to the problem.
As Sigmund Freud diagnosed Hamlet’s Oedipal complex then it seems apt to consult the psychologist’s writings once again regarding Nicky. It is true that Freud’s work is outdated to some degree, especially regarding homosexuality, however, it offers an important guide to academic discussions on sexuality around the time Coward wrote The Vortex. In “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905), Freud makes some helpful observations, for example, he clearly links neuroticism with homosexual feelings. The link between Nicky’s neurotic personality and drugs has already been explored, so it is of interest that Nicky’s neuroticism also hints at his sexuality. Therefore, a characteristic of Nicky’s that is discussed in the play, and is most evident in the climactic scene, is a clue to the sexual subtext. Freud also notes that, “inverts [homosexuals] go through in their childhood a phase of very intense but short-lived fixation on the woman (usually on the mother) and after overcoming it they identify themselves with the woman and take themselves as the sexual object.” If one looks at Nicky’s idealization of his mother then it can indeed be traced back to childhood, like the memory he recounts to Bunty, “I can remember her when I was quite small, coming up to say goodnight to me, looking too perfectly radiant for words.” The intense argument between Nicky and his mother shows that he no longer idealizes her but he once did and Freud’s theory refers to the important formative years and the crystallization of a sexual orientation. The fight between mother and son highlights one particular aspect of Nicky’s sexuality. We are told how Nicky finally realizes that the gossip about his mother has always been true and he even witnesses her make a “vulgar disgusting scene” when Tom breaks off the relationship. Nicky, like Hamlet, has been obsessing about his mother’s sexual relations. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Coward depicts Tom and Nicky as the same age because consequently Florence becomes Nicky’s rival in love when it comes to the attentions of another male. This links back to Tom’s initial impression of Nicky and the suggestion of sexual jealousy. Just as Hamlet is envious of Claudius’s sexual relations with his mother, Nicky seems to be jealous of his mother’s sexual relations with the “athletic” and masculine Tom.
To explain Nicky’s impulses, one may look to Freud’s book, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Freud writes of homosexuals, “the typical process … is that a few years after the termination of puberty the young man, who until this time has been strongly fixated to his mother, turns in his course, identifies himself with his mother, and looks about for love-objects in whom he can re-discover himself and whom he wishes to love as his mother loved him.” This point about identification with the mother is peculiar to Coward’s scene between Nicky and Florence so is missing from Hamlet and Gertrude’s scene. Nicky truly seems to feel that he and his mother are exceptionally alike, and not only does he supply excuses for some of her behaviours, like saying, “you’ve wanted love always – passionate love, because you were made like that – it’s not our fault” but these words obviously reflect his own character too. The key quote in the play is when Nicky says of himself and his mother, “we swirl about in a vortex of beastliness,” and that their only chance is to accept the truth. However, the truth that Nicky seeks is not a truth that he can express himself and the closest we get to naming his sexual ‘problem’ is by way of its apparent causes, namely his mother’s neglect of her parental duties, her shallow vanity, and her endless string of affairs. In the coded speak of 1920’s England, Nicky is blaming his mother for his homosexuality which at the time meant his ruin. Indeed, there is an air of impending doom and disgrace when Nicky references his own father and says, “I’m nothing for him to look forward to – but I might have been if it hadn’t been for you [Florence].” Looking forward suggests a career, marriage, and children, but old Mr. Lancaster will not see any of these because his son is gay.
The play ends at the conclusion of the dramatic bedroom scene. The resolution that has been agreed is that Florence will try to fulfil her, up until now neglected, role of mother. Like Hamlet who was furious at his mother because of his own unspeakable sexual urges, Nicky’s fight with his mother is equally characterized by obvious sexual repression, the inability to accept or even name the true source of the anger. One may draw another parallel and say that like Queen Gertrude who promises to keep Hamlet’s secret, Florence also understands her son’s secret and co-operates for that reason. Coward’s play is an early example of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate on same-sex attraction and the playwright’s emphasis on ‘nurture’ is clear and indeed supported at that time by such an eminent psychologist as Freud. The play is a snapshot of English society in a quite different era and is interesting for that very reason. The parallels between Hamlet and The Vortex have been explored to reveal the fascinating subtext that Coward creates.
Coward, Noel. The Vortex. Ernest Benn Limited, 1924.
Freud, Sigmund. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Collier Books, 1963.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 3rd ed., Seven Treasures Publications, 2008.
Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, David De Angelis, 2018.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Penguin Books, 2005.
Teff, H. “Drugs and the Law: The Development of Control.” The Modern Law Review, vol. 35, no. 3, 1972, pp. 225-241.