‘This is the biography – truthful, sympathetic and thorough – that Coward deserves’
The voice, the dressing-gown, the cigarette in its holder, remain unmistakable. There is rarely a week when one of Private Lives, Hay Fever, and Blithe Spirit is not in production somewhere in the world. Phrases from NoÃ«l Coward’s songs – “Mad About The Boy”, “Mad Dogs and Englishman” – are forever lodged in the public consciousness. He was at one point the most highly paid author in the world. Yet some of his most striking and daring writing remains unfamiliar. As T.S. Eliot said, in 1954, “there are things you can learn from NoÃ«l Coward that you won’t learn from Shakespeare”.
Coward wrote some fifty plays and nine musicals, as well as revues, screenplays, short stories, poetry, and a novel. He was both composer and lyricist for approximately 675 songs. Louis Mountbatten’s famous tribute argued that, while there were greater comedians, novelists, composers, painters and so on, only “the master” had combined fourteen talents in one. So central was he to his age’s theatre that any account of his career is also a history of the British stage. And so daring was Coward’s unorthdoxy in his closest relationships, obliquely reflected throughout his writing, that it must also be a history of sexual liberation in the twentieth century. In Oliver Soden’s sparkling, story-packed new Life, the Master finally gets his due.
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