This frank appraisal of Noel Coward’s life and career has an extraordinary amount of detail – but the range of styles in which the author tries to write about him breaks the flow of the book too much.
The title of this book really encapsulates what Noel Coward was like: a person of many different aspects and temperaments that as much as he was admired for his talent also had the potential (and on occasion did) alienate the people who cared about him as this book unflinchingly shows.
For this biography, author Oliver Soden was granted access to the playwright’s diaries among other rarely accessed documents to help create a sharp and grounded portrait of Coward’s life and career. Written with great insight, there are certainly plenty of moments in which the reader feels as though they are completely inside his head – his voice is very much at the centre of this, with Soden only interjecting with some insights on occasion to give extra context.
Taking the reader through the young Noel’s desire for success and fame, performing from an early age, all the way though to his early successes as playwright to some minor misfires and breakdowns along the way and beyond this is a book that is extremely frank in its appraisal of the playwright. We find out more about his supreme self-confidence and sometimes vicious attacks at those in the industry (although in fairness he would later on many occasions re-evaluate his opinions) as well as the close relationships he had with those closest to him – including his mother who was a constant source of support. Although his romantic life is handled more discreetly (he never openly admitted he was homosexual – which is hardly surprising given the attitudes in society for the majority of his life).
While the book does highlight and offer some analysis of Coward’s plays, songs and revues, the book seems to really delve into the depth of his personality – trying to separate the man from the fame – which is no easy task and can come across in some places a little bit heavy handed, particularly in terms of the style in which Soden writes – setting chapters up like scenes of a play which do on occasion feel slightly awkward, breaking up the flow of the book.
Outside of his work in the theatre, it was interesting to discover more about his work British secret service, which saw him travelling the world as a performer but involved with other things backstage – even if at times he wasn’t the most discreet – leading to suggestions that he wasn’t best suited for that type of work. His passion and doing work for the war (given his feelings of guilt of not having done as much as he could have during World War I is understandable) and for the country was a strong part of who he was – even if as he got older he became more disillusioned by Britain and politics – hence why he would go on to travel as much as he did. There are many moments in which the reader can see and understand that he was a force of nature.
His strength of character was incredible and should be admired – particularly in the face of adversity. During a period after the war and a few unsuccessful stagings, instead of giving up and feeling frustrated – he continued to write, his confidence in knowing that he still had plenty to write about that audiences would want to see staged is incredible. I can only imagine the number of pages outlying different plots for plays, revues and songs that he had. But of course, on the flip side of this (as the book made clear) this led to breakdowns, ill health, depression and taking his frustrations out on others. Knowing this makes him even more human (although some of the incidents that are recounted did make this reader wince).
As a writer, Soden really gets the balance of admiring Coward’s drive to succeed and talent well matched with his flaws as a human to deliver a distinctive and fascinating read that will engage anyone effectively no matter how familiar they are with Noel Coward’s work.
Perhaps on occasion, the range of styles he uses to explore his subject feels a little bit frustrating as an attempt to try too hard to keep it lively and entertaining, when there is no need to do this with a subject this fascinating. But overall, this is a intriguing and detailed read from start to finish.
By Emma Clarendon
Masquerade: The Lives of Noel Coward is available to buy and download now.