“The more I began to think about and read Coward, the more convinced I became that the history of British entertainment in the first half of this century was essentially the history of his own career.” With that observation, Sheridan Morley, drama critic and arts editor of Punch, begins his biography of Noel Coward. The remark is enough to make a serious student of the theater set the book aside permanently, for Coward just doesn’t seem that special.

Born in 1899 to lower-middle-class parents, he shook the English theater before he reached 25 with his play The Vortex—an event as important to the 20’s, according to Morley, as Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was to the 50’s. But Coward settled down within the space of a few years to write entertaining drawing-room comedies that displayed his “talent to amuse.” Successful he was; but success could not save him from the barbs of the critics who castigated him for his lack of high purpose. To this charge Coward merrily pleaded guilty, admitting, whenever asked, that he had no religion, no philosophy, and no special interest in anything except Noel Coward. He was a long time awaiting critical absolution for his artistic sins.

Like Coward’s critics, we expect more of the theater and its playwrights than Coward was willing to give. We want ancient Athens and Elizabethan England, Aeschylus and Shakespeare, passion and catharsis, philosophy and politics. No doubt, we are right to desire nobility and meaning on the stage; only then can the theater truly inform a community and direct it morally.

But we would be foolish to think that we could have that theater permanently with us. The wise critic knows that a Shakespeare or Aeschylus doesn’t come along every decade; they are the treasures of millennia. Noel Coward was no Shakespeare; but he was a gifted, energetic, and witty man who knew how to stage a charming and funny play, play its lead, and write its theme song. Morley readily admits that Coward’s plays don’t always read well; but they perform well {Private Lives and Hay Fever continue to draw audiences in periodic revivals).

Many of Coward’s songs, especially “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “A Room With a View,” remain enjoyable, partly because they appeal to our nostalgia, partly because they are superbly written. As an actor. Coward was not the best if we measure him by Olivier or Gielgud. But what better tribute can one pay an actor than to say he stole nearly every scene he played in. (As bad a movie as Surprise Package was, I still smile when I remember Coward’s rendition of the title song.) And for all the vituperation English critics heaped on him, he lived to see his plays revived and hear himself declared the grand old man of British theater.

Morley does a decent but not flawless job in presenting Coward’s life and accomplishments. His explicit purpose is to write “a critical theatrical biography,” an arduous task even with a less flamboyant figure than Coward; the temptation is to serve up more of the private than the public, and Morley occasionally succumbs to it. Yet the biography falls short of being personal or intimate, mainly because Morley remains silent on the subject of Coward’s homosexuality. Coward, who was still alive when Morley began researching the book (originally published in 1969), stated categorically that no mention should be made of this side of his life. Morley complied. In this new edition of the book, he has chosen to leave the matter untouched as Coward wished, even though the playwright has been dead for over 10 years. Such a decision may ensure the integrity of Morley the man; it cannot enhance the reputation of Morley the biographer. The intimate biographer would tell the curious public something about the eccentric and immoral behavior of his subject; the critical biographer would indicate how that behavior affected his work. Morley does neither.

Still, A Talent to Amuse is a rewarding book. Morley is a solid critic: he knows Coward’s successes from his failures and doesn’t mind distinguishing them for his readers. And even though he paints Coward without the moles, he gives us a fair portrait of a man who asked his generation to treat laughter with some respect, and won his point handsomely.


[A Talent to Amuse: A Biography of Noel Coward, by Sheridan Morley (Little, Brown; Boston) $24.95]