NOEL COWARD by Clive Fisher


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 Not, of course, contrary to the publisher's blurb, the first ``in-depth biography''--Cole Lesley's 1976 Life of Noel Coward was discreet yet complete--but a decent enough life-and-work: sometimes strong on the plays and films, weak (to put it mildly) on the songs. Fisher, a British film critic, stresses--not very originally- -the contradictions in Coward's persona and oeuvre: the mocking outsider (homosexual, lower-middle-class) who was also a social climber, snob, and patriotic champion (in later years) of the Establishment; the idol of the literati who was himself ill- educated, insecure, and anti-intellectual. These conflicting impulses are noted as Fisher competently chronicles the well-known career--from child-performer to 1920's stardom in revues and his own scandalous The Vortex; from theater triumphs (Hay Fever, Private Lives, Calvacade, Blithe Spirit) and film acclaim (Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve) to a post-WW II decline partly redeemed by phenomenal success as a cabaret act. Only half- convincingly, Fisher argues that Coward, longing for acceptance, remained creatively stunted; the later work is slighted, and the memorable music and lyrics receive little attention. As for the private life, a few lovers (including Prince George, youngest son of George V) are named; the supposed Coward/Olivier liaison (cf. Donald Spoto, Laurence Olivier, p. 42) doesn't surface; and nothing surprising--or particularly insightful--is revealed. Throughout, the tone wavers between crisp competence and somewhat glib snideness, with unnecessary bits of dubious opinion tossed in (``Samuel Beckett is one of the most overrated playwrights of recent times...''). A mixed bag, then, marred by blind spots--but welcome for its detailed discussion of the plays and on-target enough of the time to be useful, perhaps, as a balance to Lesley's far less critical biography. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: June 17th, 1992
ISBN: 0-312-07044-6
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1992