Noël Coward's Talent to Amuse.
Masquerade: The Lives of Noël Coward, by Oliver Soden
This is my review of Oliver Soden’s new biography of Noël Coward, about who I have previously written here.
“Another biography of Noël Coward!?” begins Masquerade: The Lives of Noël Coward by Oliver Soden. Certainly, we are well stocked with lives of the Master. As well as the discovery of new material—including a cache of early notebooks—Soden says “time and morality permit a new biography a freer, more disinterested, hand.” In that aim, Soden is successful. This is the most thorough and forceful account we have of Coward as a serious writer and great personality.
But Soden’s question is apposite. Another life of Coward needs new material, a new interpretation, or structural innovations. Soden pitched for all three: thoroughness based on new letters and notebooks, a fresh emphasis on Coward as a serious talent and his masked personality, and an inventive structure inspired by Coward’s work. Soden has the right subject for such an ambitious book. This is an interesting and engaging version of one the twentieth century’s most unignorable talents.
And talent—what exactly Coward’s talent was, and how he became what he did— is the central question. Soden decries the standard idea that Coward had only “a talent to amuse”. He wants to “restore” the plays to “their rightful place at the centre of any account of his life”, to get away from Coward The Master, a jack of all trades whose versatility obscures his “foremost achievement” the writing of “some of the most imperishable plays of his century.” This is a vexed point. There is an unwelcome sniff of the highbrow here. And the material tells its own story: Coward’s genius is that he can hold your attention in the theatre and the cinema and have you tapping your foot, the equal of anything in the great American songbook. Who else does all this and can claim to be a star performer?
And indeed Soden is on some of his best form when discussing Coward’s inter-war revues.
High-mindedness is the guiding force of Masquerade, but also its weakness. Lofty claims hamper the book from the start. “There is rarely a week when one or other of Private Lives, Hay Fever, and Blithe Spirit is not in production, somewhere in the world.” How does he know? There is no endnote. So begins a pattern of assertion without justification. Thus another question arises, the one Virginia Woolf asked in her life of Roger Fry. “My God, how does one write a biography?” How does one balance the competing claims of thoroughness, interpretation, and inventive structure?
Masquerade is in nine sections, based, Soden says, on the structure of Tonight at 8.30, Cowards’s series of one-act plays. It wasn’t clear to me how this structure related to Tonight at 8.30, especially as Soden also says each section is “loosely structured as one of the various genres” in which Coward wrote—revue, short story, musical, etc. At the start of each section Soden creates a cast list, stage directions, and a chunk of dialogue drawn from verbatim quotes. (Sheridan Morely—leader of the “talent to amuse” school—once devised an excellent play based entirely on verbatim quotes from Coward and his work, but it is not mentioned, alas.)
There have been several recent serious biographies that used similar techniques. Ruth Scurr’s life of John Aubrey is entirely made of passages of Aubrey’s own writing. In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Jenn Shapland made herself central to the book to argue convincingly that McCullers, contrary to establishment opinion, was a lesbian. Craig Brown arranged varying accounts of Princess Margaret alongside his own fictionalised portraits in Ma’am Darling to show the impossibility of knowing the truth of someone’s life. Soden uses all these approaches.
But in a funny way, his most successful techniques—the quoting of chunks of transcripts, for example—are quite old fashioned. Victorian biographers thought nothing of quoting several (or several dozen) pages of letters or notebooks. Soden does this with great care and selects the material judiciously. But he does not do it enough. He juxtaposes reviews of The Vortex to create a discourse on the play, similar to Craig Brown’s kaleidoscopic biography of Princess Margaret. It’s excellent and I wish he’d done more. Perhaps he worried about the possibly lopsided effect of this technique (Brown’s book is rather bitchy about poor old Princess M.)
In his speculative comments, Soden does not go so far as Shapland who interrogates and questions the gaps in her material, making bold speculations that stick closely to the record while questioning its integrity. This requires space and consideration. Soden’s book is too thorough for him to have that kind of scope and his subject is not enough of a mystery, despite the idea that “the mask reveals the man”. Instead assertions are made rather too glibly.
Where Soden is not innovative, he is thorough. But not particularly revelatory. The truth is that while there is plenty of new material the overall image is not especially new. The biggest revelation comes in the details of Coward’s espionage work during the war. But the promise of new material is often tantalisingly unfulfilled. New information does not necessarily give a new idea of a subject, of course. The historian Robert Blake, biographer of Disraeli, once said that new letters which were discovered after he published would have only given him interesting stories—such as the time Disraeli was smuggled into the House of Commons as a pastry cook to avoid his creditors—but wouldn’t have altered his basic view of Disraeli. Something like that is true of Soden’s book. This is the same Coward but in high definition.
The horde of forty notebooks gives Soden plenty of narrative but without more extensive quotation it’s of limited value. Again and again we hear that Coward did not, as is often said, dash off his plays in a frenzy: they were works of labour. But without seeing more of the raw material we are not much further than we were in Sheridan Morely’s biography (written when Coward was still alive), which first chipped away at the myth of a talent that came out of the air.
Two facts about the new caches of notebooks stood out to me. First, they contain no musical notes. Second, much of the dialogue for The Vortex was heavily revised in an extensive drafting process. I longed for more facts like the first, and to have been shown some—any!—of that revising. Soden says the notebooks are full of verb tables, vocab lists, lyrics, poems, sketches, stories, titles, names, rhymes, and word counts. If only we could know those names and read those poems. Everything is summarised; not enough is shown.
Instead, there are too many sentences like this: “Noël filled the days at his desk in an ink-spotted jumper, writing, writing, to the drone of the traffic along Ebury Street, his spiky pencil longhand tripping over itself to keep up with the brain it followed.” (He tells us Coward had a fast brain several times.) Soden is painting a picture. Fine. But Soden sets out his stall as thorough and revelatory: and then, too often, he imputes rather than relays information. He puts his style, such as it is, ahead of telling us about Coward.
Soden says Coward “presumably” had a hangover the morning after the end of the First World War but also that Noël was far more abstemious than his image suggested. He says the facts of Coward’s love life are largely mysterious in the early years, yet we are told of Coward’s steady social and professional climb through the 1920s “cat’s cradle of laissez faire sexuality.” We are told he and Edith Nesbit wrote to each other, but not what they said! He says Violet Coward “surely” considered her Pimlico address to be Belgravia. But did she? We don’t know. Space is given to ornery prose: the rich “nonchalantly” used winter as a verb, Manhattan was “buzzing with the music of Gershwin while mounds of dirty snow froze onto the sidewalks”, Davos had a “strange atmosphere of plush morality”, Coward’s dialogue has a “semiquaver sparkle”.
When new material is quoted, the effects are splendid. The war-time revelations are not especially exciting, but Coward’s reports to the Foreign Office are very good value. He said of Herbert Hoover:
His eyes are hard and small and I distrust his heart. His ego is obviously bruised and frustrated which makes him, not unnaturally, rather grumpy. I sensed in him a nostalgia for limelight… My careful summing up of the whole interview brings me to the inescapable conviction that he must have been the hell of a dull president.
Quite the talent to amuse, no? It is in such details that the real value of this book lies and there should have been more. Plenty could have been cut to make space.
Then there is the question of context. Reviewing Blake, the historian L.P. Curtis Jr. wrote that Blake was good at writing from the vantage point of the West End but was “thin on theory”. Curtis proposed a new form of “symbiography”, the merging of material from experts in social, cultural, political, and economic history. Like a Rubens painting, these experts would be the studio artists providing the background setting. There would still need to be “a master-biographer or conductor to blend and integrate this disparate material.” A fanciful idea. Biography is mostly written for the common reader and the commercial requirements of drawing on so many experts are no doubt prohibitive. But the point is valid.
Soden fell into this trap too often. Several assertions defy common sense. Was Coward’s really the first generation to have their own fashion and slang? Was Edwardian romance an artifice? When people who had wartime affairs and then went back to married life, was it going back to “the drudge of loving, domestic, passionless routine?” Why are no sociologists or historians quoted to back up these assertions? They seem a little pat, to say the least.
There are odd non-sequiturs, such as: “The 1920s were over, not only as a decade but an era. The Great Depression had begun. Noël might have felt vindicated, much of his work having attempted to imply that the post-war lifestyle of decadence and excess… was unsuitable.” Did he feel vindicated? Is there nothing in these new materials to tell us? If not, why make such a claim? The Great Depression surely had more to do with monetary policy than post-war decadence.
This might sound like nitpicking. But this book is over five-hundred-pages long. More should have been done to increase the information density. The weaknesses tell because Soden is otherwise excellent such as in the discussion of the speed and naturalism of Coward’s dialogue, the letters to Virginia Woolf, the 1955 Vegas show, Coward’s post-war misanthropy about modern theatre, and new interpretations of the plays using queer theory. More, more!
The problems mostly dog the first quarter of the book. Once Coward’s career takes off, Soden handles the material admirably but is often at his most conventional. The innovative structure fades into long chapters about the politics of Coward’s inter-war revues, his mixed success as a playwright, and the way his lyrics evolved with his personality. When extracts of courtroom transcripts or House of Commons debates are inserted it takes you right to the moment, and brings the era to life. Soden often does best when he is least present.
Soden certainly has a freer hand, writing in more liberal times, with access to more material than any other Coward biographer. But no biographer is disinterested. This ambitious book would have benefited from showcasing Coward more directly. That, however, might have made it more obvious that, when all is said and done, Coward was the Master and did primarily have a talent to amuse—and that doesn’t prevent him from being one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century. Rather, it explains it. Coward once wrote to Virginia Woolf that he would feel himself a real writer if he ever did something like the frozen Thames scene in Orlando. That’s silly, but it’s a sign of his impeccable taste: the way Coward combined excellent taste with his talent to amuse is really what Soden’s high-minded and entertaining biography shows, however hard it tried not to.
This is my review of Oliver Soden’s new biography of Noël Coward, about who I have previously written here.