Masquerade: The Lives of Noël Coward

Oliver Soden
Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Go to book...


If anyone else has plans to write a biography of Noël Coward, they can give up now. Oliver Soden’s magisterial work, weighing in at 634 pages, is undoubtedly definitive.

The scope of Coward’s appeal was impeccably summed up while he was still in his 20s. “He is a miracle, a prodigy. He can sing, dance, write plays, act, compose, and I daresay paint”. Remarkably, this paean of praise was penned by Virginia Woolf, not necessarily the most obvious enthusiast for a prolific but popular playwright.

At roughly the same time, critic James Agate reckoned that the only comparative for the young prodigy, who had just written the operetta Bitter Sweet and become the highest paid writer in the world, was Richard Wagner.

Even though, egged on by mother Violet, the young Noël was desperate for success, in early days, nobody would have thought that the precocious boy actor would become a self-willed legend within a decade or so.

As a child and then a youth, he must have been insufferable, filled with self-confidence and happy to attach himself to the most important person in the room, quickly becoming a guest of the rich and famous, eventually a confidant of the Royal family, whether invited or not.

From the start, he was also a workaholic, eventually inducing more than one nervous breakdown, but writing innumerable scripts and stories not to mention poems, novels and songs. The quality wasn’t always uniformly high but the output was astonishing, particularly as the budding star was also a highly successful actor and needed to maintain his reputation as a social animal.

Oliver Soden is particularly strong on his subject’s personality. He takes us through what should have been a troubled childhood, ending in a period of terror as war raged around the world. Already, mother was a forceful influence and, perhaps surprisingly for someone who realised early that he was homosexual, there are many female friendships that would prove to be lifelong.

In the 1920s, after a couple of minor misfires, Noël Coward’s career took off with a vengeance both as a playwright and actor. Readers will be reminded not only of popular hits such as Private Lives but also the sheer breadth of the output, in different styles and eventually media. The best plays, musicals and reviews were smash hits on both sides of the Atlantic, while a little later in life, adaptations and new works such as This Happy Breed proved to be successful on the silver screen.

There have been three previous biographies of Coward but none published in the last few decades. As the theatre world mourns on the 50th anniversary of The Master’s death, this hefty volume provides a great deal of information that was previously unknown, aided by access to much unpublished documentation including diaries and letters.

In particular, Soden is able to explore Coward’s difficult relationships, given that homosexuality was illegal through most of his life, and also wartime operations as an enthusiastic, if not necessarily consistently effective, representative of the British secret service, dotting around the world acting as a performer but involved in more even more exciting activities behind the scenes.

Many younger readers today witnessing constant revivals of such classics as Hay Fever, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter will assume that Noël Coward’s career was one of unbridled success, but that is far from the truth. There was a period after the war, during which Private Lives disappeared from trace for a full quarter-century, during which he trotted out a series of duds. That would have been a death knell for most. Instead, he just kept on writing and eventually managed to transform and revive his reputation as both a writer and an actor in late middle age, finally working in film as well as on stage.

While the last days prior to what we would now see as a premature demise were difficult, overall “The Lives of Noël Coward” were happy and productive and anyone interested in the history of theatre or a fan of his work is strongly commended to read this lively, comprehensive and satisfying biography.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?