Jolly Good Fellow

"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...

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