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NONFICTION : A TALENT TO AMUSE by Sheridan Morley (Little, Brown: $24.95). : THE COLLECTED VERSE of Noel Coward, edited by Graham Payn & Martin Tickner (Methuen: $17.95).

September 29, 1985|PETER HAY

Sheridan Morley's reissued biography of Noel Coward remains highly readable, though the revisions do not go far enough. Only a brief prologue and epilogue reveal that The Master has been dead a dozen years; elsewhere he is confusingly alive. When the book first appeared in 1969, Coward was still living off his capital as a fading celebrity and the "compleat" entertainer; today he is regarded a classic master of social comedy in 20th-Century theater. The revision missed the opportunity to place this achievement in critical perspective, while shedding the subject's infectious defensiveness. Respect for Coward's privacy about his emotional life was more understandable in his lifetime, given British laws on homosexuality, but references to close friendships now sound too coy and cloying. We do get surprising glimpses into Coward's psyche in his "Collected Verse," which its editors are careful to distinguish from poetry. Though the buyer must beware not to expect the familiar lyrics from the plays, (which were collected in 1973), this is a valuable addition to the growing body of Cowardiana.

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