Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3509
Article abstract: Personifying the essence of sophistication, wit, and style, Coward was one of the most productive and versatile artists in the history of show business as a playwright, composer, actor, singer, and director.
Noël Peirce Coward was born December 16, 1899, in Teddington, Middlesex, a small village on the Thames. His parents, Violet Agnes Veitch and Arthur Sabin Coward, had met there during a choir practice in 1890. They were married in 1892 and soon had a son, Russell, who died of spinal meningitis in 1898. Arthur Coward, who came from a family of organists, worked as a piano and organ salesman but never prospered. In 1905, when Noël was six years old, the family moved to cheaper housing in Sutton, Surrey, where the Cowards’ last child, Eric, was born later that year.
Young Noël’s stage career began at Sutton in 1907, when he sang at a school concert. After the family moved to Battersea in 1908, he began attending the theater regularly, quickly becoming infatuated with show business. He wrote a play for three acquaintances, sisters, to act in, but because they giggled during the performance, he hit one over the head with a wooden spade. In January, 1911, he made his professional stage debut in Lila Field’s all-children musical production The Goldfish (1911).
Coward’s formal education virtually stopped in 1911 as he, with the enthusiastic help of his mother, pursued a career on the stage. He soon won a bit part in a comedy starring Charles Hawtrey, from whom he began to learn about comic timing. While appearing in another Hawtrey play in 1912, Coward made his directorial debut with a single performance of a one-act play for children. He began his friendship with Gertrude Lawrence the next year, when the two children appeared together in a play in Liverpool and Manchester.
The Cowards moved to larger rooms in Clapham Common in 1913 but still lived in genteel poverty. Young Noël was markedly different from other children. According to Micheál Mac Liammóir, with whom between 1913 and 1915 he acted in a production of Peter Pan (1904), “to other children he seemed totally grown-up. He was decidedly puckish, witty, dry, clipped and immensely competent.”
Coward formed a creative rivalry with another child performer, Esmé Wynne, with whom he wrote songs and short plays. During a stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1915, he wrote one-act plays for the staff to perform. At fifteen, he announced his intention to have the entire theatrical world at his feet.
In 1917, a play by Coward was first presented on a professional stage. He and Wynne cowrote “The Last Chapter,” later retitled “Ida Collaborates,” a one-act comedy about the unrequited love of a charwoman’s daughter for a distinguished author. That same year, Coward played a small part in D. W. Griffith’s motion picture Hearts of the World (1918), but he was bored by the time-consuming process of filmmaking and did not appear in another film for seventeen years. At the end of 1917, he played his first adult part in Charles Haddon Chambers’ The Saving Grace (1919), another comedy produced by Hawtrey.
Just as Coward’s acting career was blossoming in 1918, his life began to be disrupted. His father’s company went out of business—Arthur Coward never worked again—and his mother had to operate a boardinghouse. Coward was then drafted and spent nine months in the army. A head injury received when he fell while running on a wooden path kept him out of combat and eventually won for him a discharge.
At the end of 1918, Coward took “The Last Trick,” a four-act melodrama, to impresario Gilbert Miller, who praised the young playwright’s dialogue but faulted the play’s construction and impressed upon him the importance of structure. Inspired by Miller’s thoughtful encouragement, Coward wrote three more plays in 1919, only one of which, The Rat Trap, was ever produced (in 1924).
In 1920, Miller commissioned a comedy for Hawtrey, and I’ll Leave It to You became Coward’s first full-length play to be produced. It opened in London in July, 1920, but lasted only thirty-seven performances. I’ll Leave It to You was also Coward’s first play to be staged in the United States, appearing briefly in Boston in 1923. His next produced play, The Young Idea, a comedy about precocious children who reunite their estranged parents, was more successful, running for seven weeks in 1922. Coward continued dividing his energies between writing and performing, and in 1923, he and Gertrude Lawrence sang and danced together in a revue, London Calling!, in which half the songs were composed by Coward.
Inspired by a 1921 trip to New York during which he visited the eccentric household of actress Laurette Taylor, Coward wrote Hay Fever, the first of his plays later to be considered a masterpiece, in three days in 1923. This drawing-room comedy, with its distinctively witty dialogue, ran for 337 performances in London in 1925, but it is not the play that established Coward. The 1924 production of The Vortex, starring Coward and Lilian Braithwaite, made it clear that he was a major playwright and actor. This account of a drug addict’s passionate devotion to his nymphomaniac mother shocked the audiences of its day and brought Coward the first of several confrontations with the Lord Chamberlain, Great Britain’s official censor.
The Vortex established Coward as a highly newsworthy celebrity, and he perhaps relished the spotlight more than any other theatrical personality of his time. Of average height and looks, with a thin face, largish nose, and receding hairline, slender for most of his life, Coward faced the world with almost perpetually arched eyebrows. He had a slightly Oriental aspect and enjoyed describing himself as Mandarin and being photographed in a dressing gown.
The success of The Vortex made possible productions of Hay Fever and Fallen Angels (1925), both of which had previously been rejected by almost every management in London. Fallen Angels, in which two middle-aged women get drunk while waiting for the return of a man both have loved, was condemned as immoral by many critics. By June, 1925, these three plays and a Coward revue, On with the Dance, were running simultaneously in the West End. Such a feat had been accomplished before only by W. Somerset Maugham and was not to be matched for fifty years, when it was duplicated by Alan Ayckbourn.
Coward repeated his success with The Vortex as playwright and actor in New York despite one reviewer’s objection to his “hysterical collection of oversexed, overdressed, overnerved and overwhelmed neurasthenics.” Hay Fever, however, flopped on Broadway. Throughout his career, there was little correlation between Coward’s London and New York successes. His next play, Easy Virtue (1925), a drawing-room drama in the manner of Arthur Wing Pinero and Maugham, was his first to premiere in New York and was as successful as The Vortex. Coward told the New York World, “I had always felt that if I could only make a hit in America I should feel that I had done something quite wonderful. Success is tremendously important to me. . . . I always felt that success would come.” He celebrated his success upon his return to England by purchasing a country house, Goldenhurst, in Kent.
After Easy Virtue opened in London in 1926, Coward’s next play was The Queen Was in the Parlour (1926), a romantic costume drama he had written in 1922. It was only a modest success, since audiences went to Coward’s plays expecting them to be outrageous. A more serious problem occurred near the end of the year, when, while onstage in Margaret Kennedy and Basil Dean’s The Constant Nymph (1926), he suffered his first nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork.
Before completely recovering, Coward began a New York production of This Was a Man (1926), which had been banned in England because of its treatment of adultery, and experienced his first major failure as most of the first-night audience walked out. He then sailed for China for a vacation but experienced a complete breakdown when he reached Hawaii. Six weeks of rest followed. Meanwhile, a London production of The Marquise (1927), a domestic comedy set in the eighteenth century, was a success.
The biggest failure of Coward’s career as a playwright came in late 1927. Home Chat, a comedy about supposed infidelity, and Sirocco, a drama dealing with an Italian fiesta, were greeted by boos and catcalls on their London opening nights. While leaving the Sirocco opening, Coward was spat upon. He suspected that many people, tired of his numerous triumphs, wanted him to fail. With This Year of Grace! (1928), a well-received revue, and his performance in S. N. Behrman’s The Second Man (1927), in 1928, he was considered to have staged a major comeback. For the rest of his career, Coward was to experience similarly drastic shifts in public acceptance.
Coward’s largest popular success came in 1929 with Bitter Sweet, a sentimental operetta about the love of a dancer and a violinist in nineteenth century Vienna. It ran for almost two years in London, and with American and French productions, two film versions, and royalties from the songs, it made its author-composer more money than any of his other creations.
Traveling from Hanoi to Saigon while on a lengthy trip throughout Asia in 1929-1930, Coward composed his most famous song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Because he had promised Gertrude Lawrence that he would write a play for the two of them, he created what was to become his best-known play, Private Lives (1930), over four days in Shanghai. Private Lives, with its divorced couple meeting again on their honeymoons with new mates, epitomizes Coward’s well-made structure and witty dialogue, yet the original production, with Lawrence, Coward, and Laurence Olivier, received mixed reviews and no raves. The New York production, however, again with Coward and Lawrence, received the praise it deserved.
Coward’s next play was his largest theatrical undertaking. Cavelcade (1931) follows the lives of a family and their servants from 1900 to 1929 as the playwright attempts to encompass the history of England in the twentieth century through twenty-two scenes and with more than four-hundred actors. In his opening-night curtain speech, Coward, always a patriot, told the cheering audience that he hoped the play showed “it is still a pretty exciting thing to be English.”
Design for Living (1933), another of his major comedies, had origins similar to Private Lives. Coward wrote it over ten mornings because he had promised Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that he would create a play for the three of them. It was a Broadway success, but some observers considered this story of two men in love with the same woman decadent. A London production did not appear until 1939.
Coward was clearly the major theatrical talent of the 1920’s and 1930’s, but his many achievements could have their drawbacks, as critic Brooks Atkinson pointed out: “Coward’s gifts are so multitudinous, his range is so bewildering and his success has been so dazzling that we are all inclined to expect too much of him. When we come to one of his new plays we are feverishly prepared as for a sign from God.” Coward displayed his fallibility with Point Valaine (1935), a melodrama which underwent a disastrous Broadway run and was the biggest failure Lunt and Fontanne ever had.
After resisting the lure of Hollywood money, Coward decided to act in a low-budget New York production codirected by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and costarring his old friend Alexander Woollcott. The Scoundrel (1935), in which Coward played a cynical publisher who comes back from the dead, was a critical success but disappointed its star.
Coward next turned his energies to Tonight at Eight-thirty (1935), a series of nine one-act plays which he and Lawrence performed in alternating triple bills, the production being intended to display its stars’ varied talents for comedy, drama, and music. The strain of playing nine diverse parts night after night began to show when Tonight at Eight-thirty moved to Broadway in 1937, leading to Coward’s second nervous breakdown. He did not act in the theater again for six years.
After recovering, Coward wrote Operette (1937), a nostalgic operetta in the manner of Bitter Sweet, but its play-within-a-play structure confused audiences and it flopped. He followed this with To Step Aside (1939), his first collection of short stories, and then wrote in 1938 Present Laughter (1942) and in 1939 This Happy Breed (1942). Coward planned for these plays, one a sophisticated comedy, the other a family drama about ordinary people, to be performed on alternating nights by the same actors, but Germany invaded Poland while they were in rehearsal, forcing Coward to postpone them.
In August, 1939, Coward had been asked by the government to go to Paris when the war started to set up a Bureau of Propaganda which would operate with the French Ministry of Information to “disseminate propaganda in neutral territory.” When he arrived in Paris, however, he found little official support from either government. He got the office running smoothly anyway and went to the United States to evaluate the American attitude toward the European war. In 1940-1941, Coward went to Australia and New Zealand for the first series of the troop concerts he was to give for the rest of the war.
Back in England, Coward found himself suddenly inspired and wrote Blithe Spirit (1941) in six days. This comedy about a man haunted by the ghost of his first wife proved to be Coward’s most successful play yet, running for 1,997 performances in London. This was to be his last major success in the theater, but he was to have an immediate achievement in a new area. Inspired by what Lord Louis Mountbatten had told him of the war, Coward wrote, codirected (with David Lean), and starred in In Which We Serve (1942), which glorified the fighting spirit of the British navy. The film was a critical and popular success and won for Coward a special Academy Award for “outstanding production achievement.”
Coward returned to the stage in 1942, touring England with Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter, and This Happy Breed. He then went on tour for a year, entertaining troops in South Africa, Ceylon, India, and Burma. In the latter, he performed five shows a day in different locations in heavy rains and extreme heat.
As the war in Europe ended, Coward had another film triumph with his screenplay for Brief Encounter (1946). Based on “Still Life,” one of the Tonight at Eight-thirty plays, this story of love between two ordinary people happily married to others was considered one of the most realistic British films made to that time and has remained one of the most popular motion-picture soap operas.
Coward’s stage ventures immediately after the war were less happy. Sigh No More (1945), a revue, Pacific 1860 (1946), a romantic operetta, and Peace in Our Time (1947), a drama imagining a German occupation of London, all flopped. The 1950’s started off no better, with the failures of Ace of Clubs (1950), an elaborate musical, and The Astonished Heart (1950), a film starring Coward based on one of his short plays. He began to fear for the first time that he had lost the ability to please the public.
He regained his touch as a playwright in 1951 with Relative Values, a well-received comedy, and at the same time conquered a new area of show business when he decided that his wartime concerts had been good enough to try cabaret singing. His performances at London’s Café de Paris, in which he mixed his own songs with those of other composers, suddenly made him as much in demand as he had been before World War II. These shows worked more because of Coward’s charisma than because of his musical skills. As London’s Sunday Times observed, “His personality almost persuaded his audiences that he could sing.” His beloved mother lived to see this final triumph before dying in 1954 at ninety-one.
In 1955, Coward was paid forty thousand dollars a week to perform at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and was again a big hit. He followed this triumph by singing the songs of Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, as well as his own, with Mary Martin, for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the first color special on American television.
Unexpected controversy entered Coward’s life in 1956 when he decided to sell all of his property in England and live outside his native country for tax purposes. Charges of lack of patriotism in the press and elsewhere hurt Coward deeply. A television panel even debated whether he had the right to live where he chose. The harsh feelings precipitated by his decision did not harm the business for his next comedy, Nude with Violin (1956), a satire of the avant-garde, which ran in London for a year. Coward alternated performing in this play and Present Laughter on Broadway in 1957-1958.
For a time, each of Coward’s plays and musicals following Nude with Violin either failed or were modest successes. Many had begun to consider him a celebrity of the 1920’s and 1930’s who had once written fashionable plays which were hopelessly outmoded. This view began to change in 1963 when a revival of Private Lives in Hampstead and London initiated a renewal of interest in Coward’s work. As one critic said of the play that had not been performed in London since 1944, “Can it be that we have underrated Coward all these years, and that Private Lives so far from being a badly dated relic is in fact the funniest play to have adorned the English theatre in this century?” The renaissance continued in 1964 when Coward directed a hit revival of Hay Fever at the National Theatre and High Spirits, a musical version of Blithe Spirit, which was a Broadway and London success. Suite in Three Keys, his final production as playwright and actor, was a London hit in 1966.
Coward’s renaissance was complete when he was knighted in 1970, final proof that he had returned to public favor. By this time, he had lost his desire to work, and he spent his last years living peacefully in Jamaica and Switzerland with his longtime companions, Cole Lesley and Graham Payn. He died of a heart attack in Jamaica on March 26, 1973. A memorial stone honoring Coward was unveiled in Westminster Abbey in 1984.
Critic Cyril Connolly described Noël Coward as “one of the most talented and prodigiously successful people the world has ever known.” His primary legacy is his productivity and versatility as writer, composer, and performer. Some have claimed that Coward has had no definite influence on the development of drama, but as Sheridan Morley, his biographer, has pointed out, his “elliptical twin-level technique . . . of having a character say one thing while thinking and meaning something entirely different” is the essence of twentieth century drama, a device perhaps reaching its apex in the plays of Harold Pinter. William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Tom Stoppard are Coward’s only major rivals in the creation of distinctive, lasting comedies. Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter, and Blithe Spirit are always being performed somewhere in the world.
Coward was a hedonist and snob who thrived on being surrounded by people as famous as himself and dominating the festivities with his wit. He seemed like nothing less than a character in a Noël Coward play. His existence was devoted to proving his contention that “the theatre is the most adventurous, exciting and glamorous life in the world.”
Castle, Charles. Noël. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1973. Documentary biography combining the memories of Coward’s friends with excerpts from his plays, the lyrics of many of his songs, and photographs.
Coward, Noël. Present Indicative. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1937. Describes his life through 1931, detailing his rise to fame.
Coward, Noël. Future Indefinite. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1954. The second volume of Coward’s autobiography; chronicles his life from 1939 to 1945, emphasizing his experiences related to World War II.
Lesley, Cole. Remembered Laughter: The Life of Noël Coward. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Anecdotal account of Coward’s life by his secretary and companion of forty years.
Lesley, Cole, Graham Payn, and Sheridan Morley. Noël Coward and His Friends. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1979. Scrapbook biography full of photographs, posters, paintings, programs, newspaper clippings, and letters, most from Coward’s files.
Marchant, William. The Privilege of His Company: Noël Coward Remembered. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1975. Memoir based on a playwright’s periodic encounters with Coward beginning in 1950.
Morley, Sheridan. A Talent to Amuse: A Biography of Noël Coward. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1969. The standard biography, gives the essential facts of Coward’s life and stresses his place in theatrical history. Epilogue dealing with subject’s life after 1969 added to 1985 edition.
Payn, Graham, and Sheridan Morley, eds. The Noël Coward Diaries. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1982. Excerpts from the diaries Coward kept from 1941 to 1969. Discusses his successes and failures and his socializing with an amazing array of celebrities.