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...
(The entire section is 3509 words.)