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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 148

Noël Coward was an extraordinarily prolific playwright, lyricist, and composer, writing more than fifty plays and musicals during his lifetime. He did not limit his literary endeavors solely to drama but ventured into other genres as well. These diversions into the realm of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry proved equally successful...

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Noël Coward was an extraordinarily prolific playwright, lyricist, and composer, writing more than fifty plays and musicals during his lifetime. He did not limit his literary endeavors solely to drama but ventured into other genres as well. These diversions into the realm of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry proved equally successful for him. In addition to his plays, Coward wrote three novels (two unpublished), several collections of short stories, satires, a book of verse, and several autobiographical works, Present Indicative (1937), Middle East Diary (1944), and Future Indefinite (1954).

Coward’s versatility is also apparent in his original scripts for five films, his screenplays and adaptations of his hit plays, and his several essays on the modern theater that appeared in popular journals and in The Times of London and The New York Times. Like his plays, Coward’s other works reveal his distinctive satiric style, sharp wit, and clever wordplay.

Achievements

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In 1970, Noël Coward was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services rendered to the arts.” The succinct phrasing of this commendation is as understated as some of Coward’s best dialogue, considering his long and brilliant career in the theater. Coward wrote plays specifically designed to entertain the popular audience and to provide an amusing evening in the theater. Few of his plays champion a cause or promote a social issue. His most noteworthy achievement came in the writing of scores of fashionable comedies, revues, and “operettes” that were resounding successes on the English, American, and Continental stages and continue to enjoy success today. For this insistence on writing light comedy, he received substantial criticism, and several of his works were brusquely dismissed as “fluff” by critics. These same plays, however, never wanted for an audience, even during the most turbulent, politically restless years.

Coward came to be associated with the 1920’s in England in much the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald was identified with the Jazz Age in the United States. Whereas Fitzgerald seriously examined the moral failings of his prosperous characters, however, Coward treated them lightly. His plays chronicle the foibles, fashions, and affairs of the English upper class and provide satirical vignettes of the social elite. Coward’s life and work reflect the same urbane persona; indeed, he wrote his best parts for himself. Coward’s world was that of the idle rich, of cocktails, repartee, and a tinge of modern decadence; this image was one he enjoyed and actively promoted until his death.

For all their popularity, most of Coward’s plays are not memorable, save for Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Design for Living, and possibly one or two others, yet his song lyrics have become part of the English cultural heritage. “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” from Words and Music, achieved immortality when its famous line “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun” was included in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Coward’s reputation rests less on the literary merits of his works and more on the man, who as an accomplished actor, entertainer, and raconteur displayed enormous resilience during his five decades in the public eye. One of the obvious difficulties in producing a Coward play is finding actors who are able to handle the dialogue with the aplomb of “the master.” What made Coward’s plays successful was not so much a strong text, but virtuoso performances by Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Cowl, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and Coward himself. The public continues to be amused by his works in revivals, especially when performed by actors, such as Maggie Smith, who can transmit Coward’s urbane humor to today’s audiences.

Bibliography

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Briers, Richard. Coward and Company. London: Robson Books, 1987. A short, well-illustrated biography of the English actor, playwright, composer, director, producer, and bon vivant.

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.

Castle, Terry. Noël Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Contains a comparison of Coward and Hall as well as of homosexuality and literature. Bibliography and index.

Citron, Stephen. Noël and Cole: The Sophisticates. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A comparison of Coward and Cole Porter as composers. Bibliography and index.

Cole, Leslie. Remembered Laughter: The Life of Noël Coward. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. A charming, well-written biography.

Cole, Stephen. Noël Coward: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. An invaluable guide for further research.

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.

Fisher, Clive. Noël Coward. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. A carefully written, albeit unauthorized biography. Focus is more on the events of Coward’s life than on literary analysis of his work.

Hoare, Philip. Noël Coward: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. A biography of the dramatist that covers his life and works. Bibliography and index.

Kaplan, Joel, and Sheila Stowell, eds. Look Back in Pleasure: Noël Coward Reconsidered. London: Methuen, 2000. A study of the dramatic works of Coward and his influence. Bibliography and index.

Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright. 1982. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A thorough literary analysis of Coward’s plays, identifying recurring themes and a consistent philosophy in the work.

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.

Levin, Milton. Noël Coward. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A useful literary biography, including analysis of important plays and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

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.

Morella, Joe. Genius and Lust: The Creative and Sexual Lives of Noël Coward and Cole Porter. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1995. Morella compares and contrasts Coward and Porter, examining their works and lives. Index.

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.

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