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).
(The entire section is 4,502 words.)