(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward 1899–1973
English dramatist, lyricist, novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and autobiographer.
Coward's long and prolific theatrical career encompassed every phase of the theater from writing plays and songs to acting, producing, and directing. Critics and fellow playwrights acknowledge his stature by referring to him simply as "the Master." In 1970, the Queen of England honored him with knighthood. Three of his plays, Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1933), and Blithe Spirit (1941), are considered among the best social comedies in the English language, and such songs as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" enjoy enduring popularity. Although Coward wrote serious plays, as well as a best-selling novel and several collections of stories, he is best remembered for his witty dramas featuring the upper class.
Critic A.J.P. Taylor attributed Coward's success to "a perfectly just knowledge of what does and does not work in the theatre." Part of this knowledge stems from Coward's early immersion in the world of theater. He began as an actor at the age of eleven, and his first play was produced professionally when he was twenty-one. Critics have remarked that he writes "theater" rather than "drama," and Coward admitted that he often wrote plays for specific actors and actresses. In his early plays, Coward himself often acted a leading role opposite Gertrude Lawrence.
Coward began as a playwright in the 1920s. Like many young people of the post-World War I era, he had a love of gaiety and a flippant cynicism. For the first time, English youth emerged as a separate and forceful sector of their society, and several of Coward's plays from this period deal with a generation gap. Another theme which appeared in Coward's work was sexual permissiveness, or, as he termed it, "sophistication." Many of these plays were sex comedies or farces centering on a love triangle. Coward's popularity peaked in the period between the two world wars. During the 1950s, Coward's plays were very unpopular with critics and his diaries show that he worked hard to maintain his spirits and his output of plays, revues, and songs. In the 1960s he performed his songs and sketches in nightclubs and regained some of his former stature, although his production as a playwright dwindled. Coward was also a persistent chronicler of his own life and published several autobiographies. The Noël Coward Diaries (1982), which he kept from 1941 through 1970, were clearly intended for publication.
Coward said that "the primary and dominant function of the theatre is to amuse people, not to reform or edify them." However, although his writing reflects his emphasis on entertainment value, critics have also found political and social statements in Coward's plays. In particular, Post-Mortem (1931) reflects the disillusionment of Coward and others of his generation with war as a way to improve the human condition. Nevertheless, his plays of the World War II era were less antiwar, for Coward was a fiercely patriotic British citizen who believed in nationalism and imperialism. While he was conservative politically, his work presented social views considered liberal at the time. Some of his plays were banned for their licentious content; Coward made light of extramarital affairs and was tolerant of homosexuality. But although Coward's plays reflect the sexual permissiveness of his times, some critics contend that he did not sympathize with his characters. Design for Living is an example of a Coward play in which the author appears to say one thing but most likely intends another. The play features a love triangle: a married woman and two men, neither of whom is her husband, who conclude that they must go through life together as a trio. Some critics perceive that Coward was satirizing these characters and, in fact, disapproved of their behavior. Design for Living is a typical Coward play in several ways: it is a comedy with a serious theme, its content is socially unorthodox, and it was written with specific actors in mind, namely Coward himself, Lynn Fontanne, and Alfred Lunt.
Perhaps Coward's most innovative contribution to the theater is his dialogue, which is notable not only for its quickness and humor, but for its naturalism. Coward's characters often speak in fragmented, ungrammatical, and colorless sentences. For this reason his plays can be difficult to read, but come alive on the stage. Some critics predicted that Coward's dialogue was too much a product of its time to endure, but this has not proven true. His plays are still widely performed.
Critics disagree about Coward's value to the literary world. Are his plays more than superficial entertainment, and if not, can Coward still be critically respected? These questions are complicated by the fact that Coward himself was well known as a personality. Because he was in the limelight so much of the time, and because he revealed much of himself in his diaries and autobiographies, many critics have used information about Coward as a person in their criticism of his work. Playwright David Hare, reviewing The Noël Coward Diaries, saw him as a superficial man who was afraid to look deep within himself or at the world's problems and disappointments and was incapable of being self-critical. But Paul Fussell commented, "If Coward was a lightweight, let's have more of the same."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 10.)