Noel Coward (1899 – 1973)
Sir Noel Peirce Coward was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called “a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise”. Coward’s distinctive clipped diction arose from his childhood: his mother was deaf and Coward developed his staccato style of speaking to make it easier for her to hear what he was saying.
Born in Teddington, south-west London, on 16th December 1899, Noel Coward was the second of three sons. Coward’s father lacked ambition and industry and family finances were often poor. Coward was bitten by the performing bug early and appeared in amateur concerts by the age of seven. He attended the Chapel Royal Choir School as a young child. He had little formal schooling, but was a voracious reader. Coward attended a dance academy in London as a child, making his professional stage début at the age of eleven. As a teenager he was introduced into the high society in which most of his plays would be set. As a suburban boy who had been taken up by the upper classes, he rapidly acquired the taste for high life: “I am determined to travel through life first class’’ he said , hence his assiduous cultivation of a carefully crafted up- market image.
Coward achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards., He composed hundreds of songs, in addition to well over a dozen musical theatre works ,including the operetta ‘Bitter Sweet’ and comic revues; screenplays, poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, and a three-volume autobiography. Coward’s stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, during which he starred in many of his own works.
What seemed daring in the 1920s and 1930s came to seem old-fashioned in the 1950s and Coward never repeated the success of his pre-war plays. But his best plays also dealt with recognisable people and familiar relationships, with an emotional depth and pathos that had been often overlooked. Many of his works, such as ‘Hay Fever’, ‘Private Lives’, ‘Design for Living’, ‘Present Laughter ‘and ‘Blithe Spirit’, have remained in the regular theatre repertoire.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Coward volunteered for war work, running the British propaganda office in Paris. He also worked with the Secret Service, seeking to use his influence to persuade the American public and government to help Britain. Coward won an Academy Honorary Award in 1943 for his naval film drama, ‘In Which We Serve’.
In the 1950s he achieved fresh success as a cabaret performer, performing his own songs, such as ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, ‘London Pride’ and ‘I Went to a Marvellous Party’.
His plays and songs achieved new popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s and his work and style continue to influence popular culture. He was knighted in 1969. The former Albery Theatre (originally the New Theatre) in London was renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in his honour in 2006.
Coward was homosexual but, following the convention of his times, this was never publicly mentioned. He did not publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, but it was discussed candidly after his death by biographers including Graham Payn, his long-time partner.
1950s, Coward left the UK for tax reasons, receiving harsh criticism in the press. He first settled in Bermuda, but later bought houses in Jamaica and Switzerland (in the village of Les Avants, near Montreux), which remained his homes for the rest of his life.
By the time of his death, The Times was writing of him, ‘None of the great figures of the English theatre has been more versatile than he’ and the paper ranked his plays in ‘the classical tradition of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde and Shaw’.
Coward died at his home, Firefly Estate, in Jamaica on 26 March 1973 of heart failure.