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Noel Coward

1899 - 1973

 

 

The English playwright, actor, and composer Noel Coward was known for his likable sophistication and sharp sense of humour. Although he wrote some of the most popular plays of his time, he was also known for his entertaining personality and his abilities as a witty storyteller.

 

 

Early Years


His birthplace still stands, a rather common attached brick house in Teddington, a quiet suburban village near London, England. One look at this building would convince you that great things can start in the most unassuming places.

Noel Peirce Coward was born on December 16, 1899, receiving his first name because Christmas was just days away. He was the son of Arthur and Violet Veitch Coward. Arthur was an unsuccessful piano salesman with little personal drive, so family finances were often shaky. Violet's first son had died as an infant, so she showed amazing devotion to Noel and did her best to gloss over the family's genteel poverty. Noel's younger brother Eric suffered from chronic poor health that kept him in the background for most of his short life. Noel was the family's star attraction.

Noel survived several childhood accidents. Once while playing on a beach, a broken bottle severed an artery in his foot. The only person in sight had just completed first aid training and was able to save the little boy's life. Such early strokes of luck later led to Noel being nicknamed "Destiny's Tot."

From an early age, Noel was intelligent, temperamental, and an instinctive performer, making his first stage appearances in amateur concerts at age seven. He loved to sing and dance at any excuse and threw frightful tantrums if he was not summoned to perform for guests. His formal education consisted of a few years at the Chapel Royal Choir School (which he despised) and some dance lessons (which he enjoyed). A lifetime of voracious reading and a keen sense of observation made up for his lack of schooling.

Coward with Charles HawtreyCoward makes his professional West End debut as a page boy in The Great Name (1911) with Lydia Bilbrooke and Charles Hawtrey.

Coward excelled in amateur talent shows. With his mother's encouragement, he launched his professional acting career at the age of 12, making his London debut as Prince Mussel in a children's show called The Goldfish. He appeared in several West End productions with the popular comic actor-manager Charles Hawtrey, and played the "lost boy" Slightly in two West End editions of Peter Pan.

The precocious Coward later admitted to having his first sexual experience at age 13 with fellow child actor Philip Tonge. However, his closest adolescent friendship was with aspiring actress and author Esme Wynne. They shared such intense conversations that they sometimes bathed together so as not to interrupt a line of thought. Coward and Wynne exchanged clothes on occasion, strolling through London in reversed gender. In time, their friendship faded, but their pranks and witty banter would inspire material in many of Coward's future plays.


Meeting High Society

In the early 1900s, England was a very class-conscious society. A boy actor born to poor parents would have have been snubbed by the upper classes. However, Coward's extraordinary determination and charm won him an entree into the chicest circles. His professional and social ambitions were insatiable.

Noel's social ascendancy began thanks to his teenage friendship with adult artist Philip Streatfield. We know they were close and that Streatfield had a taste for young men – the rest is anyone's guess. Before wartime illness drove Streatfield to an early death, he asked wealthy socialite Mrs. Astley Cooper to take Coward under her wing. Young Noel became a frequent guest at her country estate. Butlers and maids, formal meals, riding and hunting – Coward thrived in this sophisticated environment, his first taste of the elegant world he would one day immortalize in many of his comedies.

During his weekends at the Cooper estate, Coward encountered the writings of Saki, the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro. These witty short stories often centred on the sort of wealthy, cynical young men who's world would be pulverized by World War I. Coward would pick up where Saki (who died in the war) left off.


Struggle

Coward was too young to be drafted when the war broke out in 1914, so he continued to appear in plays, building his professional reputation. His first screen role was in D.W. Griffith's silent film Hearts of the World (1917), where he appeared in several scenes following Lillian Gish around with a wheel barrow. Just as Noel's acting career was showing real promise, he was called-up for military duty in 1918. He used his connections to get an assignment to light duty in the Artists Rifles corps, but military life made the self-centred young actor thoroughly miserable.

A minor head injury incurred during a training drill sent Coward into a complete nervous collapse. After nine months of service spent mostly in hospital, a sympathetic doctor helped him obtain an honourable medical discharge. Although relieved to be a civilian again, Noel found that the demand for his acting talents had evaporated. He continued to audition, but with little to do he put an increasing amount of energy into playwriting and composing. He also sold short stories to several magazines to help his family make ends meet. His ever-supportive mother turned the family's London home into a boarding house, where she worked tirelessly so Noel could pursue his theatrical dreams. Noel's father, no longer attempting formal employment, seemed contented to let his wife take charge.

Noel Coward's remarkable self possession saw him through many a sticky situation, even at this early stage. When he arrived at a party in full evening attire and found that the other guests were in casual clothes, he paused barely a moment before saying, "Now, I don't want anybody to be embarrassed." It was during these years of struggle that Coward first met Lorn McNaughtan, a woman who's sense of organization and salty language made her the perfect choice to be Noel's private secretary – a role she would fill until her death more than forty years later.

I Leave It To You (1920) was Coward’s first full length play produced in the West End, with Noel playing a leading role – quite an accomplishment for a lad of 21. The brief run brought encouraging reviews, whetting Coward's appetite for more. However, most London producers were unwilling to gamble on such a young playwright. So Noel looked across the Atlantic for possible salvation.

In the summer of 1921, he scraped together enough money for steamship passage to New York City, convinced that America would embrace his work. No such luck! He spent a steamy summer roaming Manhattan, scraping by with the income from a few short stories, living on bacon that he bought on credit, and wondering why he had ever left England. Coward made a slew of valuable new friends, including the then-unknown actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The three of them made a pact to appear in one of Noel's plays after they had all earned full stardom – an agreement that would bring profitable results in years to come.

That summer, Coward witnessed firsthand the American theatre's fast-paced performing style, a refreshing change from the slower approach of most British productions. He also spent many evening's in the Manhattan home of playwright Hartley Manners and his wife, the eccentric actress Laurette Taylor. Years later, their over-the-top theatrical lifestyle would inspire Coward's comic hit Hay Fever.

A sympathetic friend arranged for Coward to return to England, where his luck took a turn for the better. The London production of his play The Young Idea (1923) was a mild success, with Noel playing one of the lead roles. That same year, producer Andre Charlot featured several of Coward's songs in the hit revue London Calling. While all this was happening, Noel put the finishing touches on a daring drama that would change his career – and his life – forever.
 


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The English playwright, actor, and composer Noel Coward was known for his likable sophistication and sharp sense of humour. Although he wrote some of the most popular plays of his time, he was also known for his entertaining personality and his abilities as a witty storyteller.


Early acting and plays

Noel Coward was born on December 16, 1899, in Teddingham, Middlesex, a suburb of London, England. He studied at the Royal Chapel School in London. He came from a musical family, with parents who sang in a choir. A restless and outgoing youth, Coward soon found his way to the stage. At age twelve he made his first appearance on stage in a children's play. A year later he won praise for his portrayal of "Slightly," a character in Peter Pan.

Coward's first effort as a playwright, Rat Trap, was a realistic study of its characters' emotions. It was written in 1917 but was not published until 1926. In 1918 he played the leading role in his next play, The Last Track. The first drama to receive critical attention was The Vortex (1924), a serious play about drug addiction. During this period he was regarded as the spokesman for the younger generation, although his works were often criticized for being immoral.

In 1929 Coward starred in a Broadway (the New York City theatre district) production of his play Bitter Sweet. Bitter Sweet was a romantic musical (a play featuring songs) that was popular in both Great Britain and the United States. This play's popular song, "I'll See You Again," is regarded as Coward's best-known effort as a composer. His other songs include the witty "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "I'll Follow My Secret Heart."


A flourishing career

Coward's important plays throughout the next ten years included Private Lives (1930), a sophisticated comedy about a married couple; Cavalcade (1931), a patriotic depiction of British tradition; Design for Living (1937), a stylish comedy; and Blithe Spirit (1941), a fantasy concerning spiritualism (the practice of trying to communicate with the dead, such as in a sťance).

During World War II (1939–45)—a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other allies fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan, who were attempting to conquer large portions of Europe, Africa, and Asia—Coward performed for troops on the major battlefronts. He later wrote about his experiences in Middle East Diary (1945). In 1942 he wrote, acted, and co-directed with David Lean in the movie In Which We Serve, which showed life aboard a British destroyer (a small, highly armed warship). He continued to work with Lean on the film version of Blithe Spirit (1945) and on the script for Brief Encounter (1946), one of movie screen's most tender love stories.

Coward's dramas in following years—including Peace in Our Time (1947), Quadrille (1952), Nude with Violin (1956), and Sail Away (1961)—were not as fresh as his earlier works. However, he made up for his declining writing ability by starting a new career as an entertainer and raconteur (someone who tells stories or relates incidents with an amusing style and skill). In 1960 he gave his finest acting performance as a spy in the film Our Man in Havana, directed by Carol Reed and written by the English novelist and screen-writer Graham Greene (1904–1991). Coward also wrote two volumes of autobiographical recollections, titled Present Indicative (1937) and Future Indefinite (1954). His other fictional works include two collections of short stories, To Step Aside (1939) and Star Quality (1951), and a novel, Pomp and Circumstance (1960), which portrayed British life on a South Seas island.

Coward was honoured in recognition of his talents and service to his country when he was made a knight by England's Queen Elizabeth (1926–) in 1970. He died on March 26, 1973, in Kingston, Jamaica.
 


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Noel Coward was among the most innovative and influential figures to emerge from the theatrical world during the 20th century. A playwright, director, and actor as well as a songwriter, filmmaker, and novelist, his witty, urbane stage productions forever altered the perceptions long inherent in theatre dialogue by shifting away from declamatory tones to a more natural, conversational approach, making them ideal for later film adaptations. Born December 16, 1899, in Middlesex, England, Coward was the product of a musical family; his grandfather was the organist at the Crystal Palace, while his father was a piano tuner. He began his professional career as a child actor, and in 1913, while travelling with a production of Hannele, he met a girl named Gertrude Lawrence who would continue to exert a profound influence over his life and career, becoming both the inspiration behind and the star of many of his greatest works. After appearing in 1918 in the D.W. Griffith film Hearts of the World, Coward began writing plays and eventually turned to songwriting. In 1923, his "Parisian Pierrot" was performed by Lawrence in the revue London Calling!, becoming his first hit, and a year later his drug-addiction drama The Vortex was a controversial smash before moving to Broadway.

Within a year, Coward had another revue, On With the Dance, running in London simultaneously with a pair of comedies, Hay Fever and Fallen Angels. His record of three concurrent productions was not broken until half a century later by Andrew Lloyd Webber. With his sudden rise to success came immense pressure, however, and at the age of 27, Coward suffered a nervous breakdown; to make matters worse, neither critics nor audiences reacted favourably to productions of his Home Chat and Sirocco. For the duration of the 1920s, his career continued to see-saw between bouquets and brickbats, but in 1929 Coward mounted his most mature production yet with Bitter Sweet, a quasi-Viennese operetta which launched the song "I'll See You Again." The 1930 Private Lives, a romantic comedy written in honour of Lawrence, further established his newfound mastery, and with the 1931 historical epic Cavalcade and its song "Twentieth Century Blues", his position as a talent of international renown was assured.

Coward next turned to the comedy Design for Living, a project written for Broadway in honour of his friends the Lunts. The musical revue Words and Music (famed for the hit "Mad About the Boy") and the operetta Conversation Piece followed before he co-starred with Lawrence in Tonight at 8:30. Despite the subsequent success of Present Laughter and The Happy Breed, Coward's interests began moving away from the stage as he began writing short stories, as well as an autobiography, Present Indicative. With the outbreak of World War II, he found himself recruited for intelligence work in Paris as well as for a number of troop-concert tours, but he still found time to write the hugely successful Blithe Spirit. In 1942, he and filmmaker David Lean collaborated on the motion picture In Which We Serve, which Coward both co-directed and starred in; for his efforts, he was honoured with a special Academy Award.

At the conclusion of the war, Coward relocated to Jamaica, where he adapted a number of his stage works for the silver screen; of particular note is 1945's masterful Brief Encounter, directed by Lean and based on a section of Tonight at 8:30. Other Coward films included 1945's Blithe Spirit, 1950's The Astonished Heart, and 1952's Tonight at 8:30. By the early '50s, his style of theatrical writing was considered somewhat outmoded, although a production of the new Relative Values was a success in London's West End. However, the early years of the decade were largely fraught with tragedy when both Lawrence and his longtime manager, Charles Cochran, suddenly died. Coward then mounted a triumphant cabaret tour of Paris, where he performed to enthusiastic audiences. He subsequently took the show to Las Vegas, and his American success was documented on the 1955 LP Noel Coward at Las Vegas. He even starred in a series of specials for CBS television.

In the 1960s, Coward experienced a renaissance throughout the British theatrical community which culminated in a National Theatre revival of Hay Fever which he directed. Among his other stage productions of the period were Nude With Violin and A Song at Twilight. In the last years of his life, Coward appeared in a number of films, typically in cameo roles which satirized his own image as a fey, genteel Englishman. His 70th birthday was honoured by a week of stage, screen, and television revivals of his work which he himself jokingly dubbed "Holy Week." On March 26, 1973, Coward suffered a fatal heart attack on the grounds of his Jamaican estate; he was 74 years old.
 


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Noel Coward was born in Teddington, England in 1899. He was from an artistic family background, and was soon showing off his own skills as an actor, treading the boards of the stage at the age of six. Natural artistic ability was made even more apparent, when by the age of sixteen he had written a full play. He would later add the careers of dramatist, painter and singer to his resume, to make him one of the most talented all round artists of all time.

At the age of twenty-one Noel Coward travelled to New York. Here, he was able to take in several Broadway plays, and was mightily impressed by the energy and hustle created in them. With this in mind he returned to London and began writing plays for the West End with a similar style to those he witnessed across the water.

One such play was ‘Private Lives’, in which Coward starred alongside his good friend Gertrude Lawrence. He claimed to have written it in a single night in a hotel room, when unable to get to sleep. The play centres around Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase, former husband and wife, both on their second honeymoons, who happen to meet up, and subsequently run off together. They are caught by their respective spouses, but decide they are mutually better off, because, despite the immense arguments they have, they are both able to laugh at the absurdities of life. When considering the culture of England at that time and the views on marriage, one can see that Noel Coward was not afraid to be controversial in his storylines. Indeed, several of his plays were very nearly prohibited by the Lord Chamberlains office.

‘Design for living’ was for a time prohibited in England. It had an even racier storyline than ‘Private lives’. Two men, in love with the same woman, are both distraught when she marries the best friend of one of them. There is a constant suggestion throughout the play that a threesome would be the best option, to satisfy all concerned. Eventually the two men find themselves in a penthouse with the woman and her husband. The woman threatens to leave her husband, who accuses her of being mad. She vents her fury on him, suggesting she may indeed be mad, but had been forced to be silent and still in the constraints of marriage. The play ends with the husband storming out of the penthouse, his wife and the two men in hysterics as he trips over. In this play, Coward is ridiculing the strict morality of that time. Ironically, by the time it was allowed to be played in England, critics viewed it as putting across an old fashioned message.

In all of his works, Noel Coward sought to be controversial, getting people to question the morals of that time. Himself a confessed homosexual, the attitude of the masses to people like him spurred him on to highlight these types of problems through his great work. Soon, everyday people were dressing like him, and mimicking his mannerisms, such as the use of cigarette holders, and he definitely helped gay people and public gay behaviour become more acceptable.

During the Second World War, such storylines as those seen in ‘This Happy Breed’ and ‘Brief Encounter’ helped to keep the populations spirits high. After the Second World War, Coward reinvented himself as a cabaret singer, and some people argue that he was the true founder of Brit Pop. Coward spoke candidly about how he composed music for light hearted comedy and such. He admitted to leaving the technicalities to a professional, as he had never been trained properly in that area. He also stated that the tunes would come to him in a moment of spontanaiety, while at dinner, or out for a walk. Apparently, he was far too busy with other things in life to sit down, and consciously try to think up some good tunes. His own idiosyncratic style seemed to work for him.

Noel Coward was knighted in 1970, and died three years later, on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. He will always be remembered as one of the all time great artists who pushed back the boundaries of what was acceptable, constantly challenging the establishment, and a pioneer for minority groups.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008