Authors: Noël Coward

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

English playwright and composer

December 16, 1899

Teddington, England

March 26, 1973

Port Maria, Jamaica

Biography

In the two decades between World War I and World War II, Noël Peirce Coward set the style for smart, sophisticated comedies of upper-class manners. He was the son of Violet Veitch and Arthur Sabin Coward, an employee of a music publisher in London. Both his parents were musical (they had met in a church choir) but were never sufficiently talented to make their living at it. When Coward was six, the family moved to Sutton in Surrey, where the father became a traveling salesman for a piano company, and, three years later, they moved again, this time to London. There, to supplement the family income, his mother took in paying guests and launched her son’s theatrical career in 1911 by helping arrange his first professional appearance as Prince Mussel in the children’s play The Goldfish. Other roles followed, including Slighty in Peter Pan, and soon Coward was accepted as one of the West End’s foremost juvenile talents. In 1918 he was called up for the military but served less than a year, being discharged for medical reasons before the Armistice was signed with Germany in November. That same year he had written his first play, The Rat Trap, which was not produced until 1926.

His real theatrical debut as playwright occurred with the light comedy I’ll Leave It to You, performed in 1919. It ran in London for only thirty-seven performances, although the critic of The Daily Mail found it promising. This favorable review was stimulus enough for Coward, who threw himself into writing and acting, giving the London stage at least one or two, sometimes five, of his plays or musicals per year for the next twenty seasons.

Noël Coward

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(Library of Congress)

His play The Vortex, performed in 1924, firmly established his fame. In the production he created the lead part of Nicky Lancaster. The London success prompted him to take the play to New York, where he duplicated his triumph. This amoral, sophisticated satire, which involved the young hero coming home from Paris to find his mother having an affair with the lover of his former girlfriend, was viewed with a certain repulsive attraction, no doubt adding to its popularity. Making absurd situations believable was Coward’s speciality. Even while admitting the repugnance of the characters, critics acknowledged Coward’s skill as a writer, his ability to create interest and tension.

Coward immediately became the darling of the international set, whose members adored his irreverence and daring, his ability to write witty dialogue for characters who did not have to worry about next month’s rent. For this ability, he has often been called superficial and sometimes dismissed for being all tinsel and fluff. Coward, however, was a keen observer of the class system in his own country, a system which he satirized mercilessly. His goal, as he once confessed, was always to write good plays with good parts. He concentrated on entertainment and left the social implications to others. His realm was the stage, and he could portray nostalgia, poignancy, and melancholy as well as merriment and insouciance. Of his plays, his favorite was Blithe Spirit, a farce about spiritualism. This comedy had an astonishing, record-setting first run of 1,997 performances, and it remains a standard for theatrical group revivals.

One of Coward’s talents, which he may have acquired from his parents, was his ability to write songs. He composed more than one hundred, inserting them into his plays and revues. Many have remained popular favorites: “I’ll See You Again,” “Some Day I’ll Find You,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “Mad About the Boy,” “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” “The Stately Homes of England,” and “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.” His lyrics display his consummate mastery of rhyme and phrasing, showing that he was always on the alert for the unexpected. He could also be liltingly sentimental.

Coward often regretted that his popular image as a brittle and superficial bon vivant obscured his worth as a serious writer. Someday, he quipped, “when Jesus has definitely got me for a sunbeam, my works may be adequately assessed.” Coward was in a way the victim of his own hard work and professionalism: He made it seem so easy that people were convinced it really was.

Author Works Drama: The Rat Trap, wr. 1918, pb. 1924 I’ll Leave It to You, pr. 1919 Sirocco, wr. 1921, pr., pb. 1927 The Better Half, pr. 1922 (one act) The Young Idea, pr. 1922 London Calling, pr. 1923 (music and lyrics by Coward and Ronald Jeans) Weatherwise, wr. 1923, pb. 1931 Fallen Angels, pb. 1924 The Vortex, pr. 1924 Easy Virtue, pr. 1925 Hay Fever, pr., pb. 1925 On with the Dance, pr. 1925 The Queen Was in the Parlour, pr., pb. 1926 This Was a Man, pr., pb. 1926 Home Chat, pr., pb. 1927 The Marquise, pr., pb. 1927 This Year of Grace!, pr., pb. 1928 (musical) Bitter Sweet, pr., pb. 1929 (operetta) Private Lives, pr., pb. 1930 Some Other Private Lives, pr. 1930 (one act) Cavalcade, pr. 1931 Post-Mortem, pb. 1931 Words and Music, pr. 1932 (musical) Design for Living, pr., pb. 1933 Conversation Piece, pr., pb. 1934 Point Valaine, pr., pb. 1936 Tonight at 8:30, pb. 1936 (3 volumes; a collective title for the following nine plays, which were designed to be presented in various combinations of three bills of three plays: We Were Dancing, pr. 1935 The Astonished Heart, pr. 1935; Red Peppers, pr. 1935 Hands Across the Sea, pr. 1935 Fumed Oak, pr. 1935 Shadow Play, pr. 1935 Family Album, pr. 1935; Ways and Means, pr. 1936 and Still Life, pr. 1936) Operette, pr., pb. 1938 Set to Music, pr. 1939 (musical) Blithe Spirit, pr., pb. 1941 Present Laughter, pr. 1942 This Happy Breed, pr. 1942 Sigh No More, pr. 1945 (musical) Pacific 1860, pr. 1946 (musical) Peace in Our Time, pr., pb. 1947 Ace of Clubs, pr. 1950 Island Fling, pr. 1951 Relative Values, pr. 1951 Quadrille, pr., pb. 1952 After the Ball, pr. 1954 (musical; based on Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan) Nude with Violin, pr. 1956 South Sea Bubble, pr., pb. 1956 Look after Lulu, pr., pb. 1959 Waiting in the Wings, pr., pb. 1960 High Spirits, pr. 1961 (musical; based on his play Blithe Spirit) Sail Awy, pr. 1961 (musical) The Girl Who Came to Supper, pr. 1963 (musical; based on Terence Rattigan’s play The Sleeping Prince) Suite in Three Keys: Come into the Garden Maude Shadows of the Evening; A Song at Twilight, pr., pb. 1966 Cowardy Custard, pr. 1972 (also known as Cowardy Custard: The World of Noël Coward) Oh! Coward, pr. 1972 (also known as Oh Coward! A Musical Comedy Revue) Plays: One, pb. 1979 Plays: Two, pb. 1979 Plays: Three, pb. 1979 Plays: Four, pb. 1979 Plays: Five, pb. 1983 Long Fiction: Pomp and Circumstance, 1960 Short Fiction: Terribly Intimate Portraits, 1922 Chelsea Buns, 1925 Spangled Unicorn, 1932 To Step Aside, 1939 Star Quality: Six Stories, 1951 The Collected Short Stories, 1962 Pretty Polly Barlow, and Other Stories, 1964 Bon Voyage, and Other Stories, 1967 The Complete Stories of Noël Coward, 1985 Screenplays: Bitter Sweet, 1933 In Which We Serve, 1942 This Happy Breed, 1944 Blithe Spirit, 1946 Brief Encounter, 1946 The Astonished Heart, 1949 Poetry: Not Yet the Dodo, 1967 Noël Coward: Collected Verse, 1984 Nonfiction: Present Indicative, 1937 Australia Visited, 1941 Middle East Diary, 1944 Future Indefinite, 1954 The Noël Coward Diaries, 1982 Autobiography, 1986 Miscellaneous: The Lyrics of Noël Coward, 1965 The Noël Coward Song Book, 1980 Out in the Midday Sun: The Paintings of Noël Coward, 1988 Bibliography 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. 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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