Last reviewed: June 2017
English playwright and composer
December 16, 1899
March 26, 1973
Port Maria, Jamaica
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
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.