Noel Coward

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NoŽl Coward

Sir Noel Peirce Coward (spelling his forename Noël with the diaeresis was an affectation of later life, and "Peirce" is the correct spelling) (December 16, 1899 - March 26, 1973) was an English actor, playwright, and composer of popular music.


Early life

Born at Teddington, Middlesex, he began performing in the West End at an early age. Coward’s first professional engagement was on 27 January 1911 in the children’s play, The Goldfish. After this appearance, he was sought after for children’s roles by other professional theatres. He was featured in several productions with Sir Charles Hawtrey, a Victorian actor and comedian, whom Coward idolized and to whom he virtually apprenticed himself until he was twenty. It was from Hawtrey that Coward learned comic acting techniques and playwriting.

Success in the Twenties and Thirties

He starred in one of his first full-length plays, the inheritance comedy I'll Leave It To You, in 1920 at the age of twenty. After enjoying some moderate success with the Shaw-esque The Young Idea in 1923, the controversy surrounding his play The Vortex (1924) - which contains many veiled references to both drug abuse and homosexuality - made him an overnight sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Coward followed this success with three more major hits, Hay Fever, Fallen Angels (both 1925) and Easy Virtue (1926).

Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Enormous (and enormously popular) productions such as the full-length operetta Bitter Sweet (1929) and Cavalcade (1931), a huge extravaganza requiring a very large cast, gargantuan sets and an exceedingly complex hydraulic stage, were interspersed with finely-wrought comedies such as Private Lives (1930), in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence, and the black comedy Design for Living (1932), written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Coward again partnered Lawrence in Tonight at 8:30 (1936), an ambitious cycle of ten different short plays which were randomly "shuffled" to make up a unique playbill of three plays each night. One of these short plays, Still Life, was later expanded into the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter. He was also a prolific writer of popular songs, and a lucrative recording contract with HMV allowed him to release a number of recordings which have been extensively reissued on CD.

World War II

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 saw Coward working harder than ever. Alongside his highly-publicised tours entertaining Allied troops, Coward was also engaged by the British Secret Service MI5 to conduct intelligence work. He was often frustrated by criticism he faced for his ostensibly glamorous lifestyle; criticised for apparently living the high life while his countrymen suffered, he was unable to defend himself by revealing details of his work for the secret service. He also wrote and released some extraordinarily popular songs during the war (the most famous of which are London Pride and Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans) as well as writing and starring in the naval drama film In Which We Serve, which Coward co-directed with David Lean and for which Coward won an honorary Oscar.

The 1940s also saw Coward write some of his best plays. The social commentary of This Happy Breed and the intricate semi-autobiographical comedy-drama Present Laughter (both 1939) were later combined with the hugely successful ghost comedy Blithe Spirit (1941) to form a West End triple-bill in which Coward starred in all three simultaneous productions. Blithe Spirit went on to break box-office records for a West End comedy not beaten until the 1970s, and was made into a film directed by David Lean.

Later works

Coward's popularity as a playwright declined sharply in the 1950s, but he still managed to maintain a high public profile, continuing to write (and occasionally starring in) moderately successful West End plays, performing an acclaimed solo cabaret act in Las Vegas (recorded for posterity and still available on CD), and starring in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing, Around the World in 60 Days and The Italian Job. After starring in a number of American TV specials in the late 50s alongside Mary Martin, Coward left the U.K. for tax reasons in the late 1950s and moved to the Caribbean, settling first in Bermuda and then to Jamaica, where he remained for the rest of his life. The late 1960s saw a revival in his popularity, with several new productions of his 1920s plays and a number of revues celebrating his music; Coward himself dubbed this comeback "Dad's Renaissance". He was knighted in 1970, and died in Jamaica in 1973. He is buried in Firefly Hill, Jamaica.

As well as over fifty published plays and many albums' worth of original songs, Coward also wrote comic revues, poetry, several volumes of short stories, a novel (Pomp and Circumstance, 1960), and three volumes of autobiography. Books of his song lyrics, diaries and letters have also been published.

Private life

A homosexual, Coward never married but he did enjoy a lengthy relationship with the stage and film actor Graham Payn for almost thirty years until the end of his life. Payn later edited the collection of his diaries published in 1982.

Parodies of him and his style include:

External links

id:Noel Coward nl:NoŽl Coward sv:Noel Coward


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