The English playwright, actor, and composer Noel Coward (1899-1973) was known for his genial urbanity and frequently acerbic wit.
Noel Coward was born on December 16, 1899, in Teddingham, Middlesex, and studied intermittently at the Royal Chapel School in London. A restless and extroverted youth, he made his acting debut at the age of 12 and a year later won praise for his portrayal of Slightly in Peter Pan.
Coward's first play, Rat Trap, an exercise in psychological realism, was written in 1917 but not published until 1926. He played the leading role in his next play, The Last Track (1918). His first drama to be noted by the critics was The Vortex (1924), a serious play about narcotics addiction. During this period he was regarded as the spokesman for the younger generation, although his works were often condemned as immoral.
In 1929 Coward starred in the Broadway production of his Bitter Sweet, a romantic musical that was popular in both Great Britain and the United States. This play's popular song, "I'll See You Again," is one of his notable efforts as a composer; among his other songs are "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "I'll Follow My Secret Heart."
Coward's important plays of the next decade or so included Private Lives (1930), a sophisticated marital comedy; Cavalcade (1931), a patriotic depiction of British Victorian tradition; Design for Living (1937), a stylish comedy; and Blithe Spirit (1941), a fantasy concerning spiritualism. During World War II Coward entertained troops on the major battlefronts and later detailed his experiences in Middle East Diary (1945). In 1942 he wrote, codirected with David Lean, and acted in the motion picture In Which We Serve, which presented life aboard a British naval destroyer. He continued his collaboration with Lean on the filming of Blithe Spirit (1945) and on the scenario for Brief Encounter (1946), one of the screen's most tender love stories.
Although Coward's dramas of succeeding years—Peace in Our Time (1947), Quadrille (1952), Nude with Violin (1956), and Sail Away (1961)—lacked the freshness of his earlier works, he compensated for his eclipse as a writer by embarking on a career as an entertainer and raconteur. In 1960 he gave his finest performance as the secret agent in the Carol Reed-Graham Greene film, Our Man in Havana. Coward also wrote two volumes of autobiographical reminiscences, Present Indicative (1937) and Future Indefinite (1954); two collections of short stories, To Step Aside (1939) and Star Quality (1951); and a novel, Pomp and Circumstance (1960), portraying British life on a South Seas island. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1970. Noel Coward died on March 26, 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica.
In addition to Coward's autobiographical works, see Hoare, Philip, Noel Coward: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1996); Payn, Graham (with Barry Day), My Life With Noel Coward (Applause, 1994); and Fisher, Clive, Noel Coward (St. Martin's Press, 1992). For previous biographical material, see Robert Greacen, The Art of Noël Coward (1953), a brief biographical and critical study; James Agee, Agee on Film (1958); and Kenneth Tynan, Curtains: Selections from Drama Criticism and Related Writings (1961) and Tynan Right and Left: Plays, Films, People, Places and Events (1967). □