Noel Coward was an English playwright, composer, actor, singer, and social wit, whose volume of work includes more than 50 plays and an impressive catalogue of screenplays, musical theater pieces, short stories, and poetry.
Coward was born in 1899 in Teddington, England. After attending a dance academy in London, his first professional engagement occurred at the age of 11 in the children’s play, The Goldfish. From then on, he appeared on stage extensively throughout his teens. When he was 14, he was introduced to the wealthy socialite Mrs. Astley Cooper, who took him under her wing and assisted Coward’s rise through London’s high society. In 1918 his wrote his first play, The Rat Trap, which was finally produced at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead in 1926.
In 1920, Coward wrote and starred in his first West End play, I’ll Leave It To You but his first real success did not come until 1923 with his comedy, The Young Idea. In 1924, Coward wrote The Vortex, which achieved critical and financial success, as well as achieving notoriety for its depictions of nymphomania and drug abuse within the upper classes. Coward’s plays were now in demand and he went on to have four plays running simultaneously in the West End during 1925: The Vortex, Hay Fever, Fallen Angels, and On With the Dance.
During the early 1930s, Coward’s success continued with plays such as Private Lives (1930) and Design For Living (1932). Coward knew that Design For Living would not be approved for performance by censor in London with its themes of bisexuality and a ménage à trois, so he premiered it in New York. During this time, Coward also continued to write songs and musical pieces. Many of his best known songs were recorded for His Master’s Voice (HMV), including “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Mrs Worthing”.
During World War II, Coward worked for the Secret Service as well as entertaining the troops across Europe, Asia, and Africa. He continued to write, producing the naval film, In Which We Serve, and the hugely popular black comedy Blithe Spirit, which broke West End box office records for a comedy with a run of 1,997 consecutive performances. It was later adapted into a film in 1945, directed by David Lean and starring Rex Harrison. After the war, Coward continued to write for the stage but he did not achieve the success he had garnered previously.
In 1955 Coward recorded a hugely popular cabaret act at Las Vegas, “Noel Coward at Las Vegas, and went on to produce three television specials of his repertoire from 1955-6. In his later career, he appeared in several films, including Around the World in Eight Days (1956) and The Italian Job (1969).
Coward was knighted in 1969 and subsequently also received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. He died in 1973 at his home in Jamaica. In 2006, the former Albery Theatre in London’s West End was refurbished and renamed as the Noel Coward Theatre.