Noel Coward was an early 20th century British playwright known for his witty dialogue and farcical situational comedies. Though best remembered for his early plays, Coward had a long career as a composer and actor. In recognition of his contributions to the arts and the country, Noel Coward was knighted in 1970, and received a special Academy certificate at the American Academy Awards in 1943.
Born in 1899, Coward began training as an actor as a young boy and played many children’s roles in London-area professional theater. He apprenticed himself to a famous comic stage actor, Sir Charles Hawtry, and later credited the actor with his most influential training as an actor and writer. He began producing plays and musical reviews around 1920, frequently casting his friends as the characters and even playing parts himself.
Though critics differ in their opinions of Coward’s greatest work, three of his comedies are almost always mentioned as masterpieces. Private Lives, written in 1930, details the comic disasters of a pair of newly-remarried ex-spouses who accidentally rent adjoining honeymoon suites. Believed to be partially autobiographical, the 1939 comedy Present Laughter concerns a middle-aged actor terrified of his fortieth birthday and desperately trying to avoid complications as he prepares for a world tour. In Blithe Spirit, the deceased first wife of a man haunts him, determined to get rid of his new spouse. Blithe Spirit had an enormously successful initial run of 1,997 performances, a recorded not beaten until the 1970s.
Noel Coward, in addition to over twenty plays, wrote many musicals and musical revues. He composed several well known songs, including “Why Must the Show Go On?”, “Mad About the Boy,” and “I’ve been to a Marvelous Party.” His songs are noted for their comedic content and intricate rhyming patterns. In later years, Coward frequently did solo performances of is work, including in a Las Vegas show.
Coward was often criticized for living a flamboyant life filled with travel and extravagances. It is not widely known that this lifestyle was due in part to his work during World War II as a member of MI5, the British Secret Service. Because of his secret position in intelligence-gathering, Noel Coward could not put forth any public response to critics who lamented his lavish lifestyle in a time of great poverty in England.
Despite evidence of many relationships and attempts by the press to get an answer, Noel Coward refused to ever confirm rumors that he was homosexual. He maintained many lifelong female friends who were frequently his co-stars. Some critics speculate these women served as covers for Coward’s gay relationships, including a 19 year-long affair with the Duke of Kent. Evidence suggests, however, that the women in his life, including Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich, were close personal friends held in high regard by the writer.
After retiring from the theater due to memory loss and arthritis, Noel Coward died of heart failure in 1973. He is buried in Jamaica, where he had long maintained a home. In 2006, the theater where he made his first acting debut was refurbished and reopened as the Noel Coward Theater. As an appropriate memorial to this wit-loving and stereotype-defying playwright, the play chosen to christen the new theater was the farcical musical parody, Avenue Q.