Castelli December Feature – Celebrating the life and work of Noël Coward
16th December 1899 to 26th March 1973
Sir Noël Peirce Coward was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, style and flamboyance. Born in Teddington, London, Coward was bitten by the performing bug early and attended a dance academy in London as a child, making his professional stage debut at the age of eleven.
As a teenager he was introduced into the high society in which most of his plays would be set. Coward achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. Many of his works, have remained in the regular theatre repertoire. Although confident in rhythmic poetry, he was not renowned for it. His repertoire included a wide expanse of well over a dozen musicals, all written on the trusty notebook; he composed hundreds of songs, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance, and a three-volume autobiography. Coward’s stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, during which he starred in many of his own works.
In 1918, Coward enlisted into the Artists Rifles, but due to a tubercular tendency, he was discharged on health grounds after just nine months. He sold short stories to several magazines to help his family financially and began writing plays. 1921 saw Coward make his first trip to America, sadly although finding Broadway theatre invigorating; he had little luck in breaking through. From this trip he began to incorporate its fashionable style and fast pace into his work, which brought him his first real success as a playwright with “The Young Idea”. The play opened in London in 1923, after a provincial tour, with Coward in one of the leading roles.
In 1924, Coward achieved his first great critical and financial success as a playwright with “The Vortex,” considered shocking in its day for its depiction of sexual vanity and drug abuse among the upper classes. This success in both London and America caused a great demand for new Coward plays, and he was soon turning out numerous plays as well as acting. Soon, this frantic pace caught up with him, and he collapsed on stage in 1926 while starring on stage and was forced to take an extended rest in Hawaii.
By the late 1920’s he was one of the world’s highest-earning writers, with an estimated annual income of £50,000. Coinciding with the Great Depression, Coward thrived and still able to write, completing a succession of popular hits ranging from large-scale performances to intimate comedies. It was also at this time that Coward began recording many of his best-known songs for “His Master’s Voice, including such greats as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, “Let’s Do It, and “I’ll See You Again”.
With the outbreak of World War II, Coward abandoned the theatre and volunteered for official war work. After running the British propaganda office in Paris, he worked on behalf of British intelligence. His task was to use his celebrity status to influence American public and political opinion in favour of helping Britain. Coward’s most enduring work from the war years was the hugely successful black comedy Blithe Spirit in 1941. With 1,997 consecutive performances, it broke box-office records for the run of a West End comedy, and was also produced on Broadway and made into a film.
His long delayed knighthood was finally received in 1970, but by this time he had become quite frail suffering from hardening of the arteries and struggling with bouts of memory loss. Having left the UK for tax reasons back in the 1950’s Noël Coward died at his Jamaican home, on 26 March 1973 of heart failure, and was buried three days later on the brow of Firefly Hill, overlooking the north coast of the island.
On 29 May 1973, numerous celebrities attended his London memorial service from the Arts with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, unveiling a memorial stone in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey a decade later. When thanked for attending the Queen Mother simply replied, “I came because he was my friend.” Further accolade bestowed itself when the former Albery Theatre was renamed “The Noël Coward Theatre”, in his honour after extensive refurbishment, re-opening on 1 June 2006.