Biography

Noel Coward was among the most innovative and influential figures to emerge from the theatrical world during the 20th century. A playwright, director, and actor as well as a songwriter, filmmaker, and novelist, his witty, urbane stage productions forever altered the perceptions long inherent in theater dialogue by shifting away from declamatory tones to a more natural, conversational approach, making them ideal for later film adaptations. Born December 16, 1899, in Middlesex, England, Coward was the product of a musical family; his grandfather was the organist at the Crystal Palace, while his father was a piano tuner. He began his professional career as a child actor, and in 1913, while traveling with a production of Hannele, he met a girl named Gertrude Lawrence who would continue to exert a profound influence over his life and career, becoming both the inspiration behind and the star of many of his greatest works. After appearing in 1918 in the D.W. Griffith film Hearts of the World, Coward began writing plays and eventually turned to songwriting. In 1923, his "Parisian Pierrot" was performed by Lawrence in the revue London Calling!, becoming his first hit, and a year later his drug-addiction drama The Vortex was a controversial smash before moving to Broadway. Within a year, Coward had another revue, On With the Dance, running in London simultaneously with a pair of comedies, Hay Fever and Fallen Angels. His record of three concurrent productions was not broken until half a century later by Andrew Lloyd Webber. With his sudden rise to success came immense pressure, however, and at the age of 27, Coward suffered a nervous breakdown; to make matters worse, neither critics nor audiences reacted favorably to productions of his Home Chat and Sirocco. For the duration of the 1920s, his career continued to see-saw between bouquets and brickbats, but in 1929 Coward mounted his most mature production yet with Bitter Sweet, a quasi-Viennese operetta which launched the song "I'll See You Again." The 1930 Private Lives, a romantic comedy written in honor of Lawrence, further established his newfound mastery, and with the 1931 historical epic Cavalcade and its song "Twentieth Century Blues", his position as a talent of international renown was assured. Coward next turned to the comedy Design for Living, a project written for Broadway in honor of his friends the Lunts. The musical revue Words and Music (famed for the hit "Mad About the Boy") and the operetta Conversation Piece followed before he co-starred with Lawrence in Tonight at 8:30. Despite the subsequent success of Present Laughter and The Happy Breed, Coward's interests began moving away from the stage as he began writing short stories, as well as an autobiography, Present Indicative. With the outbreak of World War II, he found himself recruited for intelligence work in Paris as well as for a number of troop-concert tours, but he still found time to write the hugely successful Blithe Spirit. In 1942, he and filmmaker David Lean collaborated on the motion picture In Which We Serve, which Coward both co-directed and starred in; for his efforts, he was honored with a special Academy Award. At the conclusion of the war, Coward relocated to Jamaica, where he adapted a number of his stage works for the silver screen; of particular note is 1945's masterful Brief Encounter, directed by Lean and based on a section of Tonight at 8:30. Other Coward films included 1945's Blithe Spirit, 1950's The Astonished Heart, and 1952's Tonight at 8:30. By the early '50s, his style of theatrical writing was considered somewhat outmoded, although a production of the new Relative Values was a success in London's West End. However, the early years of the decade were largely fraught with tragedy when both Lawrence and his longtime manager, Charles Cochran, suddenly died. Coward then mounted a triumphant cabaret tour of Paris, where he performed to enthusiastic audiences. He subsequently took the show to Las Vegas, and his American success was documented on the 1955 LP Noel Coward at Las Vegas. He even starred in a series of specials for CBS television. In the 1960s, Coward experienced a renaissance throughout the British theatrical community which culminated in a National Theatre revival of Hay Fever which he directed. Among his other stage productions of the period were Nude With Violin and A Song at Twilight. In the last years of his life, Coward appeared in a number of films, typically in cameo roles which satirized his own image as a fey, genteel Englishman. His 70th birthday was honored by a week of stage, screen, and television revivals of his work which he himself jokingly dubbed "Holy Week." On March 26, 1973, Coward suffered a fatal heart attack on the grounds of his Jamaican estate; he was 74 years old. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi