Noel Coward Biography
Learn about the life and works of Noel Coward, one of the most multi-talented artists to have lived, and not afraid to be controversial.
Noel Coward was born in Teddington, England in 1899. He was from an artistic family background, and was soon showing off his own skills as an actor, treading the boards of the stage at the age of six. Natural artistic ability was made even more apparent, when by the age of sixteen he had written a full play. He would later add the careers of dramatist, painter and singer to his resume, to make him one of the most talented all round artists of all time.
At the age of twenty-one Noel Coward travelled to New York. Here, he was able to take in several Broadway plays, and was mightily impressed by the energy and hustle created in them. With this in mind he returned to London and began writing plays for the West End with a similar style to those he witnessed across the water.
One such play was ‘Private Lives’, in which Coward starred alongside his good friend Gertrude Lawrence. He claimed to have written it in a single night in a hotel room, when unable to get to sleep. The play centres around Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase, former husband and wife, both on their second honeymoons, who happen to meet up, and subsequently run off together. They are caught by their respective spouses, but decide they are mutually better off, because, despite the immense arguments they have, they are both able to laugh at the absurdities of life. When considering the culture of England at that time and the views on marriage, one can see that Noel Coward was not afraid to be controversial in his storylines. Indeed, several of his plays were very nearly prohibited by the Lord Chamberlains office.
‘Design for living’ was for a time prohibited in England. It had an even racier storyline than ‘Private lives’. Two men, in love with the same woman, are both distraught when she marries the best friend of one of them. There is a constant suggestion throughout the play that a threesome would be the best option, to satisfy all concerned. Eventually the two men find themselves in a penthouse with the woman and her husband. The woman threatens to leave her husband, who accuses her of being mad. She vents her fury on him, suggesting she may indeed be mad, but had been forced to be silent and still in the constraints of marriage. The play ends with the husband storming out of the penthouse, his wife and the two men in hysterics as he trips over. In this play, Coward is ridiculing the strict morality of that time. Ironically, by the time it was allowed to be played in England, critics viewed it as putting across an old fashioned message.
In all of his works, Noel Coward sought to be controversial, getting people to question the morals of that time. Himself a confessed homosexual, the attitude of the masses to people like him spurred him on to highlight these types of problems through his great work. Soon, everyday people were dressing like him, and mimicking his mannerisms, such as the use of cigarette holders, and he definitely helped gay people and public gay behaviour become more acceptable.
During the Second World War, such storylines as those seen in ‘This Happy Breed’ and ‘Brief Encounter’ helped to keep the populations spirits high. After the Second World War, Coward reinvented himself as a cabaret singer, and some people argue that he was the true founder of Brit Pop. Coward spoke candidly about how he composed music for light hearted comedy and such. He admitted to leaving the technicalities to a professional, as he had never been trained properly in that area. He also stated that the tunes would come to him in a moment of spontanaiety, while at dinner, or out for a walk. Apparently, he was far too busy with other things in life to sit down, and consciously try to think up some good tunes. His own idiosyncratic style seemed to work for him.
Noel Coward was knighted in 1970, and died three years later, on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. He will always be remembered as one of the all time great artists who pushed back the boundaries of what was acceptable, constantly challenging the establishment, and a pioneer for minority groups.