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Coward, Sir Noël (1899-1973)  
 
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These works, which often featured Coward paired with actress Gertrude Lawrence, established the playwright and actor as a leading figure among the younger generation of popular entertainers. Although from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the works of this period may seem merely light and amusing, they were with some justification viewed by many of Coward's contemporaries as threatening. One reviewer protested that the characters of Private Lives were "four degenerates" and described the play as "a disgusting exhibition of moral and social decadence." Such a reaction is one indication that Coward succeeded in raising questions about his society's complacent morality and smug certainties.

In the politically charged 1930s, many intellectuals dismissed Coward's plays and musicals as breezy entertainments irrelevant to the momentous events that would culminate in social revolution and world war. But to see these works as completely non-political is to miss their subversiveness.

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In a manner similar to Wilde's comedies, Coward's plays amuse, but they also expose his society's often concealed tensions and anxieties, especially in regard to sexual matters. Moreover, given the censorship imposed on the popular stage during this time, particularly regarding sexual matters, Coward's penchant for pushing the envelope is remarkable.

During the years of World War II, Coward not only entertained British troops around the world, but he also produced such characteristic works as Blithe Spirit (1942) and Present Laughter (1942). He also produced, directed, wrote, and starred in the patriotic film In Which We Serve (1942). One of his one-act plays is the source of David Lean's acclaimed wartime film Brief Encounter (1945).

The years following World War II were difficult ones for Coward, at least as a playwright. To many theater-goers, he had come to seem old-fashioned, representative of a particular period--the years between the world wars--that was now long gone. His plays repeatedly failed in the West End. Moreover, when he relocated, first to Bermuda and then to Jamaica, to avoid crippling post-war taxes, he was regarded as unpatriotic. In addition, he was recovering from a personal crisis: soon before the war his long-time romantic relationship with American stockbroker and business manager Jack Wilson had come to an unhappy end.

In the post-war years, Coward both found his life partner and redirected his career. In 1945, he fell in love with South African actor Graham Payn, who had as a boy appeared in some of Coward's revues. Although Coward attempted to make a star of Payn, casting him in several shows, Payn, though talented, lacked his partner's charisma and ambition and never achieved the stardom that Coward sought for him. Nevertheless, theirs was a close and satisfying relationship that lasted the rest of Coward's life. Among their theatrical and society friends, they were accepted as a couple.

Although Coward continued to produce plays on the West End, he more and more oriented his career toward America, frequently appearing on American television and--at the suggestion of his friend Marlene Dietrich--launching a successful cabaret act that, rather improbably, took Las Vegas by storm. He also prepared successful screenplays for films of such earlier works as The Astonished Heart (1950) and Tonight at 8:30 (1952), and acquired a large house at Les Avants in Switzerland.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Coward was in effect "rediscovered," with several major revivals of his work in New York and London, and a belated recognition of his achievement. During this time, he also wrote his most daring play on the subject of homosexuality, Song at Twilight (1966), a play that features a gay novelist, Hugh Latymer (perhaps based on Coward's old friend W. Somerset Maugham), who weighs the costs of coming out and decides to remain in the closet.

Coward himself made a decision not to come out publicly, even after homosexuality was decriminalized in England in 1967 and New York's Stonewall Riots of 1969 ushered in the period of gay liberation. When friends urged him to come out, he refused, saying, not altogether facetiously, "There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don't know." Perhaps the real reason he refused to declare his homosexuality is that he knew that such a declaration would preclude the knighthood that he richly deserved but that had been withheld from him for so long.

The knighthood was finally awarded in 1970. In 1971, Coward received a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theater. In 1972, musical revues based on his songs and sketches began successful runs in both London (Cowardly Custard) and New York (Oh Coward!).

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