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Coward, Sir Noël (1899-1973)  
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The cabaret act presented him alone on stage with just a pianist, his only prop a lit cigarette extending from a long holder. In his persona of the slightly jaded, unabashedly , upper-class Englishman, he performed his songs, told stories, and reminisced. However, he never indulged in self-congratulatory comments on his long career. In one of his funniest songs, "Why Must the Show Go On?," he admonished against such a temptation, saying "Gallant old troupers, You've bored us all for years."

In a tribute to the American songwriter Cole Porter, he penned new--even more risqué--lyrics to Porter's classic, "Let's Do It," referring to such contemporary personalities as Tennessee Williams and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In a prescient review of Coward's cabaret performance, Kenneth Tynan justly remarked that the success of the act depended less on the content of the show than on the qualities embodied in Coward himself. "In Coward's case star quality is the ability to project, without effort, the shape and essence of an unique personality, which had never existed before him in print or paint. Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years' time, precisely what we mean by 'a very Noël Coward sort of person.'"

Coward's cabaret performances spawned such albums as Noel Coward at Las Vegas (1955) and Noel Coward in New York (1957).

Coward's plays are frequently produced all over the world. His musicals are seldom mounted, but his songs can be heard on many fine recordings and in compilation albums and revues such as Oh Coward!, Cowardly Custard, and Noel and Gertie.

Claude J. Summers
Albert J. Carey

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arts >> Overview:  Cabarets and Revues

Historically, cabarets and revues have been much more likely to mention or imply same-sex desire than the "legitimate" theater; and same-sex desire has been less frequently condemned in cabarets and revues than in mainstream plays.

literature >> Overview:  Camp

Combining elements of incongruity, theatricality, and exaggeration, camp is a form of humor that helps homosexuals cope with a hostile environment.

literature >> Overview:  Comedy of Manners

The Comedy of Manners, which flourished on the Restoration stage, has been particularly amenable to twentieth-century gay male writers as a vehicle for social satire in both dramatic and nondramatic works.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

literature >> Overview:  Humor

Like other minority groups, gay men and lesbians have had to develop both a particular sense of humor among themselves in order to make their marginal social status endurable and also a defensive awareness toward the rest of the world in order to disarm their adversaries with laughter.

literature >> Overview:  Modern Drama

Before Stonewall, censorship of the theater caused authors to encode homosexual content in publicly-presented plays.

literature >> Overview:  Modernism

Despite the widespread homophobia in the Modernist movement, several of its practitioners were homosexual; some of them wrote openly about homosexuality, and the groundwork was laid for the gay liberation movement.

arts >> Overview:  Musical Theater and Film

The musical has been a significant aspect of American gay male culture, manifesting itself both in diva worship and, more recently, in the presentation of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

arts >> Overview:  Stage Actors and Actresses

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual actors and actresses are among the elite of contemporary theater, but only recently have many come out publicly.

literature >> Coward, Sir Noël

Although Coward's plays are about heterosexual couples, they are written in the language and spirit of camp and reject traditional domestic values.

arts >> Dietrich, Marlene

Actress and cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich scandalized society almost as much by wearing trousers in public as by her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Garland, Judy

The fragile persona and emotion-packed voice of actress and singer Judy Garland are powerfully linked to gay culture and identity; she appealed especially to gay men, but also to lesbians.

arts >> Gielgud, Sir John

Sir John Gielgud has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest British actors of the twentieth century.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

arts >> Hart, Lorenz

Despite having written lyrics as witty as any sung on the Broadway stage before or since, Lorenz Hart is best remembered for his songs of unfulfilled desire and failed romance.

arts >> Lunt, Alfred (1892-1977), and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983)

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were known as the first family of the American theater, but theirs was a lavender marriage and their presentation of themselves as the ideal married couple may have been their greatest performance.

literature >> Maugham, William Somerset

Frightened by the Oscar Wilde trial, Somerset Maugham avoided treating homosexual themes and characters in his novels and plays.

arts >> Mercer, Mabel

One of the most respected singers of the mid-twentieth century, Mabel Mercer was a most original stylist who in her later years became a beloved icon of gay New York.

arts >> Porter, Cole

Living the paradoxical life of an openly closeted gay man, songwriter Cole Porter introduced non-normative values and risqué double entendres into what was one of the most pedestrian and hackneyed of cultural forms.

arts >> Ray, Johnnie

Singer Johnnie Ray caused a sensation in the 1950s with energetic concert performances of hit songs, but his career was damaged by arrests for solicitation and gossip about his sexuality.

arts >> Sondheim, Stephen

One of the most innovative talents of the musical theater in the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen Sondheim has only indirectly reflected his homosexuality in his work.

arts >> Webb, Clifton

American actor Clifton Webb rescued the film sissy from secondary status, then moved on to a variety of comic and dramatic roles.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

arts >> Young, Will

The first winner of the British Pop Idol talent show, Will Young has gone on to achieve success as a recording artist and actor, while also using his celebrity to advocate for good causes.


Castle, Terry. Noël Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Clum, John. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Hoare, Philip. Noël Coward: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Kenrick, John. "Noel Coward 101."

Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1982.

Lesley, Cole, Graham Payn, and Sheridan Morley. Noel Coward and His Friends. New York: William Morrow, 1979.

Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. Theatrical Companion to Coward: A Pictorial Record of the First Performances of the Theatrical Works of Coward. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Morley, Sheridan. A Talent to Amuse: A Biography of Noel Coward. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

Sinfield, Alan. "Private Lives/Public Theater: Noel Coward and the Politics of Homosexual Representation." Representations 36 (Fall 1991): 43-63.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J. ; Carey, Albert J.  
    Entry Title: Coward, Sir Noël  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated November 15, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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