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Coward, Sir Noël (1899-1973)  
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Noël Coward occupies a unique place in twentieth-century theater. An accomplished playwright, actor, composer, and lyricist, he was also a singer and cabaret performer, as well as a writer of short stories and an accomplished amateur painter. Most of all, he was a consummate man of the theater, whose wit and sophistication belied his humble origins and helped define the role he played as heir to Oscar Wilde: a brilliant observer who both mirrored and satirized the dominant society that had, in a real sense, co-opted him.

After earning success at a very early age, he was both the epitome of upper-class English manners and a satirist who exposed the foibles and hypocrisies of his age, especially in regard to heterosexual courtship. Although he was a popular playwright, whose intent was ostensibly merely to amuse and entertain, he nevertheless challenged surprisingly directly many of his society's assumptions about love and sex, imbuing his work with a camp sensibility that disdained conventional sexual morality as the product of small-minded individuals and groups.

For most of his life homosexuality was a criminal offense in England; hence, it is not surprising that Coward was not openly gay. Yet, his homosexuality was an open secret among the cognoscenti in the world of the theater and in the cafe society in which he held sway for five decades. Moreover, in his plays, particularly Private Lives (1930) and Design for Living (1933), he rejected normative sexual values, which are presented as stultifying and unsatisfying, in favor of more adventurous, unconventional arrangements; and in his songs and cabaret performances he often intimated, through double entendre and allusion, his own unconventional sexual preference.

Life and Career

Born Noël Pierce Coward on December 19, 1899, in Teddington, a village near London, he was the son of an ineffectual piano salesman and a doting mother.

Although his formal education consisted of only a few years at the Chapel Royal Choir School, he was a voracious reader who in effect educated himself. Near the end of his life, Coward mused, "how fortunate I was to have been born poor. If Mother had been able to send me to private school, Eton and Oxford or Cambridge, it would probably have set me back years. I have always distrusted too much education and intellectualism."

After participating in amateur and community theatricals, Coward launched his professional acting career at the age of 12, debuting on the West End in 1911. Having appeared frequently in West End productions during his adolescence, he made his film debut in D. W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (1917), starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish.

He was introduced to high society as a fourteen-year-old protégé of artist Philip Streatfield, who died during World War I, but it was Coward's wit and charm that bought him entrée to a world of upper-class privilege that would otherwise have snubbed him because of his lower middle-class origins and rather suspect profession. Exposure to this society helped shape both his own persona as the cosmopolitan bon vivant and the settings and characters that he would employ in his plays. Coupled with his early absorption of the bohemian attitudes of the world of the theater, his experience in British upper-class society also helped free him from the bonds of middle-class sexual morality and manners.

Coward, who had a genius for friendship, would later count among his friends such members of the British aristocracy as His Royal Highness George, Duke of Kent (with whom he may have had an affair), Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. His close friendships in the theatrical community included Gertrude Lawrence, Beatrice Lillie, Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne, all of whom appeared in his plays. Perhaps more surprisingly, he maintained a close friendship with novelist Radclyffe Hall and her partner Una, Lady Troubridge.

Enormously energetic and prolific, Coward dominated British theater between the two world wars. His first full-length play, I Leave It to You (1920), was produced when he was only 21. He soon began writing songs for both his own shows and those of others. He alternated between producing and writing (and often starring in) musical revues and operettas, the genre pioneered by his friendly rival Ivor Novello, and writing (and sometimes appearing in) more serious comedies. Among the works of these decades are The Vortex (1924), Hay Fever (1925), Bittersweet (1929), Private Lives (1930), Cavalcade (1931), Words and Music (1932), Design for Living (1933), and Tonight at 8:30 (1936).

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Noël Coward in 1928.
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