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Coward, Sir Noël (1899-1973)  

Sir Noël Coward was the self-crowned laureate of his age. Born at the beginning of a new century, Coward always considered himself one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. His stylized manners and farcical sketches satirized Edwardian mores, while always respecting the dominant culture. Coward's partnership with actress Gertrude Lawrence was a formidable theatrical relationship that culminated in their production of Coward's Private Lives in 1930.

Although most of the dapper lovers in Coward's plays are heterosexual, Coward's homosexuality was an open secret for most of London society. Further, his plays "camp" up heterosexual romance.

In The Vortex (1924), Coward's first major success, he deals with an aging mother, Florence, and her melancholic piano-playing son, Nicky. Trying to remain young and beautiful through her increasingly bored young lovers, Florence is a sympathetic woman, but a pathetic mother to her sensitive son. An allegory of the overripe Edwardian age, The Vortex builds on one of Coward's primary themes: the importance of rebellious youth in the comedy of manners.

The three plays for which Coward is best known, Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1933), and Blithe Spirit (1941), are all plays about heterosexual couples, yet they partake in the language of "camp" that points toward Coward's predecessor, Oscar Wilde.

Coward's "romances" are pointedly weary of normative sexual relations; his couples are disenchanted with bourgeois sexual attitudes. In Private Lives, Amanda and Elyot are detached from their society--represented by the dull and "normal" Victor and Sybil. Normal sexuality is boring, passionless, and unattractive to the chic bohemian nature of Amanda and Elyot. Similarly, in Design for Living, the ménage à trois between Otto, Leo, and Gilda breaks down sexual barriers, complicating the whole notion of love and sexual attachment.

Blithe Spirit ends with the liberating death of Charles Condomine's two wives. Their deaths relieve Charles of the burden of the women in his life. Charles declares, "now I'm free, Ruth dear, not only of Mother and Elvira and Mrs. Winthrop-Lewellen, but free of you too, and I should like to take this farewell opportunity of saying I'm enjoying it immensely." Blithe Spirit represents the ultimate freedom for the man of taste and distinction so important in Coward's drama.

Resolution in Coward is usually a form of escape from the responsibilities of everyday behavior. Coward's critique of daily life participates in his trademark camp sensibility and detachment from dominant norms. In Private Lives, Amanda and Elyot walk away from the bickering of Victor and Sybil, leaving the latter to discuss the pros and cons (mostly cons) of a heterosexual relationship. In Design for Living, Gilda finally abandons all three of the men in her life, leaving them to form their own bonds.

Coward's brand of camp was thoroughly modern and, underneath the shimmering surfaces, was uncompromising in its dissatisfaction with traditional sexual decorum. Coward's plays and sketches negate dominant sensibilities; they work against domestic values on the side of flamboyance, frivolity, and pleasure.

In his later career, Coward openly explored the closet that he felt limited his creative expression. This is seen implicitly in Uncle Bob in Coward's story "Pretty Polly" (1965), and explicitly in his presentation of Hugo Latymer in the play Song at Twilight (1966).

In "Pretty Polly," a young niece admires her uncle for his bisexuality, his being "mysterious and a bachelor and leading a secret, sinful life in the exotic East." However, for Coward, there are problems with exiling one's sexuality in another culture and closeting one's sexuality in London in order to be a successful writer.

In Song at Twilight, the novelist Hugo Latymer complains that even when the laws forbidding homosexuality no longer exist, "there will still be a stigma attached to 'the love that dare not speak its name' in the minds of millions of people for generations to come." Hugo, as Coward, goes on to defend his self-imposed closet, exclaiming, "My private inclinations are not the concern of my reading public. I have no urge to martyr my reputation for the sake of self-indulgent exhibitionism."

By the time of his death in Jamaica in 1973, Coward, a playwright, actor, screenwriter, producer, singer, songwriter, was more than a man with many talents: He had become the embodiment of a master showman. Always a comedian, Coward delighted audiences with his upper-crust English humor for over six decades. Noël Coward entertained troops during World War II, left England as a tax-exile in 1956, made a "comeback" in the 1960s, and was finally knighted in 1970.

Amy Farmer


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Noël Coward in 1928.
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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.

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.

arts >> Coward, Sir Noël

Accomplished playwright, actor, composer, and lyricist, Sir Noël Coward was also a singer and cabaret performer; he dominated the British stage between the world wars, then reoriented his career in the direction of America.

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

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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.

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

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: Farmer, Amy  
    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: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 4, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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