A complete guide to the life and works of Noël Coward
Born in 1899, Noël Coward enjoyed a successful career both on and off-stage, with an active theatrical career spanning over 50 years. Throughout his time in showbusiness, over 40 of his plays have been published, winning awards for his performances during his lifetime, as well as posthumous honours. Read more about the praised playwright here, to find out why Noel Coward plays speak to the hearts and minds of the public.
All about Noël Coward
What was Noël Coward’s early life like?
Born in Teddington, a suburb just outside of London, Coward was one of three children to Arthur and Violet Coward. Taken by the performing world from an early age, he would appear in concerts and choral performances from seven years old, later sent to dance lessons in the capital. At 12 years old, he made his professional debut in Where The Rainbow Ends, a children’s play performed during the Christmas season in 1911 at the Garrick Theatre. The play kickstarted a series of West End productions as a child, including A Little Fowl Play at the London Coliseum and An Autumn Idyll at the Savoy Theatre, appearing as a ballet dancer.
Immersed into a world of theatre, Coward began to put his creative mind to paper, writing plays. His first play was The Rat Trap which was completed in 1918, however it was not performed until 1926, staged at the Everyman Theatre in London. In 1920, he began to perform in plays which he had written, notably I’ll Leave It to You, a comedic play that challenged audiences to think about their surroundings. With a childhood of theatrical experiences to fall back on, it’s no surprise that Noël Coward was a leading figure of his time even in his youth.
How did Noël Coward become an established playwright?
By the 1930s, his array of texts including Hay Fever and This Was a Man had ensured that Coward was a leading playwright of his time, earning over £50,000 a year, equating to £2.2 million today! Whether it was whimsical operas such as Bitter Sweet, thought-provoking plays including Private Lives or a risqué production like Design for Living, Noel Coward added his own unique flair to any play he wrote.
As well as his plays taking over the West End and Broadway, Coward recorded songs from his previous productions to be sold as singles, including “I’ll See You Again” from Bitter Sweet. Helping to re-establish older plays and introduce his works to a newer audience.
During the Second World War, Winston Churchill permitted Coward to get involved with the war effort by entertaining the troops through song, rather than in direct combat. Recording propaganda songs including “London Pride”, he was able to work on newer productions for civilians back home, as well as keep soldiers morale high. In the war years, Blithe Spirit received its West End premiere, detailing the fictional story of a novelist who hires a medium. After a nationwide tour of the show, the play was performed on Broadway and later adapted for the silver screen.
What are his best-known texts?
Throughout his career, Noel Coward wrote 47 plays over 50 years, as well as 16 concert and revue productions and 300 original songs! With such an illustrious career, some of Coward’s works went on to become twentieth-century greats, often revived in the West End and around the world.
We take a look at some of Noel Coward’s well-known plays here:
Hay Fever (1925): Set across a weekend in Berkshire, Hay Fever follows the Bliss family at a guest house, who invite one guest each to join the family. When the visitors arrive at the house, they believe they’re in for a calm, relaxing time away from the real world, however with family rows and scandalous revelations left, right and centre, everyone at the country house begins to anger one another. Hay Fever was last performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 2015, starring Felicity Kendal, Sara Stewart and Simon Shepherd.
Private Lives (1930): Told over three acts, Private Lives follows Amanda and Elyot, a married couple whose rich and reckless lifestyles cause the pair to file for divorce. Reuniting five years later, the pair are both on a honeymoon to different partners. Falling in love once more, their lust and rekindled relationship grows again, without considering what their new spouses have to say about the matter. Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens last played the roles in Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in 2013, with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens having starred in a 2010 revival at the Queen’s Theatre.
Blithe Spirit (1941): When Charles Condomine invites a medium to conduct a séance in order to research for his new novel, he doesn’t expect to be contacted by his dead wife, Elvira. Spirits and speeches occur in Blithe Spirit, a dark comedy told over three acts that entertained soldiers during World War Two. Regularly revived for West End audiences, Angela Lansbury took to the West End to play Madame Arcati in a 2014 revival at the Gielgud Theatre, with Alison Steadman taking on the role in 2011.
Where can I see a Noël Coward play in the West End?
Present Laughter will play at the Old Vic from 17th June to 10th August, starring Andrew Scott as Garry Essendine, a middle-aged comic actor whose preparing for a tour around Africa. When work relationships, as well as intimate affairs seemingly battling one another for Essendine’s attention, who will win in this comedic tale? Scott is joined by Sophie Thompson, Luke Thallon, Suzie Toase and Indira Varma in what is set to be an epic revival of a Noël Coward classic.
To find out about even more great writers from Agatha Christie to Tennessee Williams, read all about them with us.