Noel Pierce Coward was born on 16 December 1899. His family on his father’s side was very talented musically, and they helped nurture the natural virtuosity of the child, instilling in him a lifelong love of music. Also, his mother took him to the theatre every year on his birthday, and, as he grew older, he found these junkets more and more fascinating and upon returning home would rush to the piano and play by ear the songs from the production he had just seen.
He made his first public appearance, singing and accompanying himself on the piano, at a concert held at Miss Willington’s School. Though obviously a very talented child, Coward’s precocity did not carry over to his formal education. At best, his schooling was sporadic. He was indulged by his mother, who became the stereotypical stage mother during his early years, and it was at his mother’s insistence that he began attending Miss Janet Thomas’s Dancing Academy in addition to his regular school in London. Soon, Miss Thomas’s school usurped the position of importance held by traditional academic fare, and Coward became a child performer.
Coward’s first professional engagement, and that which launched his long career, was on 27 January 1911 in a children’s play, The Goldfish. After this appearance, he was sought after for children’s roles by other professional theatres. He was featured in several productions with Sir Charles Hawtrey, a light comedian, whom Coward idolized and to whom he virtually apprenticed himself until he was twenty. It was from Hawtrey that Coward learned comic acting techniques and playwriting.
At the tender age of twelve, Coward met one of the actresses who would help contribute to his overwhelming success, Gertrude Lawrence; she was then fifteen and a child performer as well. The acting team of Coward and Lawrence would become synonymous with polished, sophisticated comedy during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.
Coward began his writing career when he was sixteen by writing songs and selling them for distribution. He turned his hand to playwriting when he was seventeen and found that he was very good at writing dialogue. By 1919, his play I’ll Leave It to You was produced in the West End with Coward in the leading role. One of the idiosyncrasies of Coward’s writing is that often he wrote “whacking good parts” for himself or for people he knew. Some of his best plays are essentially vehicles for his own talents or those of Gertrude Lawrence and later of the Lunts. I’ll Leave It to You met with moderate success, and Coward received great praise from critics for his play-writing abilities.
Coward went to New York for the first time in 1921 and arrived virtually penniless; however, although he may have begun the 1920s in penury, his position as the most popular playwright in the English theatre became secure during this decade. In 1924, The Vortex, Coward’s most important serious play, was produced in London. The years from 1928 to 1934 were regarded by many as Coward’s “golden years.” His string of successes include This Year of Grace, Bitter Sweet, Private Lives, Cavalcade, Words and Music, Design for Living, and Conversation Piece.
In 1941 he wrote the record-breaking Blithe Spirit, which ran for 1,997 performances in London.
After World War II, Coward fell from grace with many critics, who regarded him as being past his literary prime. However, by the late 1950s, audiences were once again in love with him. His plays, revues, and nightclub appearances were extremely successful. The critics, however, remained vitriolic, but their rancor failed to dim the enthusiasm of the general theatre-going public, which clamored for more Coward plays.
On January 1, 1970, Coward was honored by the queen as a knight bachelor for services rendered to the arts. In the same year, he was awarded a special Tony Award by the American theatre for distinguished achievement in the theatre. In 1972, he received an honorary doctor of letters from the University of Sussex.
Coward died of a heart attack in Jamaica on 26 March 1973, bringing to an end a career of more than sixty years in the theatre.