Coward, Noël

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Coward, Noël

Noël Coward (Sir Noël Pierce Coward) (nō´əl), 1899–1973, English playwright, actor, composer, and director, b. Teddington, England. Coward first gained wide prominence in 1924 acting in his The Vortex. His name soon became synonymous with sophistication, wit, and a world-weary sentimentality. The characters in his 27 plays are usually wealthy and somewhat snobbish couples, who express themselves with witty and brittle badinage. The best-known of his theater works include Fallen Angels (1925); Easy Virtue (1925); Private Lives (1930), perhaps his most enduring comedy; Design for Living (1932); and Blithe Spirit (1941). He also wrote revues, sketches, musical comedies, and operettas and was the most successful English composer of theater music in the mid-20th cent. Among the best known of his 281 songs are "Mad Dogs and Englishman" and "I'll See You Again."

Coward's films include the romantic Brief Encounter (1946) and the patriotic In Which We Serve (1942), for which he was director (with David Lean), actor, and producer. (His patriotism was also displayed in his work as a British agent during World War II; he used his reputation as a flamboyant bon vivant as a cover.) He also wrote short stories and a novel, Pomp and Circumstance (1960), performed in cabaret, made recordings, wrote and directed TV specials, and wrote three autobiographical works, Present Indicative (1937), Middle East Diary (1945), and Future Indefinite (1954), which were collected in one volume in 1986. His play Song at Twilight (1966), an autobiographical drama about an aging homosexual writer who has had to write dishonestly about himself, initiated a revival of interest in Coward's works. He was knighted in 1970.

See G. Payne and S. Morley, ed., The Noël Coward Diaries (1988, repr. 2000); memoir by G. Payne (with B. Day, 2000); B. Day, ed. The Letters of Noël Coward (2007) and The Noël Coward Reader (2010); biographies by S. Morley (1968), C. Castle (1973), W. Marchant (1975), C. Lesley (1976), C. Fisher (1992), and P. Hoare (1996); C. Lesley, G. Payn, and S. Morley, Noël Coward and His Friends (1979); studies by C. R. Morse (1973), R. Greacen (1978), J. Lahr (1983, repr. 2002), F. Gray (1987), J. Russell (1987), and M. Levin (rev. ed. 1989).

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