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Noel Coward was born in Teddington on 16th December, 1899. Coward began acting at the age of 12 and appeared in Peter Pan in 1913. His first play was produced in 1917. However, it was the play, I'll Leave It to You (1920) that first brought him national recognition. This was followed by The Vortex (1924), Hay Fever (1925) and This Year of Grace (1928).
Coward was also a singer who wrote his own music. His operetta Bitter Sweet, was produced in 1929. Other popular plays and musicals included Private Lives (1930), Cavalcade (1931) and Words and Music (1932), which featured his most famous song, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Coward also published an autobiography, Present Indicative in 1937.
Other popular songs by Coward include Poor Little Rich Girl, A Room With a View, Dance Little Lady, Someday I'll Find You, Alexander's Ragtime Band, Mrs Worthington, Mad About the Boy, London Pride and Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans, a song that was banned by the BBC for being pro-German.
During the Second World War Coward began to write film scripts. This included In Which We Serve (1942), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945).
After the war Coward published a second volume of autobiography, Future Indefinite (1954) and wrote several plays and musicals There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner (1952), Nude With Violin (1956) and Sail Away (1961).
Noel Coward died in Port Maria, Jamaica, on 26th March, 1973.
We must be kind
And with an open mind
We must endeavour to find
A way -
To let the Germans know that when the war is over
They are not the ones who'll have to pay.
We must be sweet
And tactful and discreet
And when they've suffered defeat
We mustn't let
Them feel upset
Or ever get
The feeling that we're cross with them or hate them,
Our future policy must be to reinstate them.
Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When our victory is ultimately won,
It was just those nasty Nazis who persuaded them to fight
And their Beethoven and Bach are really far worse than their bite
Let's be meek to them-
And turn the other cheek to them
And try to bring out their latent sense of fun.
Let's give them full air parity
And treat the rats with charity,
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.
We must be just
And win their love and trust
And in addition we must
And ask the conquered lands to join our hands to aid them.
That would be a wonderful surprise.
For many years-
They've been in floods of tears
Because the poor little dears
Have been so wronged and only longed
To cheat the world,
Deplete the world
The world to blazes.
This is the moment when we ought to sing their praises.
Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When we've definately got them on the run
Let us treat them very kindly as we would a valued friend
We might send them out some Bishops as a form of lease and lend,
Let's be sweet to them
And day by day repeat to them
That 'sterilization' simply isn't done.
Let's help the dirty swine again
To occupy the Rhine again,
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.
Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When the age of peace and plenty has begun.
We must send them steel and oil and coal and everything they need
For their peaceable intentions can be always guaranteed.
Let's employ with them a sort of 'strength through joy' with them,
They're better than us at honest manly fun.
Let's let them feel they're swell again and bomb us all to hell again,
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.
Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
For you can't deprive a gangster of his gun
Though they've been a little naughty to the Czechs and Poles and Dutch
But I don't suppose those countries really minded very much
Let's be free with them and share the B.B.C. with them.
We mustn't prevent them basking in the sun.
Let's soften their defeat again - and build their bloody fleet again,
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.
His birthplace still stands, a rather common attached brick house in Teddington, a quiet suburban village near London, England. One look at this building would convince you that great things can start in the most unassuming places.
Noel Peirce Coward was born on December 16, 1899, receiving his first name because Christmas was just days away. He was the son of Arthur and Violet Veitch Coward. Arthur was an unsuccessful piano salesman with little personal drive, so family finances were often shaky. Violet's first son had died as an infant, so she showed amazing devotion to Noel and did her best to gloss over the family's genteel poverty. Noel's younger brother Eric suffered from chronic poor health that kept him in the background for most of his short life. Noel was the family's star attraction.
Noel survived several childhood accidents. Once while playing on a beach, a broken bottle severed an artery in his foot. The only person in sight had just completed first aid training and was able to save the little boy's life. Such early strokes of luck later led to Noel being nicknamed "Destiny's Tot."
From an early age, Noel was intelligent, temperamental, and an instinctive performer, making his first stage appearances in amateur concerts at age seven. He loved to sing and dance at any excuse and threw frightful tantrums if he was not summoned to perform for guests. His formal education consisted of a few years at the Chapel Royal Choir School (which he despised) and some dance lessons (which he enjoyed). A lifetime of voracious reading and a keen sense of observation made up for his lack of schooling.
Coward makes his professional West End debut as a page boy in The Great Name (1911) with Lydia Bilbrooke and Charles Hawtrey.
Coward excelled in amateur talent shows. With his mother's encouragement, he launched his professional acting career at the age of 12, making his London debut as Prince Mussel in a children's show called The Goldfish. He appeared in several West End productions with the popular comic actor-manager Charles Hawtrey, and played the "lost boy" Slightly in two West End editions of Peter Pan.
The precocious Coward later admitted to having his first sexual experience at age 13 with fellow child actor Philip Tonge. However, his closest adolescent friendship was with aspiring actress and author Esme Wynne. They shared such intense conversations that they sometimes bathed together so as not to interrupt a line of thought. Coward and Wynne exchanged clothes on occasion, strolling through London in reversed gender. In time, their friendship faded, but their pranks and witty banter would inspire material in many of Coward's future plays.
Meeting High Society
In the early 1900s, England was a very class-conscious society. A boy actor born to poor parents would have have been snubbed by the upper classes. However, Coward's extraordinary determination and charm won him an entree into the chicest circles. His professional and social ambitions were insatiable.
Noel's social ascendancy began thanks to his teenage friendship with adult artist Philip Streatfield. We know they were close and that Streatfield had a taste for young men the rest is anyone's guess. Before wartime illness drove Streatfield to an early death, he asked wealthy socialite Mrs. Astley Cooper to take Coward under her wing. Young Noel became a frequent guest at her country estate. Butlers and maids, formal meals, riding and hunting Coward thrived in this sophisticated environment, his first taste of the elegant world he would one day immortalize in many of his comedies.
During his weekends at the Cooper estate, Coward encountered the writings of Saki, the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro. These witty short stories often centered on the sort of wealthy, cynical young men who's world would be pulverized by World War I. Coward would pick up where Saki (who died in the war) left off.
Lillian Gish and Coward in D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (1917).
Coward was too young to be drafted when the war broke out in 1914, so he continued to appear in plays, building his professional reputation. His first screen role was in D.W. Griffith's silent film Hearts of the World (1917), where he appeared in several scenes following Lillian Gish around with a wheel barrow. Just as Noel's acting career was showing real promise, he was called-up for military duty in 1918. He used his connections to get an assignment to light duty in the Artists Rifles corps, but military life made the self-centered young actor thoroughly miserable.
A minor head injury incurred during a training drill sent Coward into a complete nervous collapse. After nine months of service spent mostly in hospital, a sympathetic doctor helped him obtain an honorable medical discharge. Although relieved to be a civilian again, Noel found that the demand for his acting talents had evaporated. He continued to audition, but with little to do he put an increasing amount of energy into playwriting and composing. He also sold short stories to several magazines to help his family make ends meet. His ever-supportive mother turned the family's London home into a boarding house, where she worked tirelessly so Noel could pursue his theatrical dreams. Noel's father, no longer attempting formal employment, seemed contented to let his wife take charge.
Noel Coward's remarkable self possession saw him through many a sticky situation, even at this early stage. When he arrived at a party in full evening attire and found that the other guests were in casual clothes, he paused barely a moment before saying, "Now, I don't want anybody to be embarrassed." It was during these years of struggle that Coward first met Lorn McNaughtan, a woman who's sense of organization and salty language made her the perfect choice to be Noel's private secretary a role she would fill until her death more than forty years later.
I Leave It To You (1920) was Cowards first full length play produced in the West End, with Noel playing a leading role quite an accomplishment for a lad of 21. The brief run brought encouraging reviews, whetting Coward's appetite for more. However, most London producers were unwilling to gamble on such a young playwright. So Noel looked across the Atlantic for possible salvation.
In the summer of 1921, he scraped together enough money for steamship passage to New York City, convinced that America would embrace his work. No such luck! He spent a steamy summer roaming Manhattan, scraping by with the income from a few short stories, living on bacon that he bought on credit, and wondering why he had ever left England. Coward made a slew of valuable new friends, including the then-unknown actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The three of them made a pact to appear in one of Noel's plays after they had all earned full stardom an agreement that would bring profitable results in years to come.
That summer, Coward witnessed firsthand the American theater's fast-paced performing style, a refreshing change from the slower approach of most British productions. He also spent many evening's in the Manhattan home of playwright Hartley Manners and his wife, the eccentric actress Laurette Taylor. Years later, their over-the-top theatrical lifestyle would inspire Coward's comic hit Hay Fever.
Andre Charlot, the Frenchman who produced a dazzling series of intimate revues that provided and important early showcase for Noel Coward and his songs, both in London and New York .
A sympathetic friend arranged for Coward to return to England, where his luck took a turn for the better. The London production of his play The Young Idea (1923) was a mild success, with Noel playing one of the lead roles. That same year, producer Andre Charlot featured several of Coward's songs in the hit revue London Calling. While all this was happening, Noel put the finishing touches on a daring drama that would change his career and his life forever.
From late 1945 to mid 1951 actor, singer and playwright Noel Coward leased a house in St Margaret’s Bay which he called ‘White Cliffs’. He used it largely as a weekend and holiday home, eventually buying or leasing the other four art deco houses clustered around it for his friends and relatives. All still stand today but are privately owned.
The cluster of houses owned by Noel Coward in St Margaret’s Bay in 2012
‘White Cliffs’ had originally been built for a friend of Coward’s the Hon Kay Norton, who had called the house with its distinctive red tiled roof, ‘Kay’s Bluff’. Coward’s own country house on Romney Marsh was still occupied by the army
Noel Coward loved the sea. The house was almost in it. Waves either lapped against or lashed the end wall of the house. Noel Coward enjoyed the thought of the White Cliffs of Dover rising steeply on his right only a yard or two from where he lay ( Cole Lesley: The Life of Noel Coward )
Apart from the sea, Coward may have been drawn to St Margaret’s by the presence of other friends in the village, such as Lady Forbes-Robertson, an eminent actress of the early 1900’s who he often visited.
It was not to be an easy move. The house and all the buildings around it had been severely damaged by the British Army who had used the once fashionable seaside retreat as a Battle Training School. To reach his new home Coward and his friends had to pass many ruined and empty houses, hotel, tearoom and pub and large chunks of concrete invasion defences and wire.
Repairing the groynes close to Noel Coward’s house. Early 1950s
In the summer of 1945 Coward and friends with the help of ‘Harry’ began to repair the house, moving in, still without heating or electricity, in October. On his first night there Coward said
An evening of enchantment, I know this is going to be a happy house (Noel Coward Diaries, Payn and Morley)
In Coward’s seven years in the Bay he entertained a large array of famous friends from the arts, film and stage. Katherine Hepburn stayed here with Spencer Tracey and swam daily from the shore. Daphne Du Maurier, Ian Fleming, Gertrude Lawrence and John Mills all came to relax, play Canasta and Scrabble or join Coward in his painting studio where he produced oils of the Bay and Jamaica. in 1946 his mother and aunt moved into one of the white art deco houses.
White Cliffs painted by Noel Coward,
Dover Museum collection
As life in the village and the beach area began to return to normal, Coward’s privacy came under threat. In the severe winter of 1947 large lumps of chalk fell only a few hundred yards from the house and he needed to decide if he wished to extend the lease on ‘White Cliffs’. Ian Fleming had allowed him use of his house in Jamaica, where soon Coward was to build a place for himself. In 1951 he decided to leave and return to his Romney Marsh home. Ian Fleming took on the lease.using it as a weekend retreat until 1958.
Find out more
We have a small collection of information about Coward in our archive here with a more detailed description of his life in the village in an out of print pamphlet called ‘Noel Coward and St Margaret’s Bay’ by Jean Melhuish and Connie Jewell
You should also see ‘ The Life of Noel Coward ‘ by Lesley Cole and ‘The Noel Coward Diaries‘ by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley.
In 1948, Noël Coward, whilst holidaying at the nearby home of Ian Fleming, ‘Goldeneye’, fell in love with Jamaica. He decided to buy his own house further along the coast. He bought and built the property that he was later to name ‘Blue Harbour’ a good sized property overlooking the sea. Later he expanded the main house, built three guest cottages in the substantial grounds, and, a lovely swimming pool down by the shore. Blue Harbour quickly became a Mecca for Coward’s friends and the post-war ‘celebrity set’ of stage and screen.
By 1955 Coward eventually decided that Blue Harbour was becoming too crowded for him to work he needed ‘the valuable peace’. (The photograph below is of the staff at Blue Harbour during Noël's time there - probably taken by Cole Lesley).
He set out to buy a hideaway retreat, and found a site 1200 feet above Blue Harbour – which he bought for $150. He had a simple house built for himself at the top of the hill, and completed with an outdoor swimming pool. Coward named the property ‘Firefly’. The entire property enjoys remarkable views of the north coast of Jamaica. Life at Firefly with close friends revolved around the pool, Study, Studio and prolific use of the Music Room and open Dining Room – with food being sent up from Blue Harbour. Coward lived in the house alone. It was only towards the end of his life that a housekeeper and gardener lived nearby. Coward died at Firefly in March 1973, and he was buried in the garden of his beloved home.
In 1978 Graham Payn gave Firefly to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. In subsequent years, sadly, Firefly became very seriously run-down, and eventually Chris Blackwell (whose mother, Blanche, had been a good friend of Coward’s in Jamaica) bought the property and restored it to its former glory. Chris Blackwell still owns the property and supports its upkeep financially. Much of the contents (including pictures) of the house are owned by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust and the Noël Coward Estate.
Peter Tod • 19th July 2010 • email • Photo of Staff at Blue Harbour restored by John Hunter Knowles from a stereo slide.
As part of the celebrations in Noël Coward's Centenary Year Victor Gollancz and Island Life published a book about Firefly written by Chris Salewicz and compiled by Adrian Boot for Island Outpost.
It is the first and only book about Noël's hideaway in Jamaica and currently only available via used book outlets.
Some of the text is quoted on this site together with images owned by the Noël Coward Estate.
Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans: Noël Coward's World War II
Entertainer Noël Coward's flamboyant lifestyle and defiance of social conventions masked a fierce determination to defeat Nazi Germany.
Top Image: Noël Coward, right, entertains the crew of HMS Victorious in Ceylon, August 1944. Courtesy of Imperial War Museums.
English entertainer Noël Coward, a celebrated wit and raconteur, spent most of his life airily defying social conventions even as he delighted millions with his art. For all of his flippant mockery of British imperialism, however—notably the famous song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” from 1931, Coward wore his patriotism proudly during World War II. And he longed to employ much more than song and dance in vanquishing the Nazis he so heartily loathed.
Born to a lower-middle class family in London in 1899, Coward became entranced by the world of entertainment from an early age—not least because it offered an arena in which he could be relatively open about his homosexuality. A talented singer and dancer, he was soon writing songs and plays as well. During World War I he was assigned to the Artists’ Rifles, but the cause for which Britain fought was opaque. Coward could not convince himself “that it was a matter of pressing urgency . . . [instead], I should become rich and successful as soon as possible.”
That he did, between the wars. By the 1930s, Noël Coward was the acclaimed king of London’s West End (akin to New York City’s Broadway), dominating it and the radio airwaves with his comedies and lighthearted music. In the summer of 1939, with war imminent, Coward toured Continental Europe from France to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, losing no opportunity to frolic with fellow high-profile artists and literati. But these activities masked a serious purpose—to assess the dark tide of extremism and murderous intolerance sweeping across Europe.
When World War II began in September 1939, with the German and Soviet invasions of Poland, Coward immediately enlisted himself with the British government to support the war effort in any capacity. He particularly yearned to work on behalf of the Royal Navy, which he adored. After a brief assignment to work in intelligence at Bletchley Park, however, Coward was sent to Paris to undertake light duties at the British propaganda bureau. These posts did not work to Noël Coward’s real talents, however, and he subsequently embarked on a tour of the United States and Australia as a kind of goodwill ambassador (and, theoretically at least, as an intelligence agent.)
As this tour ended, Coward returned to London in the midst of the ongoing German bombing campaign known as the Blitz. Reports that the Nazis had Coward at the top of their death list in case of a successful invasion of England concerned him not at all: “My dear, the people we should have been seen dead with,” he quipped with his friend Rebecca West. Nor did the threat of death from German bombs faze him. Of one bombing attack in April 1941, Coward wrote:
“Had a few drinks. Pretty bad blitz, but not as bad as Wednesday. A couple of bombs fell very near during dinner. Wall bulged a bit and door blew in. Orchestra went on playing, no one stopped eating or talking. Blitz continued. Carroll Gibbons played the piano, I sang, so did Judy Campbell and a couple of drunken Scots Canadians. On the whole a strange and very amusing evening. People's behaviour absolutely magnificent. Much better than gallant. Wish the whole of America could really see and understand it. Thankful to God that I came back. Would not have missed this experience for anything."
Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought that Coward was wasting his time, and told him so during a private audience after ordering the entertainer to sing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” twice in a row. “Go and sing” to the troops “when the guns are firing—that’s your job!” the Prime Minister thundered. And so Coward was off to tour around the world, singing and dancing wherever British and American soldiers were fighting, in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
A restless artistic spirit, Noël Coward could not stop creating. And so, even with his grueling tour schedule, he wrote songs like “London Pride” about the spirit of those enduring the Blitz, or the delightful “Don’t Let’s be Beastly to the Germans.” This latter included the immortal refrain:
“Don't let's be beastly to the Germans,
For you can't deprive a gangster of his gun,
Though they've been a little naughty to the Czechs and Poles and Dutch ,
But I don't suppose those countries really minded very much,
Let's be free with them and share the B.B.C. with them,
We mustn't prevent them basking in the sun.”
In film, too, Coward was active, most notably in the 1942 naval drama In Which We Serve. This Coward wrote and co-directed, and also sort of fulfilled his dream of serving the Royal Navy by portraying a ship captain. As World War II ended, Coward enjoyed the satisfaction of dining with Winston Churchill and raising a teary-eyed toast in his honor. It remained to be seen whether the victors would be “beastly to the Germans” but Noël Coward had almost three more decades of artistic success ahead before he died in 1973.
"I've too damned much to say": Kurt Vonnegut, World War II, and Slaughterhouse-Five
Writer Kurt Vonnegut's experiences with the 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge and then later as a POW in Dresden imprinted his life and provided traumatic (and sometimes comedic) material for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five and other works.
Ed Lengel, PhD
Edward G. Lengel is Senior Director of Programs for the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.
Why Famous: Noël Coward began his theatrical career as a child actor on the London stage before coming one of its most successful playwrights, actors, directors, producers and composers. His plays were deceptively light, witty, urbane and amusing and Coward cultivated a persona that went with them. he was frequently depicted with a cigarette holder on hand or silk dressing gown.
Coward wrote 27 plays, his most famous include "Private Lives” with Laurence Olivier in his first major role, “Blithe Spirit”, “Cavalcade” and “Bitter Sweet". He wrote for film also, “In Which We Serve” was a WWII epic for which he was awarded an honorary Academy Award and the classic romantic film “Brief Encounter”, directed by David Lean.
Coward also composed musicals and songs that have become standards, such as “Someday I'll, Find You,” “I'll See You Again,” “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1970.
Born: December 16, 1899
Birthplace: London, England, United Kingdom
Died: March 26, 1973 (aged 73)
Cause of Death: Heart failure after suffering from arteriosclerosis
A multi-talented Renaissance man of the 20th century, Noël Coward worked primarily as a playwright, actor, songwriter, and singer, but his creative activities also included the writing of fiction and poetry producing and directing for the stage, film, and television and nightclub entertaining and recording. Across a career spanning six decades, he was remarkably successful at these various pursuits, moving from one to the other with seeming ease, even when he was wearing several different hats at the same time, e.g., writing, directing, and starring in the same show. As a writer and as a performer, he maintained a consistent persona, that of a witty, sophisticated British subject, always ready to deliver a devastating and hilarious observation, often at the expense of his own kind, as he did, for instance, in his most famous song, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." He was also, however, intensely patriotic, as he demonstrated in his World War II-era song "London Pride" and the film In Which We Serve (which, characteristically, he wrote, co-directed, starred in, and composed the background score for). And his sophistication could be used in the service of plaintive sentiment, as it was in such ballads as "If Love Were All." Especially later in his career, Coward put his persona on display in nightclubs and film appearances, but his reputation rests more on his writing he was one of the major British playwrights of the century and, arguably, also the greatest creator of musical theater works among his countrymen in the same period, with 13 stage musicals to his credit between 1923 and 1963.
Although Coward maintained the image of an upper-class sophisticate, his origins were relatively humble. He was born Noël Peirce Coward in Teddington, Middlesex, England, on December 16, 1899, the son of Arthur Sabin Coward, a salesman for a music publisher, and Violet Agnes (Veitch) Coward. In his childhood, he began displaying the talents he would show the world later on, learning to play the piano by ear (he never learned to read music), writing plays and staging them in a toy theater, and preparing for the life of a performer by taking dancing lessons at age ten. He made his professional debut as an actor at 11, appearing in the children's musical The Goldfish at the Little Theatre in London on January 27, 1911. It was the beginning of a lengthy career acting as a juvenile over the next several years, during which his formal education lapsed. (Again, even though Coward's image might have suggested private schooling and a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, in fact he had barely a grade-school education.) Starting with his appearance in the play The Great Name in September 1911, he came under the tutelage of the great actor/manager Charles Hawtrey, a model for the all-encompassing approach he would take to his stage projects as an adult. He debuted as a director by handling a single performance of a one-act play, The Daisy Chain, on February 2, 1912. His first play as an author to be produced was the one-act effort Ida Collaborates (written with Esmé Wynne), performed at the Theatre Royal, Aldershot, on August 20, 1917. He and Wynne also co-wrote Women and Whisky, another one-act, performed at the Wimbledon Theatre in November 1917.
Coward made his film debut as an extra in D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World, which was released in April 1918. His theatrical debut as a lyricist came with the song "Peter Pan" (aka "The Story of Peter Pan"), for which Doris Joel composed the music and co-wrote the lyrics. It was sung by Phyllis Titmuss in the musical revue Tails Up, which opened in London on June 1, 1918. The song was published, and a recording was made by Louise Leigh. I'll Leave It to You, which opened in London's West End (the British equivalent of Broadway) on July 21, 1920, for a run of 37 performances, was the first play written solely by Coward to be produced the 20-year-old author also appeared in it. Notwithstanding this career milestone, he continued to be employed primarily as an actor for the next two years, even as he wrote more plays. His next play to be produced was a one-act comedy, The Better Half, which opened May 31, 1922, and ran 29 performances it was followed by the full-length comedy The Young Idea, which began in London on February 1, 1923, for a run of 60 performances with the playwright in the cast.
Coward had also continued to write songs, notably contributing to the musical revue The Co-Optimists (May 1922), and London Calling! (September 4, 1923) was the first musical revue for which he was credited as the primary songwriter (he wrote half of the 26 numbers) he also co-wrote the book of the show and appeared in it. Actress/singer Gertrude Lawrence, who was in the show, recorded his "Parisian Pierrot" and "Russian Blues" from the score. Coward later recorded both those songs and "Other Girls." The revue ran 316 performances, establishing him as a writer for the musical theater. Several of the songs were performed in New York in André Charlot's London Revue of 1924 (January 9, 1924), giving Coward his Broadway debut as a songwriter. "It's the Peach," written in 1916 and featured in the musical revue Yoicks! (June 11, 1924), actually had been the first song for which he wrote both words and music. It was later known as "Forbidden Fruit." Daniel Massey, playing Coward, sang it in the 1968 film Star!, the screen biography of Lawrence, and on the soundtrack album. Coward wrote yet more songs for Charlot's Revue (September 23, 1924), the London edition of the show that had run in New York.
The play that established Coward as a playwright and a director was The Vortex (December 16, 1924), a provocative drama treating issues of sex and drugs in which he also starred. It caused a sensation in London and ran 224 performances. The twin successes of London Calling! and The Vortex essentially opened the floodgates to the writing Coward had been doing in recent years, and 1925 saw productions of three of his straight plays -- Fallen Angels (April 21, 1925), Hay Fever (September 7, 1925), and Easy Virtue (on Broadway, December 7, 1925). (A new film version of Easy Virtue appeared in 2009.) Coward did not act in any of these, although he directed Hay Fever. Nor did he perform in his musical revue for the year, On with the Dance, which opened in London on April 20, 1925, for a run of 229 performances, although he did write the book as well as the songs. The hit of the show was "Poor Little Rich Girl." After it was interpolated into the Broadway production Charlot's Revue of 1926 (November 10, 1925), it was recorded by Gertrude Lawrence, who sang it on-stage in New York, and it became a hit in the U.S. in the spring of 1926. It was later recorded by Tony Bennett, Chris Connor, Judy Garland, Mary Cleere Haran, Marian McPartland, and Gerry Mulligan, among others. It was also recorded by Coward himself at one of two recording sessions he did for HMV Records in August 1925, although the results of the sessions were rejected by the label the singer/songwriter would not commence his formal association with HMV (which lasted more than 20 years) until 1928. He had not given up acting, either. He made his Broadway debut as a performer in the New York production of The Vortex on September 16, 1925, and returned to the London stage in a play he did not write, The Constant Nymph, a year later, on September 14, 1926. The year 1926 also saw productions of two of his early plays in London -- The Queen Was in the Parlour (August 8, 1926) and The Rat Trap (October 18, 1926) -- as well as a new play, This Was a Man (November 23, 1926) on Broadway.
Even if some of this material had come out of his trunk, Coward was producing a prodigious amount of writing in the mid-'20s, and it was not surprising that he dropped out of The Constant Nymph after three weeks, said to be suffering from "severe nervous exhaustion," and set off on a globe-trotting vacation that took him as far as Hawaii. This set a pattern for the rest of his career, as he determined never to appear in one of his plays for more than three months in London and three months in New York at a time, and to take lengthy holidays in foreign climes (often writing more plays and songs along the way). He returned to London in 1927 with the plays The Marquise (February 16, 1927) and Home Chat (October 25, 1927), plus another early, previously unproduced play, Sirocco (November 24, 1927). Of these, only The Marquise was successful, which falsely suggested to critics, not for the last time, that he was washed up after only three years in the limelight. Instead, he returned to the stage as an actor in S.N. Behrman's The Second Man (January 24, 1928), which had a healthy run of over 100 performances, and mounted his third musical revue, This Year of Grace! (March 22, 1928), again writing both the book and the music. The score contained "A Room with a View," a U.S. hit for Ben Selvin that eventually was recorded by Hildegarde, Julie London, Russ Morgan, and Artie Shaw, among others, and "Dance, Little Lady," a U.S. hit for Roger Wolfe Kahn, which attracted covers by Ambrose and Hildegarde, among others. Coward himself also recorded them on April 25, 1928, at his first session to produce releasable records for HMV. Over the course of three trips to the recording studio that spring, he also cut "Mary Make-Believe," "Try to Learn to Love," and "Lorelei," all from This Year of Grace!, establishing a pattern of doing his own versions of songs from his shows that would continue even after the trend for "original cast" albums set in 15 years later. This Year of Grace! matched the run of London Calling! at 316 performances in London, and it did another 158 on Broadway (starting on November 7, 1928), where Coward appeared in it and added new songs including "World Weary," which he went on to record.
Each of Coward's three musicals had been revues, full of comic sketches and independent songs, but without a story for his next musical venture, he increased his ambitions again, writing a "book" musical that he set, for once, partially in the 19th century and billed as an "operette." Of course, he also wrote the music, and he added the job of director to his duties. Having enough to do, he did not also appear in Bitter Sweet, which opened in London on July 12, 1929. It was positively received, its most memorable songs being "I'll See You Again" (a U.S. hit for Leo Reisman and eventually recorded by Rosemary Clooney, Bill Evans, Eddie Fisher, Dorothy Kirsten, Mario Lanza, Guy Lombardo, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Welk, Art Tatum, and Phil Woods, among others) "If Love Were All" (covered by Julie Andrews, Shirley Bassey, Sarah Brightman, Barbara Cook, Judy Garland, Mabel Mercer, Helen Merrill, Pet Shop Boys, and others) and "Zigeuner" (covered by Hildegarde, Tony Martin, Artie Shaw, Art Tatum, and others). The show ran 697 performances, making it the most successful musical of Coward's career. A Broadway production that opened on November 5, 1929, added another 159 performances. Coward celebrated by taking an extended trip through Asia in 1929-1930, during which he kept a promise to Gertrude Lawrence to write a stage vehicle for the two of them, coming up with the play Private Lives. It opened in London for a run of 101 performances on September 24, 1930, and, although it was not a musical, nine days earlier Coward and Lawrence had gone into the HMV studio to record scenes from it that featured both dialogue and music, including the song "Someday I'll Find You," which went on to become another Coward standard, recorded by Doris Day, Jackie Gleason, Hildegarde, Marian McPartland, Leo Reisman, Sonny Rollins, and Mel Tormé, among others. Coward and Lawrence moved to New York, where they opened on January 27, 1931, and the play ran for 256 performances there. Over the years, it became one of Coward's most successful works, continually revived.
While Coward worked on his next major stage work, he placed a few songs in musical revues in London and New York. Charles B. Cochran's 1931 Revue (London, March 19, 1931) used "Any Little Fish" and "Half-Caste Woman," both of which Coward had recorded on January 2, 1931, as well as other songs. The Third Little Show (New York, June 1, 1931) found Beatrice Lillie introducing a tune Coward had written in the Far East, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," a witty patter song questioning why the English, while running their many colonies in the Tropics, never took an afternoon nap as the natives did. It became Coward's signature song and was recorded not only by him (in 1931), but also by Danny Kaye and Rudy Vallée, among others. The Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 (New York, July 1, 1931), meanwhile, featured Helen Morgan singing "Half-Caste Woman."
As writer/director, Coward had another ambitious idea for the stage, Cavalcade, a lengthy and lavishly mounted panorama of 30 years of British history (starting on New Year's Eve, 1899, two weeks after his own birth). Opening in London on October 13, 1931, for a run of 405 performances, it contained music, but most of it was period music not written by Coward. He did, however, record both orchestral and vocal medleys of that music released on two special 12" discs by HMV. And he did write a few songs, notably "Twentieth Century Blues," later recorded by Karen Akers, Marianne Faithfull, and Ray Noble (with Al Bowlly on vocals), among others. With the show successfully launched, he went off on another of his lengthy trips, this one taking in South America, and when he returned to London in the spring of 1932, it was with another musical revue and another play in mind. The musical revue had the generic name Words and Music, and it opened on September 16, 1932, written and directed by (but not featuring) Coward, for a run of 134 performances, which was successful given the depths of the Depression. It marked the London premiere of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," as well as another of Coward's most valuable copyrights, "Mad About the Boy," eventually recorded by Georgia Brown, Buddy DeFranco, Helen Forrest, Jackie Gleason, Gogi Grant, Lena Horne, Julie London, Marian McPartland, Anita O'Day, Patti Page, Elaine Paige, Tom Robinson, Cybill Shepherd, Dinah Shore, Jeri Southern, Maxine Sullivan, Dinah Washington, and Phil Woods. (Ray Noble had a U.S. hit with it in 1935.) "The Younger Generation" attracted covers by Noble and Django Reinhardt. Coward himself recorded "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" as well as "Let's Say Goodbye," "The Party's Over Now," and "Something to Do with Spring" from the score.
The play Coward had been working on was, again, a promised project, this time to give his friends, the married acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, something to do with him. This was Design for Living, a provocative examination of a ménage à trois that opened on Broadway on January 24, 1933 was written and directed by and co-starred Coward and ran for 135 performances. On April 11, he belatedly held a recording session for songs from Bitter Sweet, accompanied by Leo Reisman & His Orchestra, also throwing in "Poor Little Rich Girl." The results appeared on a special 12" single called Noël Coward Sings, issued by RCA Victor in the U.S. Another vacation, in the West Indies and Central America, followed by a London revival of Hay Fever that Coward directed in the fall of 1933, led to his next new show, Conversation Piece, "a romantic comedy with music" (actually an operetta), which he wrote, directed, and starred in, and which opened in the West End on February 16, 1934, for a run of 177 performances. Among the musical numbers was "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," later recorded by Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Elisabeth Welch, and Lee Wiley, among others. Coward also recorded it, along with his co-star, Yvonne Printemps, and Ray Noble had a U.S. hit with it after the American version of the show opened on October 10, 1934, for a run of 55 performances. (Coward directed, but did not appear in, this staging.)
Having formed his own production company, Coward devoted much of 1934 to directing the work of others for the firm, starting with S.N. Behrman's Biography, which opened in London on April 25, 1934, and continuing with George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Theatre Royal, which opened on October 23, 1934. Six days later, he held an unusual recording session of songs of his own that were not associated with any show and songs by others, including "I Travel Alone," one of his most personal statements, "Most of Ev'ry Day," Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger's "Love in Bloom," and Sam Coslow's "Fare Thee Well." Meanwhile, he was preparing another play for the Lunts (but not himself, except as writer/director), Point Valaine, which opened on Broadway for an unsuccessful run of 55 performances on January 16, 1935. After the opening, he returned for the first time since 1917 to film acting, taking the starring role in the movie The Scoundrel. (Although he had not been involved personally, his shows had been used as the source material for a number of films, including The Queen Was in the Parlour , The Vortex , Easy Virtue  [all silent movies], Private Lives , Tonight Is Ours [based on The Queen Was in the Parlour] , Cavalcade , Bitter Sweet , and Design for Living .) The Scoundrel was well reviewed when it opened in May 1935, but Coward opted against devoting much of his time to the screen. On August 15, 1935, he recorded another of his independent compositions, not related to any show, and it was one of his funniest novelty songs, "Mrs. Worthington" (aka "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington"), a knowing condemnation of a stage mother.
Coward's next stage project as writer/director/star was another ambitious effort, Tonight at 8:30, also featuring Gertrude Lawrence, which consisted of nine one-act plays performed in repertory over the course of three nights. It opened in London on January 9, 1936, for a run of 157 performances. Several of the plays contained music, and he and Lawrence recorded musical excerpts for HMV. They took the plays to New York for an opening on November 24, 1936, and a run of 118 performances. Then Coward began work on another full-scale book musical as writer/director (but not star this time). Having described Bitter Sweet as an "operette," he decided to actually title this one Operette. A backstage musical, it opened in London on March 16, 1938, and ran 133 performances. Coward himself recorded several of the songs from it, among them "The Stately Homes of England," "Dearest Love," and "Where Are the Songs We Sung?" He next went back to Broadway, where he wrote and directed Set to Music (January 18, 1939 129 performances), which was actually a revised version of Words and Music, but is notable for the introduction by Beatrice Lillie of "Marvellous Party" (aka "I Went to a Marvellous Party"), a typically witty song that would become a cornerstone of Coward's nightclub act.
Although Coward couldn't have realized it at the time, Set to Music marked the end of the initial phase of his career and his last legitimate stage work for some time. During the summer of 1939, he prepared two new plays, Present Laughter and This Happy Breed, intending to bring them into London together in the fall. But the beginning of World War II on September 3, 1939, led the British government to close down the theaters temporarily, and instead of doing theater work, Coward did war work, initially going to Paris to set up an office of government propaganda. He stayed there until April 1940, when he left to travel around the U.S., gauging American sentiment about the war. In the fall, he went to Australia, and he spent the next few months performing for troops and for fundraisers there and in New Zealand, returning to London in April 1941. He then went back to creative work, but with more of a war orientation. He wrote the patriotic song "London Pride," which he recorded for HMV in July it was later recorded by Julie Andrews and Mel Tormé, among others. (The war also inspired him to write some more comic and satiric numbers, including "Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun?" and "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans.") Blithe Spirit, a comic play about ghosts, billed as "an improbable farce," which he wrote and directed, opened in London on July 2, 1941, and ran throughout the war, giving audience members respite from their concerns for 1,997 performances, the longest run of any show Coward ever wrote.
In the summer of 1941, Coward was asked to come up with an idea for a morale-building film, finding inspiration in the heroic efforts of the crew of the HMS Kelly, sunk off Crete, and its captain, his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. The result was In Which We Serve, for which Coward provided the screenplay and the background score, which he co-directed with David Lean, and in which he starred as the ship's captain. The film was shot during the first half of 1942 and opened on September 17, 1942, earning Coward a special Academy Award for "outstanding production achievement." On September 20, 1942, he began touring around Britain in a revolving repertoire of Present Laughter, This Happy Breed, and Blithe Spirit, which he did for the next six months, finally bringing Present Laughter and This Happy Breed into London in April 1943. In July, he embarked upon a tour of the Middle East, entertaining troops and visiting hospitals, returning to London in October. At the start of 1944, he began another arduous tour through Africa and then on to India and Burma. Later in the year, after D-Day, he performed for troops in Europe and at the Stage Door Canteen in London.
In addition to In Which We Serve, Coward was represented in cinemas by an American remake of Bitter Sweet (1941) starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy We Were Dancing (1942), based on one of the plays in Tonight at 8:30 This Happy Breed (1944), which Coward himself produced and adapted Blithe Spirit (1945), which he adapted and Brief Encounter (1945), based on another of the plays from Tonight at 8:30, which he produced and adapted. This was the kind of work he could do while devoting most of his time to traveling in war zones, but with the end of the war in 1945, he was able to return to working on a full-scale stage musical, and he wrote and directed a new revue, Sigh No More, which opened in London on August 22, 1945, for a run of 213 performances. The most popular songs to emerge from the show were the humorous tango "Nina" and the touching ballad "Matelot." He recorded them, along with "I Wonder What Happened to Him," "Never Again," "Wait a Bit, Joe," and the title song, on September 14, 1945.
Although the recording of original cast albums had become commonplace for successful Broadway shows by the mid-'40s, postwar privation prevented this in Great Britain so that, for example, the stars of Sigh No More, Joyce Grenfell and Graham Payn, only recorded singles of songs from the score. (Grenfell did "The End of the News" and Payn "Matelot" and "Sigh No More," for Decca Records.) Coward's next show, however, was a sufficiently big deal to get its own original cast album, the first for one of his musicals. This was Pacific 1860, which also served to reopen the massive Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (damaged by bombing during the war) and which featured the Broadway star Mary Martin. The music for the show, which opened on December 19, 1946, was preserved on six 78-rpm discs by Decca Coward himself cut four of the songs, including the humorous "Uncle Harry" and the ballad "Bright Was the Day," for HMV, although he had restricted himself to writing and directing the production and did not appear in it. But despite all this recording activity, Pacific 1860 was actually a commercial failure, running only 129 performances.
After World War II, Coward began to find more success in repeating himself than he did in creating new work. For example, a London revival of Present Laughter (April 16, 1947), in which he starred for the first three months, was a hit, running 528 performances, while a new play, the drama Peace in Our Time (a fantasy about what would have happened if Germany had invaded England during World War II), which opened July 22, 1947, ran only 167 performances. In 1948, there were revivals of Tonight at 8:30 and Private Lives in the U.S., while Coward went to France to appear in a production of Present Laughter performed in French. During the year, he bought land in Jamaica, where he built an estate. He also wrote the screenplay for The Astonished Heart, based on another of the short plays in Tonight at 8:30 when the film was shot in 1949, he starred in it, and he wrote the musical score. It opened in February 1950.
In 1950, Coward wrote and directed his tenth musical, Ace of Clubs, a comic mystery set in a nightclub. A modest success running 211 performances, it opened in London on July 7, 1950. Coward recorded a few of its songs, notably "Sail Away," "Why Does Love Get in the Way," and "I Like America," and the cast recorded so-called "vocal gems" from the score, i.e., medleys of the songs released on two 12" 78s on HMV's Plum label. "Chase Me, Charlie" was covered by Mel Tormé, but the hit to emerge from the show was the lilting "Sail Away," which Coward reused as the title song for his 12th musical a decade later it was recorded by Laurie Beechman, Judy Garland, and Pet Shop Boys, among others.
After Ace of Clubs, Coward began to pursue musical activities outside of the legitimate theater. Signing to the American Columbia Records label and simultaneously to Philips Records for Europe, he recorded a recitation of Ogden Nash's verse to Saint-Saëns' Carnaval des Animaux (Carnival of the Animals), as performed by an orchestra conducted by André Kostelanetz, for a 10" LP in September 1950. Coward teamed up with Kostelanetz's wife, the opera singer Lily Pons, in January 1951 for a double-LP studio cast recording of Conversation Piece, released by Columbia. And on October 29, 1951, he took a new step in his career by beginning a monthlong engagement in a nightclub, the Café de Paris in London, performing a set of his best-known songs. He returned for another month in June 1952.
Coward's new career as a cabaret entertainer seemed to rejuvenate other areas of his activities. His next play, Relative Values, a "light comedy" he wrote and directed that opened in London on November 28, 1951, was a hit, running 477 performances. Quadrille, another comedy starring the Lunts that he wrote and directed, ran 329 performances after opening in London on September 12, 1952. (In between, he contributed a couple of songs to The Globe Revue, one of which was the comic "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner," which he used in his act and recorded. It was his last recording for HMV. In 1992, EMI, HMV's parent company, assembled the four-CD box set The Masters' Voice -- Noel Coward: His HMV Recordings 1928 to 1953, released on the Angel subsidiary.) The year 1952 also saw the filming of Meet Me Tonight, a film drawn from three more of the Tonight at 8:30 plays, for which Coward wrote the screenplay it opened in May 1953.
Coward spent the Coronation Year of 1953 (marking the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the British throne) starring in George Bernard Shaw's play The Apple Cart, which opened in May and ran through August 1, while simultaneously appearing in a late-night set at the Café de Paris. He next wrote the book and music for a new musical, After the Ball, but did not direct it or appear in it. Also, unusual for Coward, the show was not based on an original idea of his, but was a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan. Opening on June 10, 1954, it ran a modest 188 performances. An original cast album was recorded by Philips that was curiously incomplete because, due to contractual restrictions, Shamus Locke, who played Lord Darlington, could not perform on the disc, and the songs on which he was featured were simply cut. Coward himself did not record any of the songs, but he did record his first solo LP as a singer in July 1954, making the 10" disc I'll See You Again for Philips. (It was released in the U.K. in 1955.) Intended as a companion to his nightclub work, the album consisted of new versions of some of his better-known songs. Appropriately, he was back at the Café de Paris for a month starting on October 24, 1954.
For a number of years, Coward had largely restricted his activities to England, but in 1955 he shifted his focus to the U.S., surprisingly accepting an offer to appear at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas in an engagement beginning on June 7, 1955, and running through July 5. On June 27 and 28, Columbia recorded the shows, resulting in the live LP Noel Coward at Las Vegas, which was released at the end of the year and spent one week at number 14 in the Billboard album chart in January 1956. On August 30, 1955, he filmed a cameo appearance in the star-studded film Around the World in 80 Days, which was released in 1956. It was the first of a series of brief but lucrative appearances he would make in small character parts in major motion pictures over the next several years: Our Man in Havana (1960), Surprise Package (1960), Paris When it Sizzles (1964), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Boom (1968), and The Italian Job (1969). Back in 1955, his next project was a series of U.S. television specials, beginning with Together with Music, a 90-minute program in which he was paired with Mary Martin, performed live on October 22, 1955. (A promotional album was made of the show. It was released commercially as a two-LP set by DRG Records in 1978 and later reissued in abridged form as a single CD.) The other two specials were versions of Coward plays that he directed and starred in, Blithe Spirit on January 14, 1956, and This Happy Breed on May 5, 1956.
During 1956, Coward abandoned Great Britain for tax reasons, becoming a permanent resident of Bermuda. He bought a chalet in Les Avants, Switzerland, in 1959, and that became his primary residence as of 1964, although he continued to live much of the time in Jamaica. Meanwhile, he returned to playwriting with two of his works, both billed as light comedies, playing in London: South Sea Bubble (April 25, 1956) and Nude with Violin (November 7, 1956). The latter also had a production on Broadway that Coward directed and starred in, his final appearance as an actor in New York. It opened November 14, 1957, and ran 80 performances, followed by a West Coast tour in 1958, during which it alternated with Present Laughter. Prior to that, however, Coward also had been "in New York," as the title for a follow-up for Noel Coward at Las Vegas put it, recording the studio LP Noel Coward in New York in the fall of 1956 for release on Columbia in 1957. The same season, he and actress Margaret Leighton made spoken word recordings for Caedmon Records of scenes from his plays, plus the second act of The Apple Cart, in which they had appeared together in London in 1953. The first result was the LP Noël Coward & Margaret Leighton in Noël Coward Duologues, and after a second recording session of Coward's poetry in January 1958 came The Apple Cart & Poems by Noël Coward. (In 2005, these recordings, along with other recordings of Coward's writings performed by Simon Jones, were gathered together by Caedmon into the five-CD set The Noel Coward Audio Collection.)
In 1959, Coward adapted Georges Feydeau's French farce Occupe-toi d'Amélie into Look After Lulu, which he co-directed with Cyril Ritchard when it opened in New York on March 3 for a run of 39 performances. Tony Richardson directed the British production that opened on July 29, 1959, and ran 155 performances. Coward, meanwhile, was busy composing the score for a ballet, London Morning, which was premiered by the London Festival Ballet Company in the city for which it was named on July 14, 1959. Shortly after, it was recorded by Decca Records, as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Corbett. Typically, Coward was active on several fronts in 1960. His next play, Waiting in the Wings, opened in London on September 7, 1960, for a run of 191 performances his first full-scale novel (after several collections of short stories), Pomp and Circumstance, was published in November and became a best-seller and he composed the theme for the film The Grass Is Greener (with some of his other music used in the background score), released in December.
In 1961, Coward came up with his 12th stage musical, and the last one for which he wrote the book and the songs as well as directing, the ship-board comedy Sail Away, starring Elaine Stritch. It opened on Broadway on October 3, 1961, and ran 167 performances, closing as a commercial failure. There was an original cast album released by Capitol Records that spent 22 weeks in the charts, and Capitol also released Coward's own LP of his performances of the show's songs in early 1962. The show opened in the West End on June 21, 1962, where it ran for seven months, and there was another cast album, released in the U.K. on HMV in 1962 and in the U.S. on Stanyan Records in 1972. Coward supervised a production in Australia that opened on July 19, 1963. He next accepted an assignment to write only the songs for what turned out to be his final new musical, The Girl Who Came to Supper, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play The Sleeping Prince. It opened on Broadway on December 8, 1963, and ran 112 performances, with a cast album on Columbia that reached the Top 40. Coward's private demonstration recording of the show's songs was released commercially by DRG in 1977. He had greater success in the same 1963-1964 Broadway season with a musical he did not write, but that he directed and that was adapted from one of his plays. High Spirits, based on Blithe Spirit, with a book and songs by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, opened on Broadway on April 7, 1964, and ran for 375 performances. Coward also directed a revival of his play Hay Fever that opened at the National Theatre in London on October 27, 1964, to critical approbation, and he supervised the London production of High Spirits, which opened on November 3, 1964. He made a recording of some of the songs for an EP released by Pye Records in the U.K., and the tracks were later added to a CD reissue of the London cast recording of the show released by DRG.
By the mid-'60s, Coward, the same age as the century, was slowing down creatively. The 1965 short-story collection Pretty Polly Barlow and Other Stories led to the adaptation of the title story into the 1968 film A Matter of Innocence. In May 1965, Coward recorded another spoken word album, a version of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1779 play The Critic co-starring Mel Ferrer, released as an LP by Decca in 1966. His next project was his last major theatrical effort, a trio of plays called Suite in Three Keys in which he starred in London starting on April 14, 1966 it marked his final regular stage appearance. On July 5, 1966, he recorded spoken lyrics from his songs for the album Joan Sutherland Sings Noël Coward, released by London Records. On November 15, 1967, he starred in the original television musical Androcles and the Lion, with a score by Richard Rodgers, in the U.S. The soundtrack album was released by RCA Victor Records. His final recording project also occurred in the fall of 1967, when he recited some poetry for one side of an LP with John Betjeman on the other, released under the title Back to Back. He was belatedly knighted in 1970, becoming Sir Noël Coward. He died of a heart attack at 73 in his home in Jamaica on March 26, 1973, and is buried there.
Even before his death, Coward was being celebrated by continual revivals, on stage and on television, of his most popular plays, particularly Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit. Like other songwriters for the musical theater of his generation, he tended to be remembered more for his individual songs from the interwar period, rather than for the shows from which they came. (But unlike such contemporaries as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, he did not manage to come up with a late masterpiece like Annie Get Your Gun or Kiss Me, Kate that carried him into the postwar period. Shows like Pacific 1860, After the Ball, and Sail Away lapsed into obscurity. There was, however, a major revival of Bitter Sweet in London in 1988 that was recorded for a cast album.) Those individual songs started turning up in newly constructed musical revues as early as the appearance of Noël Coward's Sweet Potato, which ran on Broadway in the fall of 1968 it was followed by such similar efforts as Cowardly Custard in London and Oh Coward! in New York in 1972, both of which produced cast albums. (Mr. & Mrs., an unsuccessful London musical of 1968, was based on two of the one-act plays from Tonight at 8:30, but did not use Coward's music.) Noël and Gertie, first performed in London in April 1981, was Coward biographer Sheridan Morley's theatrical treatment of the relationship between Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, drawn from Coward's words and music a cast album appeared in 1986. Noël/Cole -- "Let's Do It!" was a 1994 British musical revue featuring the songs of Coward and Cole Porter, and it too produced a cast album.
As Coward's own recordings of his songs entered the public domain in Europe (where the copyright limit lasts only 50 years), CD reissues became confusingly repetitious in their content, but a number of them demonstrated the continuing appeal of his music, as did the many albums devoted to his music recorded by others, which include: Dominic Alldis' If Love Were All: The Songs of Noël Coward The Noël Coward Songbook, by Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman, and Jeffrey Tate Richard Conrad's Noël Coward Songs: A Room with a View Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Are Mad About the Boy: The Songs of Noel Coward Mad About the Man, by Carmen McRae Bobby Short Is Mad About Noel Coward The Dance Bands Play Noel Coward The Great British Dance Bands Play the Music of Noel Coward Noel Coward Revisited (featuring Laurence Harvey, Hermione Gingold, and Dorothy Loudon, among others) Twentieth-Century Blues: The Songs of Noël Coward (featuring Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, and Sting, among others) and The Words and Music of Noël Coward.
The Haunting History of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit
In the spring of 1941, as Londoners endured the Blitz, superstar playwright Noel Coward slipped away to Wales to work on a new script. &ldquoTitle [is] Blithe Spirit,&rdquo he wrote in his diary. &ldquoVery gay, superficial comedy about a ghost. Feel it may be good.&rdquo Six days later, the play was finished&mdashand now, almost seven decades later, this enduringly popular comedy is being revived on Broadway with a cast headed by Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury and Christine Ebersole. Here&rsquos a look back at the life and career of a playwright whose wit remains timeless.
The First Noel
With a name inspired by the proximity of his birthday to Christmas December 16, 1899, Noel Peirce Coward was indeed a happy holiday gift to his parents, who had lost their first son to spinal meningitis the previous year. The family had little money Noel&rsquos father was an unsuccessful piano tuner and salesman, and his Momma Rose-ish stage mother pushed her precocious little boy into a professional stage debut at age 10. Answering an ad for &ldquoa star cast of wonder children,&rdquo he won a role in a play called The Goldfish by tap-dancing &ldquoviolently&rdquo while his mother played &ldquoNearer My God to Thee&rdquo on the piano. Also hired that day: young Gertrude Lawrence, who grew up to become Coward&rsquos frequent co-star and muse.
Great success came quickly. As his literary executor Sheridan Morley summed it up in the memoir Coward, &ldquoBy 15, he had acted with the sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish in D.W. Griffith&rsquos silent film Hearts of the World. At 20, he was a produced playwright, and by the time he was 30 he had written the drug play The Vortex, the epic 400-cast Cavalcade, the everlasting Private Lives and the lyrical operetta Bitter Sweet.&rdquo In all, Coward penned 60 produced plays and more than 300 songs, plus memoirs, diaries, short stories and screenplays.
In addition to a workaholism driven by his desire to escape poverty, Coward built his glittering career by writing parts perfectly suited to one particular leading man: himself. &ldquoIn his clipped, bright, confident style, Coward irresistibly combined reserve and high camp,&rdquo critic John Lahr noted in Coward the Playwright. &ldquoCoward was his own hero and the parts he created for himself were, in general, slices of his legendary life.&rdquo These included successful writers Charles in Blithe Spirit Leo in Design for Living, men of the theater Garry in Present Laughter and world-traveling bon vivants Elyot in Private Lives.
Clad in silk dressing gowns, hair perfectly slicked back, cigarette holder and martini in hand, Coward and his onstage alter egos oozed sophistication. Coming of age in the 1920s, he had no qualms about celebrating frivolity for its own sake. As a closeted gay man, he treated sex and romance lightly, even rebelliously. His characters&mdashboth men and women&mdashseemed to possess no internal filter, saying exactly what they were thinking to great comic effect. &ldquoI&rsquom glad I&rsquom normal,&rdquo Amanda&rsquos young second husband, Victor, announces at one point in Private Lives. &ldquoWhat an odd thing to be glad about,&rdquo she replies, adding later, &ldquoI think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.&rdquo
A Tale of Two Wives
By the beginning of World War II, Noel Coward was hugely famous on both sides of the Atlantic. He adored the creative energy of New York, where he starred in Broadway productions of Design for Living opposite Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and Private Lives opposite Gertrude Lawrence, Coward&rsquos lifelong crush Laurence Olivier and Olivier&rsquos then-wife, Jill Esmond. He traveled the world to drum up support for Britain&rsquos war effort, but an ever-present need for money spurred him write a new comedy about a man haunted by the ghost of his first wife.
Blithe Spirit &ldquofell into my mind and on to the manuscript,&rdquo Coward later wrote of writing the play in less than a week. In a production schedule that seems unbelievably fast by today&rsquos standards, the play opened at London&rsquos Piccadilly Theatre just six weeks later, on July 2, 1941, and premiered on Broadway at the now-demolished Morosco Theatre on November 5, 1941. Even more amazing is the fact that only two lines were dropped and none were altered during rehearsal of what the playwright dubbed &ldquoAn Improbable Farce in Three Acts.&rdquo
As Blithe Spirit begins, novelist Charles Condomine is preparing to host a seance to be conducted by a medium known as Madame Arcati. For him, it&rsquos a jokey way to do research for a new novel, appropriately titled The Unseen. Unexpectedly, however, the evening ends with the spectral reappearance of his first wife, Elvira pronounced Elveera, who has been dead for five years. Only Charles can see her, which causes immediate problems with his very-much-alive second wife, briskly efficient Ruth. Charmed at first by the ghostly Elvira&mdashwith whom he shared a more passionate union than with Ruth&mdashCharles quickly gets caught between the two.
&ldquoI remember her physical attractiveness, which was tremendous, and her spiritual integrity, which was nil,&rdquo Charles says of Elvira. As for wife #2, when Ruth ponders aloud whether Charles would remarry if she passed away, he says airily, &ldquoYou won&rsquot die&mdashyou&rsquore not the dying sort.&rdquo
Coward correctly surmised that a comedy about death would resonate among audiences who were, in real life, carrying on in a city under daily threat of attack. Although novelist Graham Greene called Blithe Spirit &ldquoa weary exhibition of bad taste,&rdquo the public loved it, and the play went on to a record-setting London run of 1,997 performances. Without spoiling the well-plotted ending, suffice it to say that the forces of death are tamed in Blithe Spirit in a way that warmed the hearts of wartime theatergoers.
Blithe Spirit&rsquos visually inventive style made it perfect for the big screen, and Coward&rsquos frenemy Rex Harrison who thought the playwright was a lousy actor played Charles in David Lean&rsquos 1945 movie opposite original London stage stars Kay Hammond as Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati. Coward himself played Charles in an Emmy-nominated 1956 TV version with Lauren Bacall ! as Elvira, Claudette Colbert as Ruth and future Happy Days star Marion Ross in the small but pivotal role of the Condomines&rsquo maid.
More than 40 years passed before Blithe Spirit got its first Broadway revival, but Charles & Co. made it back to the Great White Way in musical form in 1964. High Spirits, starring Tammy Grimes as Elvira and Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati, ran for 375 performances and earned eight Tony nominations, including one for Coward&rsquos direction. The chorus included &ldquoRonnie Walken,&rdquo who went on to movie fame as Christopher Walken. A 1987 revival of Blithe Spirit ran for three months and starred Richard Chamberlain as Charles, Blythe Danner as Elvira, Judith Ivey as Ruth and Geraldine Page in a Tony-nominated performance as Madame Arcati. Tragically, Page died of a heart attack at age 62 two weeks before the end of the run.
Now Coward&rsquos &ldquopsychic ménage-a-trois,&rdquo as John Lahr calls Blithe Spirit, is back on Broadway with Michael Blakemore as director. A double Tony winner in 2000 for the unusual combo of Kiss Me, Kate and Copenhagen, Blakemore made his name on Broadway in the early 80s with the farcical Noises Off. &ldquoI&rsquod seen Blithe Spirit as a kid in Australia, and I&rsquod sort of forgotten how well constructed it is, with a lot of surprises along the way,&rdquo the 80-year-old director says. &ldquoIt&rsquos a brilliant contrivance that puts the characters in situations that are appalling for them but hilarious for us."
Two seasons ago, Blakemore coaxed four-time Tony Award winner Angela Lansbury back to the stage as a retired tennis champ in Deuce, and he&rsquos done it again with Blithe Spirit&rsquos Madame Arcati. &ldquoAngela smells good material when it comes under her nose,&rdquo he says, &ldquoand she was born to play this part. It&rsquos both funny and touching, and I think she&rsquoll be amazing.&rdquo
Caught between Christine Ebersole as Elvira and Jayne Atkinson as Ruth is British actor Rupert Everett, whose ability to deliver a bon mot has served him well in works by Coward in a London revival of The Vortex and Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest on both stage and screen. &ldquoI think Rupert will bring a certain quirkiness Charles that will be both true to the period but also true to ours,&rdquo Blakemore says of Everett&rsquos Broadway debut. &ldquoWe&rsquore setting the play in 1938, but it can also have a slightly more modern slant.&rdquo
A Talent to Amuse
In the last three decades of his life, Noel Coward achieved acclaim as a cabaret performer wowing &rsquoem in Vegas, no less, in addition to acting in and directing his own plays. His final London stage appearance was in his own Suite in Three Keys in 1966, and he was knighted in 1970. As his health declined, he retreated to Jamaica, where he entertained friends and painted landscapes. He died there on March 26, 1973, and was buried on the island.
Though some of his contemporaries questioned whether Coward&rsquos plays would endure apart from his own stylish persona, his best comedies feel vivid and fresh. Coward himself would have been amused by the current tabloid culture and fixation with celebrities after all, he managed to market himself for half a century with a fascinating mix of vanity and self-deprecation. Asked by an interviewer how he expected to be remembered, he responded with one of his most-used words: &ldquoBy my charm.&rdquo
"In my time I've said some noteworthy and exceptionally memorable things."
‘If by any chance a playwright wishes to express a political opinion or a moral opinion or a philosophy, he must be a good enough craftsman to do it with so much spice of entertainment in it that the public get the message without being aware of it.’
‘It was all very merry and agreeable, but there is always, for me, a tiny pall of ‘best behaviour’ overlaying the proceedings. I am not complaining about this, I think it is right and proper, but I am constantly aware of it. It isn't that I have a basic urge to tell disgusting jokes and say ‘f**k’ every five minutes, but I'm conscious of a faint resentment that I couldn't if I wanted to.’
On lunching with Queen Elizabeth II
‘I'll go through life either first class or third, but never in second.’
‘Let’s drink to the hope that one day this country of ours, which we owe so much, will find dignity and greatness and peace again.’
‘I am England and England is me.’
‘An Englishman is the highest example of a human being who is a free man.’
‘Wouldn't it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn't have tea?’
Coward on his Art & his Audience
‘I will accept anything in the theatre…provided it amuses and moves me. But if it does neither, I want to go home.’
‘Consider the public. Treat it with tact and courtesy. It will accept much from you if you are clever enough to win it to your side. Never dear or despise it. Coax it, charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry and make it think, but above all…never, never, never bore the living hell out of it.’
‘Writing is more important than acting, for one very good reason: it lasts. Stage acting only lives in people’s memories as long as they live. Writing is creative acting is interpretative.’
‘I think on the whole I am a better writer than I am given credit for being. It is fairly natural that my writing should be appreciated casually, because my personality, performances, music and legend get in the way. Someday, I suspect, when Jesus has definitely got me for a sunbeam, my works may be adequately assessed.’
‘The theatre should be treated with respect. The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion. What it most emphatically is not and never will be is a scruffy, ill-lit, fumed-oak drill hall serving as a temporary soap box for political propaganda.’
‘The only thing that really saddens me over my demise is that I shall not be here to read the nonsense that will be written about me and my works and my motives. There will be books proving conclusively that I was homosexual and books proving equally conclusively that I was not. There will be detailed and inaccurate analyses of my motives for writing this or that and of my character. There will be lists of apocryphal jokes I never made and gleeful misquotations of words I never said. What a pity I shan't be here to enjoy them!’
‘You ask my advice about acting? Speak clearly, don't bump into the furniture and if you must have motivation, think of your pay packet on Friday.’
‘In the first act, you get the audience's attention - once you have it, they will repay you in the second. Play through the laughs if you have to. It will only make the audience believe there are so many of them that they missed a few.’
‘It's no use to go and take courses in playwriting any more than it's much use taking courses in acting. Better play to a bad matinee in Hull – it will teach you much more than a year of careful instruction. Come to think of it, I never did play to a good matinee in Hull. ’
'The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion.
‘You ask my advice about acting? Speak clearly, don't bump into the furniture'
Noel Coward - History
While it is apparent that Coward’s work continues to be relevant to the 21st Century, it is the bold mission of the Noël Coward Archive Trust (NCAT) to not only preserve Coward’s legacy and influence, but more importantly to make the materials from Coward’s lifetime publicly accessible for study, research, and cultural growth via both a physical archive and digital representations of this archive.
A large part of NCAT’s mission is to follow in the footsteps of Coward himself. As an individual who lacked a formal education, Coward greatly realised the significance of schooling, and subsequently taught himself what he needed to succeed in the world he wanted to belong to.
His determination paid off, as can be seen in the image to the right, where Coward received an honorary degree at Sussex University later in life. It is for this reason that NCAT’s educational endeavours are so prominent in our future goals.
In addition, Noël Coward’s charitable undertakings formed a large part of the person he was. Often not a well-known part of Coward’s history, he was in fact the most active president of The Actor’s Orphanage (now known as The Actors’ Children’s Trust), residing as president from 1934 to 1956.
Coward expertly used his status in society to pioneer further celebrity philanthropy he persuaded everyone of note in the theatrical profession to appear at Garden Parties, as well as getting them to either star in or attend fundraising galas at the London Palladium, all in aid of the charity.
Through his unwavering dedication and altruistic work with The Actor’s Orphanage, Coward provided hundreds of children not only somewhere to live, but also a formal education.
NCAT wish to echo Coward’s own philanthropic activities by using his Archive to not only provide educational opportunities for those less privileged, but also to support the theatrical and artistic community as Coward himself once did.
This history is our culture’s future, and everyone should be able to feel inspired by the positive force that Coward and his contemporaries had upon theatre and the arts.