In his 1920s heyday, Noël Coward was the West End’s most popular playwright. Like his predecessor Oscar Wilde, Coward’s plays succeeded through a blend of witty dialogue, precise plotting and an inherent sense of danger. While Coward’s plays may have appeared light, even frothy, at first glance, many of them also had subversive undertones which probed the dark dilettante soul of the upper classes.
Born in London in 1899, Coward began his career as a child actor at the age of 12 before establishing his name as a playwright with The Vortex in 1924. The Vortex is a typical example of the contrary nature of Coward’s writing: while it is rich in sharp, crowd-pleasing witticisms, it also tells the inherently controversial tale of a drug addict in love his own mother. Other big hits followed over the next 20 years with plays such as Fallen Angels (1925), Hayfever (1925), Private Lives (1930), Design For Living (1933), Blithe Spirit (1941) and Present Laughter (1942) all enjoying success.
During the 1940s Coward revealed another aspect of his personality when he penned a brace of patriotic shows (The Happy Breed in 1942 and Peace In Our Time in 1947) which helped boost spirits in war-ravaged London. Coward also performed for the troops in the early years of the war and, like Laurence Olivier, was engaged by MI5 to use his considerable influence to aid the war effort.
In addition to his talent as a playwright, Coward was also a gifted composer, and, as The Cambridge Dictionary of Theatre confirms: “he produced work that the messenger boy whistled then and still whistles now”. Coward also continued to act throughout his career (often in his own plays) and made a memorable return to the West End stage in 1966.
After this last hurrah, and a valedictory performance in the cult film The Italian Job, Coward retired to his home in Jamaica, where he died of heart failure in 1973.
In 2006, the newly refurbished Albery theatre was reopened as the Noël Coward theatre. Coward had made his West End debut at the venue, then known as the New theatre, in 1920.