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Sir Noel Peirce Coward (spelling his forename Noël was an affectation of later life, and "Peirce" is the correct spelling) (December 16, 1899 - March 26, 1973) was an English actor, playwright, and composer of popular music.
Born at Teddington, Middlesex, he began performing in the West End at an early age. He starred in one of his first full-length plays, the inheritance comedy "I'll Leave It To You", in 1920 at the age of twenty. After enjoying some moderate success with the Shaw-esque The Young Idea in 1923, the controversy surrounding his play The Vortex (1924) - which contains many veiled references to both drug abuse and homosexuality - made him an overnight sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Coward followed this success with three more major hits, Hay Fever, Fallen Angels (both 1925) and Easy Virtue (1926).
Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Enormous (and enormously popular) productions such as the full-length operetta Bitter Sweet (1929) and Cavalcade (1931), a huge extravaganza requiring a very large cast, gargantuan sets and an exceedingly complex hydraulic stage, were interspersed with finely-wrought comedies such as Private Lives (1930), in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence, and the black comedy Design for Living (1932), written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Coward again partnered Lawrence in Tonight at 8:30 (1936), an ambitious cycle of ten different short plays which were randomly "shuffled" to make up a unique playbill of three plays each night. One of these short plays, Still Life, was later expanded into the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter. He was also a prolific writer of popular songs, and a lucrative recording contract with HMV allowed him to release a number of recordings which have been extensively reissued on CD.
The outbreak of war in 1939 saw Coward working harder than ever. Alongside his highly-publicised tours entertaining Allied troops during World War II, Coward was also engaged by the British Secret Service to conduct intelligence work. He was often frustrated by criticism he faced for his ostensibly glamorous lifestyle, unable to counter this criticism due to the clandestine nature of his work. He also wrote and released some extraordinarily popular songs during the war, the most famous of which are London Pride and Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans, as well as writing and starring in the naval drama film In Which We Serve, for which Coward won an honorary Oscar.
The 1940s also saw Coward write some of his best plays. The social commentary of This Happy Breed and the intricate semi-autobiographical drama of Present Laughter (both 1939) were later combined with the hugely successful ghost comedy Blithe Spirit (1941) to form a West End triple-bill in which Coward starred in all three simultaneous productions. Blithe Spirit went on to break box-office records for a West End comedy not beaten until the 1970s, and was made into a film directed by David Lean.
Coward's popularity declined in the 1950s, but he still managed to maintain a high public profile, continuing to write (and occasionally starring in) moderately successful West End plays, performing an acclaimed solo cabaret act in Las Vegas (recorded for posterity and still available on CD), and starring in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing, Around the World in 60 Days and The Italian Job. After starring in a number of American TV specials in the late 50s, Coward left the U.K. for tax reasons in the 1950s and moved to the Caribbean, first to Bermuda and then to Jamaica, where he remained for the rest of his life. The late 1960s saw a revival in his popularity, with several new productions of his 1920s plays and a number of revues celebrating his music. He was knighted in 1970 and died in 1973. He is buried in Firefly Hill, Jamaica.
As well as over fifty published plays and many albums' worth of original songs, Coward also wrote comic revues, poetry, several excellent volumes of short stories, a novel (Pomp and Circumstance, 1960), and three volumes of autobiography. Books of his song lyrics have also been published.
Parodies of him and his style include:
- Eric Idle's "Penis Song" from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
- Charles and Fiona, (Dame Celia Molestrangler and Aging juvenile Binkie Huckaback) characters in Round the Horne.