Perhaps you’ve noticed that I usually write about three or four people in these columns. There are some icons whose contributions to the theater are so vast and important, they deserve a column of their own. Sir Noel Coward (1899-1973) is one such person.
Known as “The Master,” Noel Coward was a genuine renaissance man. He established the elements of the drawing room comedy still in use today. His delicious songs were often included to break up the action for an interlude. Elegant costumes and charming people enhanced the style and delighted audiences.
The Master’s Muse
When he was a boy actor, he met his greatest muse, Gertrude Lawrence. They sat together on a train where she gave him an orange and told him a few slightly dirty stories. Coward fell in love with her instantly, and it was the start of a lifelong friendship.
The Playwright, Composer and Lyricist
Coward’s first important play was I’ll Leave It to You (1920). It’s about a widow who invites her brother to live with her so she can make expenses. The brother challenges her procrastinating children to make something of themselves, which they do. It was short-lived, so it wouldn’t be until 1924 that Coward had his first major success.
He wasn’t idle. He wrote songs and sketches for Andre Charlot’s revue, London Calling, which starred Jack Buchanan (The Band Wagon) and Gertrude Lawrence. This revue introduced them all to American audiences.
In 1924, The Vortex turned London on its ear and brought scandalous controversy with it, the type that hadn’t been seen since Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in 1895. The play involves an arrogant socialite who spends more time with friends while ignoring her needy son. He’s become addicted to cocaine to soothe his emotional troubles, including being homosexual.
While these topics had been suggested previously, The Vortex was the first time such topics were presented onstage. The play was a major success and Coward remained in the limelight from then on.
1925 found audiences laughing wholeheartedly at Fallen Angels and Hay Fever. The former is a rollicking comedy about two women who spend an afternoon drinking and pining over the man they both loved prior to their nuptials. Their husbands have gone golfing, but complications arise when their former lover arrives and joins them. Then their husbands return. Tallulah Bankhead and Edna Best triumphantly played it in London, while Estelle Winwood and Oscar-winner Fay Bainter kept American audiences in stitches.
Following a visit to Laurette Taylor’s home, Coward was inspired to write the script for Hay Fever in three days. The play follows the Bliss family: David, a writer, his wife, Judith, an actress, and their children, Sorel and Simon. Each of them has invited a guest for the weekend. An essentially plotless drawing-room comedy, it includes complications, parlor games and something that became a Coward standard: the guests fleeing the premises. The coveted role of Judith Bliss has been played by Edith Evans, Geraldine McEwan, Rosemary Harris and Lindsay Duncan among others. Hay Fever is one of Coward’s most frequently produced plays.
A few seasons later, Coward created another Andre Charlot vehicle for himself and another muse, Beatrice Lillie. This Year of Grace delighted London audiences for almost a year, followed by five months on Broadway. Among the score were such Coward standards as “Dance Little Lady” “World Weary,” and “A Room with a View.”
Coward had Gertrude Lawrence in mind for his operetta Bitter Sweet, but the vocal range was wrong for her voice, so Peggy Wood (The Sound of Music) was cast. The story highlights the choices a young woman makes when she elopes with her music teacher. A beautiful show, Bitter Sweet includes “I’ll See You Again,” “The Green Carnation,” “If Love Were All,” and “Zigeuner” among its score. An MGM film version with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy so disappointed Coward that he refused to allow Hollywood to film any more of his work. Bitter Sweet has been locally produced by Skylark Opera.
Failing to create a musical for Lawrence with the above-named show, instead he wrote a play for the two of them. That play is Coward’s masterwork, Private Lives (1930). It pinpoints Amanda Prynne and Eliot Chase, a divorced couple who meet by surprise while on honeymoon with their new partners. Realizing their divorce was a mistake, they flee to Paris, where chaos reigns. Along with Lawrence, Adrianne Allen and Laurence Olivier were featured. Private Lives continues being produced to audience delight. Tallulah Bankhead had massive success with it during the 1950s, Broadway productions have featured Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford; Maggie Smith and John Standing; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, and more recently, Kim Cattrall and David Chase. A television production with Penelope Keith and Alec McCowen is available on YouTube.
Oscar Winner for Best Picture
Cavalcade is Coward’s most ambitious work, an epic that follows three generations of one family from the Boar War to the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic and World War I. Impossible to produce due to its huge cast, the play was a smash hit and the film version won the Oscar as Best Picture of 1933. It would be used as a source for Upstairs, Downstairs, a popular 1970s program on PBS.
Coward was a good friend of The Lunts and resolved to write a play the three of them could star in. Design for Living is that play. Three artistic bohemians, Gilda (an interior designer), Otto (a painter), and Leo (a playwright) are sharing an attic studio in Paris. The three love one another and their adventures take them to London and New York –t he threat of World War II is a hidden background theme. It was a smash in New York, but is only infrequently revived. Because bohemian living, free love and bisexuality were risqué on the screen, the 1933 film with Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper and Fredric March bears little resemblance to the play. Ben Hecht’s adaptation is dreadful, and not even Ernest Lubitsch’s direction can save it. The Lunts, meanwhile, later worked with Coward again in Quadrille.
Gertrude Lawrence wanted an acting challenge in the mid-30s, and Coward delivered one: nine one-acts full of drama, music and laughs. Presented in three evenings, three plays per night, the production not only showed Coward’s versatility as a writer, but gave a boost to both of their careers. In The Red Peppers, a vaudeville couple’s complaints about the orchestra lead to an hilarious payback; The Astonished Heart is about a women whose husband has a tragic affair with her best friend; Hands Across the Sea is about a couple who’ve invited people for drinks, but have no idea who they are; following the funeral of their father, an old box provides joy for the sibling mourners of Family Album; a browbeaten husband tells off his shrewish wife and her overbearing mother before leaving them in Fumed Oak; in Ways and Means, a couple who are slumming due to financial trouble, find themselves at gunpoint, realizing this is the break they need. We Were Dancing and Shadow Play were also part of the series.
However, of these works, Still Life is among Coward’s finest works. The story of the relationship between a married doctor and the housewife he meets in a railway café was made into Brief Encounter. Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, this is one of the finest love stories ever filmed, beautifully directed by David Lean.
Coward often claimed that his play, Present Laughter, is autobiographical, and rightly so. Garry Essendine, the egocentric actor at the heart of the play, is preparing for a visit to Africa, but he’s constantly interrupted by seductive fans, his ex-wife, his overworked secretary, and an “angry young” playwright who finds himself bewitched by the actor. Present Laughter is a treat, and a great role for an actor who has the pizazz to play it. (Kevin Kline will appear in a PBS production later this year).
Most Popular Play
In 1941, war-ravaged Londoners were begging for a simple entertainment and Coward gave them what is his most produced play, Blithe Spirit, which is on the Guthrie bill this season. Author Charles Condomine is working on a book about the occult. He and his second wife, Ruth, invite Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium, to a dinner party. During a séance, his first wife, Elvira, a ghost, is called back and, of course, causes trouble. Attempts to return her to the “other side” fail, until the surprise ending.
Following its London engagement, it played almost two years on Broadway. In the 1980s, Richard Chamberlain costarred with Geraldine Page in a revival. (It was Page’s last role). Just a few years ago, Angela Lansbury, Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole starred. Rex Harrison, Kay Hammon and Margaret Rutherford starred in David Lean’s film version. Coward himself starred with Mildred Natwick, Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert in a TV production during the 1950s and in the 60s, Ruth Gordon, Rosemary Harris and Dirk Bogarde played it. This version is available on YouTube. The musical High Spirits starred Beatrice Lillie and Tammy Grimes, and a revival would be a special treat if produced here.
In 1946, the West End needed something to reopen the Theater Royal Drury Lane. Noel Coward’s Pacific 1860 was selected. Set on a fictional Island, it was about an American chanteuse, who can’t decide between love or her career. Mary Martin and Graham Payn, Coward’s life partner, starred, but it was a failure. So were the early 1960s musicals Sail Away and The Girl Who Came to Supper. The latter was based on Terence Rattigan’s Sleeping Prince, which audiences knew from its film version,The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe.
The 1950s gave Coward an opportunity to try something new. He found himself a popular performer. He performed a cabaret act which was a major success, and the two live albums: Noel Coward in Las Vegas and Noel Coward in New York were bestsellers but are now difficult to find.
In 1942, Coward and Lean collaborated on the film In Which We Serve. Based on Lord Mountbatten’s achievements, it also showed how the war affected people at home (The jam scene is a highlight). It remains one of the finest war pictures ever made. Coward’s movie roles include The Astonished Heart, a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days, appearing in the thriller, Bunny Lake is Missing, and playing Tennessee Williams’ Witch of Capri in Boom! His imprisoned character managed to pull of The Italian Job.
Knighthood and More
Coward was knighted in 1969. His trio of one acts, Suite in 3 Keys, played Broadway with Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Anne Baxter. The revues, Oh, Coward! and Cowardly Custard were also successful. Noel Peirce Coward passed away from heart failure, March 26, 1973. He’s buried at Firefly, his estate in Jamaica.
The Noel Coward Collection
A genuine treasure is The Noel Coward Collection, a series of discs that include sublime productions of seven plays, six dramatized short stories, six radio plays and a television interview with Coward in honor of his 70th birthday and his Knighthood. Among the standouts are Design for Living, a live 1972 stage production of Present Laughter and a magnificent presentation of Tonight at 8:30 starring Joan Collins and Anthony Newley. Some of the discs are available at the Public Library.
Playwright, composer, producer, director, actor, entertainer and wit, Sir Noel Coward was, indeed, a Renaissance Man, one who won’t be forgotten.