Noel Coward: Biography & Plays

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Imagine writing a super popular play in less than a week and then starring in it. Sounds impossible, right? In this lesson you will learn about Noël Coward, a writer and actor who did just that, and much more.

Noël Coward

What do you want to be when you grow up? Maybe a teacher, or an astronaut, or a police officer? For Noël Coward, his career path was very clear: he wanted to be a writer and an actor. His love for the stage and his astounding ability to quickly write popular plays made him immensely successful through the 20th century.

Early Life

Noël Coward was born on December 16, 1899 in a town outside of London. Coward's family was very musical; both of his parents could sing and frequently performed in a local choir. As a child he attended the Chapel Royal Choir School, where he showed early signs of his love for acting and writing. Coward got his first big break as an actor in 1911 at the age of just 12 years old, performing in a children's play called The Goldfish. Coward's second role as a child-actor came one year later when he played the role of 'Slightly' in the play Peter Pan.

A young Noel Coward
Noël Coward

Young Noël was a prolific writer. In just a few days, he could draft an entire play. Think about the last play that you saw or read in your English class...is there any way you could have written something so long and detailed in less than a week?

In 1918, at the tail end of World War I, Coward was drafted into the military. He was in the service for less than a year before being discharged because of his health, and soon he was back to writing.

Coward in the 1920's

Despite his stint as a child actor, Coward's career didn't really take off until the 1920's. In 1920 and 1923 he wrote two comedic plays, I'll Leave It to You and The Young Idea; audiences considered them to be just so-so. His big break came in 1924 with his highly acclaimed play The Vortex. Unlike his earlier works, The Vortex skipped the humor and dove right into the dark and dramatic realm of drug addiction.

Throughout the rest of the 1920's, Coward spent his time writing and acting, and even performed on Broadway in New York City. His 1929 play Bitter Sweet was exceptionally popular in his native England and across the pond in the United States. Noël was quite the fashionista in his time and is credited with making the turtleneck sweater a must-have item for men in the 1920's.

Noel Coward and costar Lillian Braithwaite
Noël Coward and Lillian Braithwaite

World War II and In Which We Serve

By 1939, World War II was in full-swing in England. Though Noël was not drafted, he was approached by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to perform for the troops. Coward spent the following years touring and entertaining. During these years, he penned several popular war songs, as well as the play Blithe Spirit. His greatest accomplishment during World War II, however, was his patriotic film In Which We Serve. The movie received an honorary Academy Award in 1943.

Later Life and Career

In the decades following World War II, Coward had mixed success with his plays. His appearance in the play The Apple Cart, written by fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw, is considered to be a highlight at that point in his career. In 1955, Coward landed a job with the CBS company and wrote television specials for the network - he left the network a year later.

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