Nöel Coward was born on 16th December 1899 and was raised as a working class boy in the London suburb of Teddington. His father was an unsuccessful piano salesman with little personal ambition, often resulting in poor family finances. Coward was encouraged by his mother to attend a dance academy in London, leading him to enter into the professional world of theatre, making his professional stage debut as Prince Mussel in The Goldfish at the age of 12. Coward’s breakthrough in playwriting was with the controversial The Vortex (1924) which featured themes of drugs and adultery and made his name as both actor and playwright in the West End and on Broadway. Noel Coward is well known for his immense work ethic – immersing himself in work from the age of 10 and writing his last piece of work just days before he died. He was known for using naturalistic conversation in his theatrical work and dealt with controversial subjects, including homosexuality. He worked in both stage and film with a number of acting luminaries for decades and was knighted in 1970. Coward died on March 26, 1973, in Jamaica.
During the 1920s and the 1930s, Coward wrote a string of successful plays, musicals and intimate revues including Fallen Angels (1925), Hay Fever (1925), Easy Virtue (1926), This Year of Grace (1928), and Bitter Sweet (1929), as well as several plays which he wrote alongside his childhood friend Gertrude Lawrence, including Private Lives (1931), and continued with Tonight at 8.30 (1936). During World War II, he remained a successful playwright, screenwriter and director, as well as entertaining the troops and even acting as an unofficial spy for the Foreign Office. His plays during these years included Blithe Spirit which ran for 1997 performances, outlasting the War (a West End record until The Mousetrap overtook it), This Happy Breed and Present Laughter (both 1943). His two wartime screenplays, In Which We Serve, which he co-directed with the young David Lean, and Brief Encounter quickly became classics of British cinema. However, the post-war years were more difficult. In response to the changing audiences, Coward re-invented himself as a cabaret and TV star, particularly in America, and in 1955 he played a sell-out season in Las Vegas featuring many of his most famous songs, including Mad About the Boy, I’ll See You Again and Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
In the mid-1950s he settled in Jamaica and Switzerland, and enjoyed a renaissance in the early 1960s becoming the first living playwright to be performed by the National Theatre, when he directed Hay Fever there. Late in his career he was lauded for his roles in a number of films including Our Man In Havana (1959) and his role as the iconic Mr. Bridger alongside Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1968).
Consequently, Coward became known as ‘The Master’ by many of his contemporaries and fans. A quote from Lord Louis Mountbatten on Coward’s 70th birthday best sums this up: ‘There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret stars, greater TV stars. If there are, they are 14 different people. Only one man combined all 14 labels – The Master.’
The section of ‘Blithe Spirit’ we looked at was the Charles and the ghost of his wife (who he summoned back) Elvira arguing and ending with her desperate to be sent back.