Broadway Features and Reviews
Present Laughter: The Life Of Broadway's Noel Coward
By Orville Lloyd Douglas, Broadway Magazine
"Life is nothing but a game of make believe" British playwright, singer, and actor Noel Coward sang this famous line from the song London Calling. Unlike 21st century openly gay stars, Noel Coward balanced the "make believe" with his real life persona off the stage. The author of the current hit Broadway revival Present Laughter enjoyed a long and successful career in the theatre.
The theatre, the media interviews, and fame were a public mask where Coward was confident, self assured, and cocky. Meanwhile, privately, Coward was reticent about his homosexuality and his failed romantic relationships. In Coward's private diaries, he writes about the homophobia in England. During his lifetime he said "England, my England, has always been full of intolerance and bigotry."
Noel Coward was born on December 16th 1899 in Teddington Middlesex England. He was named Noel because he was born nine days before Christmas day. Coward was the second son in a lower middle class family. Coward's father was a salesman and his loving mother was a housewife. Coward's mother saw that her son had talent and at the age of ten he was starring in a play called The Goldfish. Coward soon obtained a role in the play Peter Pan and he became a successful child actor.
After Coward acquired work experience in theatre he decided to become a film actor. In the year 1917, Coward starred in the film Hearts of the World. Coward made a decision to support his country by becoming involved with the army. However, he became depressed while serving in the army. After World War One ended, Coward was determined to become a successful playwright. In November 1924, right before he turned twenty five, Coward finally had his breakthrough with his incendiary play The Vortex.
The Vortex premiered at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead. The Vortex was an overnight sensation and Coward became a star on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The Vortex, dealt with controversial themes in the 1920s such as alcoholism, cocaine abuse, and some critics believe an allusion to homosexuality.
Due to the success of The Vortex, Coward quickly became a star in England. Coward had a string of hit plays including Hay Fever, Fallen Angels, and On With The Dance. He was a versatile writer, having the ability to write comedies, dramas, and musicals. Coward's success continued into the 1930s. When World War II commenced, Coward was engaged by the MI5 to conduct work. However, Coward was criticized by the British media for living an extravagant lifestyle as his country was at war with Hitler.
After World War II, in the 1950s, Coward's theatrical fame declined and he turned to acting in movies such as Boom!, Around The World In 80 days, and The Italian job. By the 1960s, Coward was still famous but he was now a cult figure.
Despite being wealthy, Coward was also an unhappy gay man. According to the actress Elaine Stritch, she said that he was "one of the saddest men I have ever known."
Coward had a nervous breakdown after his love affair with a young American actor Billy Traylor. Coward's affair with Traylor made it into the American media although his name was never mentioned. Traylor accused Coward of using alcohol, drugs, to seduce him although he claims he was heterosexual.
Although, Coward's homosexuality was well known within entertainment and media circles, in the theatre world he believed his sexual orientation was a private matter. Coward lived his life behind a mask-- he had a public and a private persona.
In England, homosexuality was considered a criminal act until 1967. Coward moved to Bermuda, and then Switzerland before finally settling in Jamaica where he died at the age of 73 in the year 1973 of a heart attack.
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