Noël Coward (1899–1973) was to dominate British theatre for a generation as a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor and manager. Born in 1899 in Teddington on the outskirts of London, Coward first appeared on stage as Prince Mussel in the children’s play The Goldfish in 1911. He wrote and performed in Charlot’s revue before becoming an icon of the 1920s - sophisticated, brilliant and idolised by high society. His revue This Year of Grace captured the self-indulgent pursuit of hedonism by the upper classes in the 1920s.
Coward wrote classics of high comedy that enshrine the period in which they were written: Hay Fever captures the spirit of the 1920s, the sophisticated Private Lives the 1930s and This Happy Breed the 1940s. Coward’s most spectacular show was Cavalcade which opened in 1930 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Cavalcade was a pageant of English history seen through different generations of the same family.
In the 1950s his career faltered as he slipped out of fashion. Undaunted, he reinvented himself as a cabaret performer, performing his own material in America and England. Coward’s neglect was short-lived. In 1964 Hay Fever was performed at the National Theatre and in 1967 he was included in a BBC television series on Great Acting. Suddenly the enfant terrible had become the Grand Old Man of British theatre. He died in 1973.
It is not surprising that Coward was the perfect interpreter of his own work. He admitted that he wrote many of his plays to give himself good fat parts. He also wrote good roles for Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives and Tonight at 8.30 and made a star of Margaret Rutherford as the ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ medium Madam Arcarti in Blithe Spirit.
There is a long standing theatrical tradition of actors giving one another presents on the first night of a production, and this whisky flask (below right) was given by Noël Coward to each member the cast of his operetta Bitter Sweet on the first night of the show in 1930. The flask is shaped like a book, inscribed ‘with best wishes Noël Coward’ in gold leaf on the front and with the title Bitter Sweet on the spine. One corner of the ‘book’ unscrews to reveal the top of the flask.