Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Noël Coward (1899-1973) had lifetimes which overlapped less than a year. Yet, despite the differences in epoch, these literary giants shared many characteristics. They were, of course, highly successful as playwrights who amused others—both professionally and personally—by their charm, wit, and flamboyance.
Dublin-born Wilde grew up in an intellectual environment. His prosperous parents traveled with their family, summering at their country villa. Early on, the children were home-schooled and learned foreign languages from their German governess and French nursemaid. Around age ten, Oscar and his older brother Willie began attending boarding school in Northern Ireland. As a youth, Oscar loved reading and was deemed an “erratic genius.” By thirteen he was already preoccupied with his dandified appearance. After winning a scholarship to Trinity College, Wilde exceled in educational and social circles by his brilliant achievements in the Classics, his good nature, stinging wit, and flamboyant attire. Although considered somewhat of a “bad boy” who challenged authority, the tall, long-haired young man obtained additional academic honors and published several poems while studying at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1874 to 1879.
Beginning life in a London suburb, Noël Coward did not have a privileged upbringing. The “genteel poverty” of his boyhood was largely the result of his gifted, but unambitious father, an unsuccessful piano salesman. When Mrs. Coward tired of having insufficient funds and food to provide for their two sons, she took in boarders or moved the family into smaller quarters to rent out their house. Despite his limited education, Noël was an avid reader who composed poetry and plays as a child. When he turned six, his mother initiated the tradition of taking him to see musical theater performances on his birthday. Once The Daily Mirror posted an ad for “a talented boy of attractive appearance” to act in a children’s play, the self-assured eleven-year-old Noël auditioned by dancing and singing and landed his first part.
At age twenty-five, a college degree and small inheritance from his father’s estate in hand, Wilde took up bachelor life in London. His charm and brilliant conversational skills made him a sought-after society guest. Upon arrival in the U.S. for an 1882 lecture tour, he boasted “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” On visits to Paris, he used his fluent French speaking with Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. After marrying Irish author Constance Lloyd in May 1884 and having two sons, Wilde worked as journalist to support the family. Seven years later he published his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. But, like Coward who succeeded him, he achieved fame with his comic plays. Critiques of Victorian society such as Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) made Wilde one of the most popular dramatists of the era.
By the time Coward reached his mid-twenties, he was already a sensation in British theater. In fact, The Vortex, which shocked and delighted audiences with themes of sexuality and drug abuse, was a smash hit three weeks before its creator turned twenty-five. By June 1925 the multi-talented actor/writer/composer/director had four plays running simultaneously in the West End. Debonair and amusing, he mimicked élite ways with silk dressing gowns and long cigarette holders, calling everyone “darling.” His rise, however, was not without setbacks—at times getting booed off the stage or collapsing from exhaustion. But the huge success of Private Lives (1930) solidified his reputation at age thirty-one. The following year, Coward became the highest earning author in the western world.
Wilde’s fall from the pinnacle of success to disgrace and abject poverty was indeed swift. An introduction to Lord Alfred Douglas in mid-1891 led to the men becoming lovers and participating in gay prostitution. When Douglas’s father accused the author of sodomy, Wilde sued for libel which backfired when a court found the allegation true. Subsequent trials resulted in a maximum sentence: two years hard labor for “gross indecency.” Illness and hunger plagued Wilde during incarceration which nearly destroyed him “body and soul.” Upon his release in 1897, the bankrupt writer moved to Paris for the last three years of his life. Although he had “lost the joy of writing,” his wit never left him, claiming that he was “dying…beyond [his] means.” And that he did, from meningitis at age forty-six.
Even though homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. until 1967, Coward openly expressed his gay orientation…at least among friends. His sexuality didn’t seem to bother British officials who appointed Coward to head a WWII propaganda office in Paris. Successful at the task, the dramatist quipped that his “reputation as a bit of an idiot” provided him with cover as a spy. With long-time companion Graham Payn, Coward spent his last years in Jamaica, dying at seventy-three of a heart attack.
Like many people, these writers experienced triumphs and failures in life. However, through it all they somehow managed to maintain the witty outlook so evident in their plays. Read more about Wilde, Coward, and others in the third book of my Cheapo Snob series: Paris and the World.
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