By Daniel Frezza
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “An actor, of course. . . . There’s nothing as good as the theatre.” The question was from a fellow child actor and the answer from the ten-year-old Noel Coward (Micheal MacLiammoir, Enter a Goldfish [London, Thames & Hudson, 1977], 69). It was the foundation of his life and of most of his work, particularly of the earliest of his best plays,Hay Fever.
Hay Fever’s premiere crowned a year in which Coward’s fame burst like a rocket over London’s West End. On December 16, 1924, his twenty-fifth birthday, he opened in The Vortex, the play that made him a sensation both as actor and playwright. By mid-1925 he had four shows running in London including Hay Fever. With Private Lives and Blithe Spirit it went on to become one of the most often-revived British comedies of the twentieth century (Cole Lesley, Graham Payn & Sheridan Morley; Noel Coward and His Friends [New York, Morrow, 1979], 69). Coward himself directed one revival in 1933 and another highly acclaimed revival at Britain’s National Theatre in 1964—the first time the National revived a work of a living playwright (Philip Hoare, Noel Coward: A Biography [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995], 485).
Coward wrote Hay Fever in about three days (Noel Coward, Present Indicative [New York: Doubleday, 1937], 179). Such speed, typical of his early work, was possible in part because he used established forms, situations, and character types he knew thoroughly, and especially because of his acute powers of observation. Harold Pinter (one of the few contemporary serious playwrights whose work Coward admired) saw that they shared a desire to express “objectively and as lucidly as possible what was actually taking place in any given context” (Hoare, 458). Coward’s ability to see himself and others clearly is one of the principal reasons his comedies endure—that and his ability to mine the humor in what he saw.
For the Bliss family in Hay Fever he found a ready-made model. In 1921 he spent several months in New York, absorbing the energy of the city and American theatre and trying to interest producers in his scripts. His theatrical connections got him invited to Sunday evening parties given by the great American actress Laurette Taylor and her husband, Hartley Manners, author of Peg O’ My Heart, in which Laurette had a tremendous success. (In the 1940s she won still greater acclaim as Amanda in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.) Coward became a favorite, often arriving in the afternoon to play the piano, staying for dinner (extremely welcome since he was almost penniless) and the evening gathering of celebrities. He recalled that they played “often acrimonious games, owing to Laurette’s abrupt disapproval of any guest . . . who turned out to be self-conscious, nervous or unable to act an adverb or an historical personage with proper abandon.” (Coward, Present Indicative, 135) Early in 1924 Coward returned to New York and again frequented the Taylor-Manners home. A few months later he wrote Hay Fever. It was inevitable, he said, that someone would use their eccentricity in a play and he was grateful to Fate that no one thought of it before he did. (Coward, Present Indicative, 136)
Hay Fever opened on June 8, 1925, at the Ambassador’s Theatre and ran for 337 performances (Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, Theatrical Companion to Coward [New York, MacMillan, 1957]). Taylor’s daughter wrote that “when word drifted across the Atlantic that Hay Fever was supposed to be an intimate picture of the Manners family, Laurette was hurt.” After seeing the New York production she found it hard to forgive Coward. “‘None of us,’ she declared emphatically, ‘is ever unintentionally rude’” (Marguerite Courtney, Laurette [New York: Rinehart, 1955], 261). The line could have come straight from Coward’s typewriter.
One can understand Taylor’s sensitivity at seeing herself and her family on stage, but Coward’s long-time assistant, Cole Lesley, observed that Coward “had written about them all and the fun they had given him as he always remembered them: with affection” (Lesley, Remembered Laughter [New York: Knopf, 1976], 62). Indeed, he subjected himself to similar treatment in the role of Gary Essendine in Present Laughter (1939).
Coward was too clear-sighted to be always affectionate toward his colleagues (or himself). “What fascinates me about acting is when a beautiful, talented actress can come on stage and give a performance that makes your blood curdle with excitement and pleasure, yet she can make such a cracking pig of herself over where her dressing room is or some such triviality. . . . Intelligent actors never do that, but then they’re seldom as good as the unintelligent ones. Acting is . . . a gift that is often given to people who are very silly as people. But as they come on to the stage, up goes the temperature.” (Hoare, 221)
The Bliss family consists of Judith, a retired actress itching to return to the stage; her husband David, a novelist; their son Simon, an artist; and daughter Sorel who, perhaps significantly, possesses no specific artistic talent though she can certainly hold her own in playing up to her mother. Sorel is aware that their slap-dash manners can be devastating to others and tries to reform, but in the end habit wins out. They all at some point force their weekend guests to be audience/participants in wonderfully funny improvisations on stock dramatic situations. Their goal is not to “get the guests” but to exercise their imaginations. As David explains in Act 2: “The only reason I’ve been so annoying is that I love to see things as they are first, and then pretend they’re what they’re not” (Noel Coward, Hay Fever (in Three Plays by Noel Coward) [New York: Dell, 1965], 160).
Critic John Lahr used the phrase “comedy of bad manners” to describe Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter, and Blithe Spirit (Coward the Playwright [London: Methuen, 1982], 5). The Blisses make no bones about using people. They accept their egotism as part of their talent and don’t try to hide it. But their vitality and humor redeem them. “To be interesting, to abhor dullness, to disdain normality, . . . to worship accomplishment are the rules which govern the Blisses’ manners.” (Lahr, 45 48) Their lack of conventional civility may be unsettling but they give their guests something valuable in its place. As Richard says in Act 2, “I never realize how dead I am until I meet people like you” (Coward, Hay Fever, 151).
The Blisses don’t play favorites: they treat each other just as rudely as their guests. The revitalizing effect Richard feels evidently works on them as well. After a hilarious final scene of all-out squabbling among themselves, they settle down amicably to breakfast as David reads from his new novel. Judith and her family (and, of course, Coward himself) put into entertaining practice Jaques’s line from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage . . .”
P.S.: The Adverb Game is great fun. See the show to learn how it’s done then try it at home.