On Thursday, Hay Fever, a show about bad manners in le monde bohème, is opening at Playhouse on the Square with Memphis' queen of physical comedy, Anne Marie Hall, as the larger-than-life actress Judith Bliss. Blithe Spirit, which is, as one might expect, a bit of fluff about a rather cheerful ghost wreaking havoc on her husband's new relationship, opens Friday at Theatre Memphis with Bennett Wood at the helm and Tony Isbell and Anne Sharp at the top of the cast list. Perhaps two new dinner jackets are in order. It's just a terrible, terrible situation to be in. However do they expect one to choose?
Of course, when it comes to Noel Coward there is always a choice to be made. People either love him and his body of work without reserve or despise every jot he ever wrote beyond all measure of reason. There is very little middle ground. As Sheridan Morley reported in The New York Times in 1999, "Noel always had an avid audience of admirers around the world, but also an often equally vocal band of critics who objected sometimes to the 'jack-of-all-trades, master-of-most' spread of his talent to amuse and sometimes the false idea that he was an apologist for the bright young things or the stately homes of England."
There are two words which always appear in conjunction with Coward's plays: effervescent and sophisticated. The first word makes perfect sense, as sparkling (if often unkind) repartee has replaced anything like serious subject matter. At heart his plays are naughty little sex farces, staged feuds, and portraits of the well-to-do engaging in something less than civilized behavior. His characters swill cocktails and champagne with urgent ennui and take great delight in playing comically cruel games with one another. Somehow, in spite of an adamant lack of complexity to his scripts, all of this delightful nonsense has been tagged as "sophistication."
"I think that sophistication is really just a label, a safe label, that people have put on [Coward]," says John Fagan, who is directing Playhouse's production of Hay Fever. It is his opinion that, in this instance, the word has become euphemistic inasmuch as it winks at and expresses positive sentiments for the aspects of Coward's plays which were, during the first half of the 20th century, all but taboo.
"In his time he wrote scandalous stuff that was always just barely getting by the censors," Fagan says. "He wrote about drug use, abortion, and extramarital affairs." What's more, Coward's characters often confront these less than savory subjects with easy, if not flippant, candor. In short, in Coward's world, or at least the world of his wealthy characters, seriousness is strictly ornamental, while folly is more often than not approached with the most deadly seriousness. So what exactly is this sophistication we talk about when we talk about Coward? Fagan sums it up: "Sophistication. It's really just naughty behavior in nice clothes."
This notion of well-dressed badness is at the root of most of Coward's negative criticism. It is difficult to imagine the audience taking nearly as much pleasure watching members of the peasantry engage in immorality, cruelty, and frivolousness. It has often been said that poor men go to prison for acts that breed respect among the rich, and there is more than a modicum of truth here. But Coward, if he did romanticize the folly of the leisure class, did so mostly by accident. He was himself from a poor family of entertainers who had scarcely enough money to live on. Legend has it that when young Noel was offered his first acting job for something in the neighborhood of a pound a week, his mother said, "I can't afford to pay that." She thought the theater wanted her to pay them and not the other way around. Unfortunately, it's difficult to really take any moral concerning misspent youth or wasted potential from a play like Hay Fever. No matter how badly the characters behave, they have so much fun that it becomes infectious. It's hard to leave the theater without wishing that you too had been born to privilege so that you might also engage in such divine wickedness.
When discussing the contemporary appeal of Hay Fever, Fagan notes, "It's very much like Survivor. Over the course of the show allegiances are formed and reformed. [The goal is to see] who can get out of this house with their dignity intact."
Hay Fever at Playhouse on the Square through May 20th. Blithe Spirit at Theatre Memphis through May 13th.