Thoughts & Musings

I Sing the Body Electric

by Tom Roberts

In the annals of show biz there are those legendary figures who absolutely define our ideas of the aristocracy, particularly the British upper class. Seldom do they themselves arise from this class that they come to represent. Often they are working class or lower middle class kids, with little formal schooling. They are smart, talented, aspiring, and—most of all—observant. So they master the accent, ape the bearing, and carry it off with panache. One thinks of Carey Grant, the elegant epitome of gentlemanly smooth, born neglected Archibald Leach in Bristol, England. So, too, Noel Pierce Coward (1899 – 1973), son of a suburban London piano salesman, whose plays, songs, stage and film performances still seem the perfect embodiment of the British upper classes during the 1920s and 1930s.

Too perfect, perhaps. Because in replicating the upper class through gesture and accent, these actors are always slightly caricaturing what they represent. Their instinct for satire makes them capable of great comedy. Noel Coward is a case in point. Stage-struck from childhood, he was doing boy’s roles from the age of 12. By age 14, he was the protégé, and quite possibly the lover, of society portrait painter Philip Streatfield, who guided the brilliant young wit’s entry into London high society. At that point, the youth “determined to travel through life first class.” Coward was also appearing regularly on the regional stage and writing plays and songs by the time he was 20. Soon he was starring alongside young Laurence Olivier and Gertrude Lawrence, while having three or four of his own plays running simultaneously in the West End theatres. By the time he was 30, Noel Coward was one of the world’s highest earning writers.

Noel Coward was a showman to his fingertips, a precise and canny actor from his celebrated stage performances, to his wartime cabarets for British soldiers, to his clandestine work for the British Secret Service in the 1940s, to the persona he so carefully cultivated and projected. His image—the elegant dressing gown, the long cigarette holder, the drawled “Dahling!”–is embedded in our collective memory. Kind, generous almost to a fault, he was beloved by those he provoked to laughter, all the way up to the Royal Family. Most inspired by the world of the stage, he often uses show people or writers as central characters in his plays. Hay Fever, however, is an entirely theatrical romp. What seems to be a domestic encounter turns into a connived at, often rehearsed family melodrama. Guests are invited for a weekend at the country home of the Bliss family. Unbeknownst to them, their role is to be audience and supporting bit players in the drama staged and starred in by Judith Bliss. Judith is a celebrity diva who has recently retired from the stage, but she just can’t give it up. She’s forever acting, posing, speechifying, and, most of all, desperately needing the spotlight. Her children and husband live and breathe her intensely emotional world, conspiring to support her wild behavior.

There have been plenty of characters in other writers’ plays who are stars in the twilight of their careers. Often they are ambiguous figures, victims of their own ambition, who turn sad and melancholy at the end. Coward doesn’t buy any of this. He so adores and delights in Judith Bliss and her whole barmy family. For Coward, nothing could be saner than living immersed in a melodrama, as if all the world truly were a stage.

Coward had, in fact, met and fallen for the family on whom he based Hay Fever. He was a mere 21 when he made his first trip to America. His plan to interest Broadway producers in his work came to little, but he absorbed the pace and crackle of Broadway shows into his writing. He also was taken up by Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners and became a frequent guest in their exuberantly dramatic household on River Drive in New York. Laurette Who ? you say. Ah. Laurette Taylor (1883 – 1946) was one of the greatest actresses of Broadway’s Golden Age and an acclaimed silent film star. On stage the lovely Taylor was astonishingly natural and was “idolized” by no less than the great acting teacher Uta Hagen, who said that Taylor’s identification with a character wasn’t complete until she was “wearing the underpants of the character.” Many up-and-coming Broadway actors would declare that her performance as Amanda Wingfield in the 1944 premier of Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie was the most memorable stage performance they had ever seen. Williams himself talked about the “shock of revelation” in her performances and “a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry.” She was a great actor, but she was also wildly mercurial, larger than life, and very eccentric.

In 1924 Noel Coward spent a weekend with Taylor, her husband, British playwright J. Hartley Manners, and her two grown children, a weekend that was the template for Hay Fever. In the first 1937 volume of his autobiography, Coward describes the visit in terms almost as funny to read as it is to watch the play. Taylor–“naïve, intolerant, lovable, and entirely devoid of tact”—would pounce on an unwary guest “with all the swift accuracy of a pelican diving into the sea.” Coward joined in the family games—shrilly argued over—wherein Laurette would “abruptly disapprove of any guest . . .who turned out to be self-conscious, nervous, or unable to act an adverb or an historical personage with proper abandon.” Taking a breath in their garden at one point, Coward was inspired to write a comedy of manners about it. Sadly, the huge success of Hay Fever severed his friendship with Taylor who found it not a bit funny.

Which is a shame, since Judith Bliss has become immortal and preserves for all time Noel Coward’s adoration for his marvelous actress friend.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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