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Feature | Imitating reality

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The story behind the production of Hay Fever.

In 1920, Noël Coward travelled to New York for the first time to try his luck with American producers. He sold some of his writing to Vanity Fair and Metropolitan, but mostly he acquainted himself with Manhattan’s high society, which he’d successfully done in London.

He developed a friendship with British-born playwright Hartley Manners and his highly spirited wife Laurette Taylor. After 603 performances in the lead role of Manners’ play Peg o’ My Heart, Taylor cemented her place as an accomplished and well-loved stage actor on Broadway. She later went on to play the lead role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. Taylor starred in several highly acclaimed roles on stage and screen written by her husband and built a reputation for her prima donna tendencies as she toured the country performing.

In 1924, during a weekend stay at Taylor and Manners’ guest house in New York, Coward was inspired to write his now classic comedy of bad manners, Hay Fever. He penned this scathing and comedic examination of an artistic family in just three days, when he was 24-years-old.

The patriarch of the Bliss family, David, is a novelist, while the diva of the family, Judith, is a retired stage actor. Coward openly stated that his inspirations for the characters sprung from Taylor and Manners’ eccentric behaviour during his stay with them and their children.

In his 1937 autobiography, Present Indicative, Coward described Laurette Taylor as ‘naïve, intolerant, loveable and entirely devoid of tact,’ possessing all the qualities of his Hay Fever star Judith Bliss. Unsurprisingly, the widespread success of Hay Fever’s production allegedly severed their friendship.

Coward said he wrote the play intending Marie Tempest to play the title role of Judith Bliss for the London production. Tempest took some convincing before accepting the part, believing the role to be too light. The success of Coward’s play, The Vortex, produced in 1924, won Tempest over and Hay Fever went onto run at London’s Ambassadors Theatre for 337 performances.

Hay Fever has enjoyed many revivals around the world over the years, however a 1964 National Theatre Company revival at the Old Vic Theatre was perhaps the most significant. Under the artistic direction of Laurence Olivier, Coward was invited to direct his own play, starring Edith Evans and Maggie Smith. At the time he wrote, ‘I am thrilled and flattered and frankly flabbergasted that the National Theatre should have the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine.’

Noël Coward became the first playwright to direct one of his own plays, forty years after writing it, and also assumed the role of the first living playwright to have a work produced by the National Theatre. This production of Hay Fever became the instigator for a Noël Coward renaissance towards the end of his career.

Noël Coward was knighted in 1969 and elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature the same year. In 2017, Hay Fever remains one of his most produced and celebrated plays.

Hay Fever plays at Southbank Theatre from 23 September. Book now.

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