Critical Overview

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Throughout his career, Coward was generally praised as a skillful dramatist capable of constructing wellbalanced comedies filled with natural-sounding dialogue and broadly humorous situations. Even those who criticized his work as being too trivial and lacking in deep meaning have usually acknowledged his plays as entertaining, which is precisely what Coward intended them to be. Today the playwright’s critical reputation rests largely on his comedies of manners written between the two World Wars, works—including Hay Fever—that capture the sophisticated, irreverent and high-spirited mood of 1920s elite society.

When Hay Fever premiered in 1925, some critics like James Agate, the reviewer for London’s Sunday Times, complained that the play offered neither a useful moral nor admirable personalities. As Agate wrote, ‘‘There is neither health nor cleanness about any of Mr. Coward’s characters, who are still the same vicious babies sprawling upon the floor of their unwholesome creche.’’ Yet even this critic had to acknowledge that ‘‘it would be foolish to insist upon attacking this play on the score of truth or morality. . . . As a piece of brilliant, impudent, and sustained fooling the play is very pleasant entertainment.’’ The 1925 critical consensus supported this final observation, that Hay Fever, though certainly not educational, was undeniably entertaining.

Many of Coward’s contemporaries underestimated the extent to which the play would continue to appeal to later generations of theatergoers. Some thought the casual dialogue would rapidly become dated. While others, like Agate, anticipated that the play would only be favored by a ‘‘purely Metropolitan audience.’’ Yet such predictions have proved false. Hay Fever is still frequently performed for late-twentieth century audiences. In professional revivals, as well as community and college theater productions, its jokes remain fresh, garnering laughs from a wide range of viewers. Audiences today seem to agree with the assessment expressed by Coward’s fellow writer W. Somerset Maugham in his introduction to the 1929 collection Bitter Sweet and Other Plays, that Hay Fever is a ‘‘masterpiece in miniature.’’

In the past three decades, productions of the play have consistently earned critical praise. In 1965, Penelope Gilliatt complimented a version of Hay Fever ‘‘immaculately revived by the author’’ himself. Writing for Harper’s in 1982, John Lahr expressed his view that Hay Fever is ‘‘Coward’s finest light comedy.’’ A 1985 production elicited similarly positive reviews. Clive Barnes, in the New York Post, noted that this brilliant revival of Coward’s play reclaimed the playwright’s ‘‘reputation as a major twentieth-century playwright’’ and gave the work the ‘‘patina of a classic.’’ Although Frank Rich may have complained in his 1985 New York Times review that Hay Fever has ‘‘skin-deep characters, little plot, no emotional weight or redeeming social value and very few lines that sound funny out of context,’’ like many critics before him he acknowledged that it was ‘‘unlikely’’ that the audience would ‘‘stop laughing and start thinking’’ long enough to notice. By contrast, Jack Kroll argued in Newsweek that this ‘‘timeless comedy of ill manners’’ actually ‘‘isn’t superficial,’’ but rather ‘‘it’s about superficiality.’’

Literary historians now rank Hay Fever among Coward’s most enduring works. In 1964, A. C. Ward in his Twentieth-Century English Literature, 1901-1960 identified it as a ‘‘first-rate comedy.’’ While in 1996, Jean Cothia in her English Drama of the Early Modern Period, 1890-1940 expressed the generally agreed upon scholarly view that ‘‘where Coward makes his continuing claim to attention is in his wonderfully symmetrical comedies of egoism, desire and bad manners: Hay Fever (1925), Private Lives (1931), and Blithe Spirit (1941).’’

Starting in the 1970s, some critics also began to place Coward’s works in...

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the context of the homosexual literary tradition. When Coward died in 1973 near the time when a famous gay producer, Hugh Beaumont, also passed away, one columnist in the Spectator wrote that although the two men’s deaths did not mean ‘‘the whole edifice of homosexual domination of the British theatre will come tumbling down,’’ the ‘‘loss of these two pillars’’ does make the ‘‘structure . . . look a little less secure.’’ Actress Constance Collier depicted in a scene from a 1932 production of Coward’s play at the Shaftebury Theatre But in the succeeding decades, gay issues and identity—in the theater as in the rest of society— were more freely acknowledged.

In the increasingly less restrictive academic world of the 1980s and 1990s, critics have begun to explore possible homosexual themes and perspectives in Coward’s comedies, observing how plays like Hay Fever mock heterosexual romance, allow characters to form unorthodox connections, and generally flaunt conventions of all kinds. Lahr, in his 1982 book Coward the Playwright, even went so far as to argue that Coward has an ‘‘essentially homosexual vision.’’

The main reason Coward’s reputation remains secure at the end of the twentieth century, however, seems to be that the sophisticated humor of wellcrafted plays like Hay Fever still provide the sort of light entertainment that pleases audiences. As Cothia observed, when ‘‘performed with panache by a team of actors . . . skilled in delivery of the wellbred insults and discourteous frankness that characterize the staccato dialogue,’’ Coward’s comedies ‘‘are works that perceive the absurdities of sexual relationship and social organization,’’ allowing us to gently laugh at ourselves.


Essays and Criticism