In the 1920s, Great Britain experienced political upheaval resulting from the first global war, as well as social transformations resulting from industrialization. Technological innovations also significantly altered the era’s cultural landscape. Both the optimism and the anxieties induced by such extreme changes were reflected in the period’s art and literature.
Before World War I (1914-1918) there was great optimism in Europe about the future of parliamentary government. After the war, political attitudes were very different. After witnessing both the war’s terrible death toll and the perpetual chaos in Post-war continental legislatures, Europeans were more likely to question government action and demand social justice. For Britain in particular, events early in the century underscored the government’s vulnerability. The Easter Rising in Dublin (1916), the granting of Irish Independence (1921), and the shootings in India that started Mahatma Ghandi’s peace movement (1919), all indicated that the British Empire was no longer invincible.
Meanwhile, unrest on the European continent set in motion events that would culminate in a second world war. The Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia in 1917. Benito Mussolini assumed dictatorial power in Italy in 1922. Germany, struggling under the burden of World War I reparation payments, experienced rapid inflation of its currency in 1923-24, resulting in worthless money and a demoralized populace. Finding support from a dissatisfied German citizenry Adolf Hitler reorganized the New Socialist or ‘‘Nazi’’ party and published the first volume of his manifesto, Mein Kampf, in 1925; his rise to power in the next decade would set the stage for World War II.
The first World War also altered the international economic order. In 1914, most of Europe’s economies depended on Great Britain and Germany. By the time the fighting stopped in 1918 the United States had become the main economic power. In the period between the wars, England would have to adapt to industrialized modes of production— factories that used assembly lines and electric power—and the resulting loss of jobs. The country suffered severe unemployment, with as many as two million people out of work in 1921-1922 and still a million unemployed in 1925. A lot of these people had lost coal mining jobs, and the miners would go on to lead a massive protest, known as the General Strike in 1926. These events augured the world economic crisis of 1929-1932 (a global event that manifested itself as the Great Depression in America).
Despite its economic difficulties, the British government had to meet the Postwar expectations of its people, who demanded more social services and greater civil rights. In the early-twentieth century, English legislative acts reflected changing perceptions of the rights of workers and the role of women. The 1911 National Insurance Act established some medical coverage and unemployment benefits for workers, while the 1925 Pensions Act set aside retirement funds for them. World War I brought many women into the national workforce, making them less dependent on male wage-earners and more willing to assert their property rights. Although the Divorce Bill (1902) and Female Enfranchisement Bill (1907) had taken some steps to empower women, significant changes only came after the war. It was not until 1918 that British women who met age and property requirements got the vote.
During the following decade women continued to agitate for full suffrage, which was finally won in 1928. Many of those involved in the suffrage debate were dubbed ‘‘New Women,’’ women associated— both positively and negatively—with personal independence, unconventional attitudes, and lessrestrictive fashions. The image of the high-spirited ‘‘flapper’’ wearing loose-waisted dresses with skirts above the knee was often equated with this newly liberated female role.
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daily life and attitudes of all British people changed a great deal in the first decades of the twentieth century. Rapid urbanization took the majority of citizens away from the country. By 1911, 80% of the population of England and Wales lived in urban areas. Despite periods of crisis, there was a general rise in the standard of living. This increase in national income allowed people to spend more on luxuries; the demand for non-essential goods went up accordingly. There was also a great increase in literacy as school attendance became mandatory across Europe.
Thanks to innovations in communications media, even those no longer in school had greater access to all kinds of information. Radio and cinema became significant political and cultural influences. Right before the war the British silent film industry was thriving; there were six hundred cinemas in Greater London in 1913. After 1918, Hollywood— left largely unaffected by the fighting—dominated film production. Although Europeans like Sergei Eisenstein made great artistic innovations in the field, the United States industry had the money to produce costly extravaganzas like Ben Hur (1926) and establish world-wide stars such as Charlie Chaplin, who was, ironically, British.
The first American radio broadcast took place in 1920, the first British in 1922, inaugurating an era of mass persuasion. In the years between the two world wars, cinema, radio, and microphones became powerful communication tools manipulated by monolithic fascist and communist parties to incite public responses. Dictators used propaganda films and large public meetings to inspire the same kind of hero-worship elicited by movie stars.
All these developments created great hopes as well as great fears, both of which were articulated by the period’s artists. The modern writers of the 1920s—including Americans F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Britons James Joyce (Ulysses) and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse)—broke with traditional novel form, emphasizing individual thought and expressing the alienation felt by the Post-war generation. Visual artists—such as the European painters Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso—also experimented with new techniques, developing the non-representational forms of abstraction and cubism.
At the same time aesthetic movements like Art Deco, a popular style in 1920s furniture, clothing and architecture, optimistically embraced modern materials and designs. A similarly positive tone carried through the music of composers such as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. Although the era Fitzgerald dubbed the ‘‘Jazz Age’’ and W. H. Auden called the ‘‘Age of Anxiety’’ was marked by a loss of faith in society, the incredible creative output of the time shows a continuing faith in the power of art.
Dialogue Coward was one of the first playwrights of his generation to use naturalistic dialogue, that is, to have his characters speak in the same ordinary phrases that people use in everyday conversation. Earlier dramatists had employed an epigrammatic style, wherein the actors on stage spoke in quotable ‘‘epigrams,’’ complex and witty phrases that sound poetic or literary. By contrast, Coward’s plays rely on the interaction between charismatic performers to grab attention and the context of a given line to generate laughs. Viewers might not leave the theater quoting a single clever phrase, however, chances are they laughed their way through the actual performance because of the amusing situations depicted on stage.
Comedy of Manners In a comedy of manners, humor and interest derive from social interaction and conversation rather than from elaborate or suspenseful plots. Jane Austen’s novels and Oscar Wilde’s plays, for example, can both be categorized as comedies of manners. Hay Fever, with its focus on a series of amusing situations that all take place in one upper class home, is a sophisticated and irreverent adaptation of this comedic form.
FarceHay Fever employs many elements of farce, a comic theatrical form in which exaggerated characters find themselves in improbable situations and engage in wordplay and physical humor intended to provoke simple hearty laughter from the audience. Although Coward’s play carries a bit more social weight than a traditional farce, it does make use of farcical word games and broadly drawn characters.
Irony Many of the humorous comments made by the members of the Bliss family are good examples of dramatic irony. This type of irony comes from situations where the impact of a line or action depends upon the audience being aware of something the character is not. So for example, it is ironic, and therefore funny, when David—who both accepts unusual behavior from his family and behaves quite unconventionally himself—reacts to his guests’ surreptitious departure by saying ‘‘People really do behave in the most extraordinary manner these days.’’ Although the audience is aware of how David’s comment actually describes his own behavior, David himself does not see this and so makes his observation free of self-reflection.
Juxtaposition Throughout the play, Coward juxtaposes the carefree unconventional Blisses with their anxious, convention-bound guests. Each new pairing of characters provides an amusing contrast between one of the self-absorbed impulsive family members and an uneasy, confused visitor. These oppositions—both of personality types and personal expectations— produce much of the work’s humor.
Pace The success of a Coward comedy depends upon the live production maintaining a fast pace. The humor and impact of a play like Hay Fever comes partly from the rapid staccato dialogue, the type of syncopated speedy delivery of lines that would later become the hallmark of late-twentieth-century plays by writers like David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross).
Romantic Comedy Coward generates a good deal of humor by disrupting the audience’s expectations regarding the traditional plot of the romantic comedy, which is usually a story of a love affair between two people who must overcome obstacles before they can marry— or at least end the play in a happy conclusion. As Hay Fever opens, the viewer might expect a plot in which a series of mismatched couples swap partners in order to find happier pairings—in other words the typical romantic comedy plot multiplied by four. Yet Coward thwarts such expectations, making fun of the familiar storylines about illicit love and adulterous spouses during the course of the play and in the end leaving all the members of the Bliss family just as they were when the play started.
Satire Satire is a type of humorous critique used in both fiction and drama to ridicule political or social philosophies. Hay Fever, with its depiction of selfabsorbed bohemian artists and their misguided conventional admirers, can be seen as a gentle satire of the excesses both of pretentious creative people and of the adoring public who indulge such egotistical behavior because these people are famous. This has come to be known as the ‘‘cult of personality’’ or ‘‘cult of celebrity,’’ in which famous people are so revered that they are above social reproach.
1925: It is the height of the modernist period in literature, numerous books later considered classics are published. These works include Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The 1925 Pulitzer Prize for fiction goes to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big.
Today: Recent British and American books that have earned praise include Alice McDermott’s novel about ill-fated romance and family deception, Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award; Ian McEwan’s exploration of personal intrigue and public humiliation, Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; Phillip Roth’s examination of a father-daughter relationship in the turbulent 1960s, American Pastoral, honored with the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; and Rafi Zabor’s uniquely humorous story about a talking saxophone-playing animal, The Bear Comes Home, which received the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.
1925: The Charleston—a jittery, kinetic dance performed with a partner to music with a staccato, syncopated 4/4 rhythm gains great popularity. Although originating in Charleston, South Carolina, the dance soon became an international trend and, along with flappers, became emblematic of the ‘‘Jazz Age’’ of the mid-1920s.
Today: After two decades in which rock and rap music dominated popular music, a revival of swing music and dancing is taking place in many parts of America and Europe. Partner dancing— including the lindy-hop, a variation on the Charleston developed in the 1930s—has made a comeback with American youth, and remakes of big band swing tunes are appearing on the top-ten record charts.
1925: American writer Anita Loos publishes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was made into a film in 1928. This popular novel’s main character, Lorelei Lee, provides the prototype for the caricature of the ‘‘dumb blonde’’ that would resurface in many books, shows, and movies throughout the second half of the century; beginning in the late-1950s, film star Marilyn Monroe would come to epitomize the dumb blonde.
Today: In the latest variation on this theme, writer/director Tom DiCillo’s 1998 independent film The Real Blonde, starring Matthew Modine, Daryl Hannah, and Catherine Keener, offers a witty critique of the cultural ideal of feminine beauty and the ‘‘dumb blonde’’ stereotype. Modern culture has mostly abandoned the dumb blonde stereotype, though it does occasionally reappear.
1925: Nellie Taylor Ross is elected governor of Wyoming, the first woman to be elected to such a post in the United States. Margaret Thatcher, who later became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister (in 1975), is born this same year.
Today: Although the number of female politicians still does not begin to adequately represent the number of female voters in either America or Europe, women continue to be elected and appointed to high office. In 1993, for example, Janet Reno was appointed the first female Attorney General of the United States, and in 1998 she became the first person in the modern era to hold the post for more than five years; serving in the same Clinton presidential cabinet, Madeleine Allbright becomes the first female secretary of state in 1997.
A videorecording titled Hay Fever: A High British Comedy was produced by the George Washington University (Washington, DC) Department of Theatre and Dance in 1995. It is available on two VHS videocassettes running 110 minutes. This college production was directed by Nathan Garner and features the actors Carole Stover, John F. Degen, Maura Miller, Brian Coleman, Kristiana Knight, Alan Goy, Kerry Washington, Michael Laurino, and Rachel Flehinger.
Another videorecorded production of Hay Fever is included on tape number seven of the Theater Department Productions 1989 VHS video series from Seton Hill College in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
A sound recording of a radio play adaption of Hay Fever featuring actors Peggy Ashcroft, Tony Britten, Millicent Martin, Julia Foster, and Maurice Denham is included in the 1988 British Broadcasting Corporation Enterprises audio collection entitled A Noel Coward Double Bill. These two analog cassettes run 180 minutes and also contain a sound recording of Private Lives. The tapes were distributed in the United States by the Novato, California-based Mind’s Eye Co.
The Radio Yesteryear company of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, released a sound recording of Hay Fever featuring actors Everett Sloan and Ann Burr. First broadcast as a radio play on June 3, 1947, this audio version was released in 1986 as volume forty-six of the Radiobook series.
Although Hay Fever has yet to be adapted into a feature film, at least seventeen of Coward’s other plays and screenplays were made into movies between 1927 and 1987, including a 1946 British production of Blithe Spirit directed by David Lean, and a 1931 Hollywood version of Private Lives directed by Sidney Franklin and starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. Additionally, Coward acted in at least twelve films, including director Richard Quine’s Paris—When it Sizzles, a 1931 feature starring Audrey Hepburn. A complete Coward filmography is available in the Internet Movie Database at http://us.imdb.com.
Sources Agate, James. Review of Hay Fever reprinted in Red Letter Nights, Jonathan Cape, 1944, pp. 240-42.
Barnes, Clive. ‘‘For Rosemary Harris—Love & Gesundheit!’’ in the New York Post, December 13, 1985.
Cothia, Jean. ‘‘Noel Coward’’ in her English Drama of the Early Modern Period, 1890-1940, Longman, 1996, pp. 101-02.
Coward, Noel. Introduction to Three Plays, Benn, 1925, pp. viii-ix.
Coward, Noel. Introduction to Play Parade, Vol. I, Doubleday, Doran, 1933.
Gilliatt, Penelope. ‘‘Coward Revived’’ in her Unholy Fools: Wits, Comics, Disturbers of the Peace: Film and Theater, Viking, 1973, pp. 242-43.
Innes, Christopher. ‘‘Noel Coward (1899-1973): Comedy as Social Image’’ in his Modern British Drama, 1890-1990, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 238-60.
Kroll, Jack. ‘‘Serving up the Guests’’ in Newsweek, Vol. 106, no.26, December 23, 1985, p. 77.
Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright, Methuen, 1982, pp. 66-68.
Lahr, John. ‘‘The Politics of Charm’’ in Harper’s, Vol. 265, no. 1589, October, 1982, pp. 64-68.
Maugham, W. Somerset. Introduction to Bitter Sweet and Other Plays, Doubleday, 1928, pp. v-xiii.
Rich, Frank. ‘‘‘Hay Fever,’ Noel Coward Comedy’’ in the New York Times, December 13, 1985, p. C3.
Ward, A. C. Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901- 1960, Methuen University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 131-32.
Waspe, Will. ‘‘A World Suddenly Less Gay’’ in the Spectator, March 31, 1973, pp. 399-400.
FURTHER READING Coward, Noel. Present Indicative, Doubleday, 1937. This first volume of Coward’s autobiography covers his youth and early career up to 1931.
Hoare, Philip. Noel Coward: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, 1998. This well-researched biography of Coward offers a good balance of insight into his private life and discussion of his literary works.
Payne, Graham, with Barry Day. My Life with Noel Coward, Applause Theater Books, 1997. This memoir by Coward’s longtime companion provides both a detailed personal portrait of the playwright and excerpts from his previously unpublished writings.
Payne, Graham, and Sheidan Morley, editors. The Noel Coward Diaries, Little, Brown, 1982. Although clearly written with publication in mind, these diaries give the reader further examples of Coward’s sophisticated wit and unconventional opinions.