Much of the humor in Hay Fever derives from the way Coward’s characters, despite being placed in ordinary situations, behave in odd and unexpected ways. These eccentricities make typical interactions seem ridiculous to the viewer. The Bliss family leaps to melodramatic and emotional extremes at the slightest provocation, leaving their guests at a loss for how to respond and highlighting the absurdity of social and romantic conventions that might otherwise be accepted as normal. While Coward’s exploration of this theme was primarily in the service of entertainment, there are also elements of social criticism in his mocking of conformity.
Although the characters in Hay Fever (save Clara) belong to the British upper class, they can still be divided into two separate groups, each reflecting a different worldview or ‘‘culture.’’ The four members of the Bliss family follow their own unique rules for personal interaction, rules that allow them to slip into fictional roles and act out melodramatic plots whenever the mood strikes them. The four weekend visitors, contrastingly, follow the conventional rules that instruct people to act according to their ‘‘real’’ social roles, behaving in a polite and predictable manner even if this means denying their genuine inclinations or feelings. These two cultures clash over the course of the weekend visit, resulting in the abundance of silly situations that amuse the audience.
In this play, the members of the Bliss family have problematic relationships with outsiders, yet they are able to interact contentedly—if oddly— among themselves. In a reversal of the typical family drama plot, none of the potential romantic connections with their weekend visitors are able to rival or disrupt familial bonds; a fact that is clearly illustrated in the final scene when the four Blisses sit around the breakfast table absorbed in their own idiosyncratic conversation while their guests slip out unnoticed.
Illusion vs. Reality
The line between illusion and reality is constantly crossed in the Bliss household. Elements of theater and fiction are freely integrated into everyday life as family conversations slide into dialogue from a play or family members begin to act out melodramatic emotions they do not genuinely feel. But Coward also reveals—through the small deceptions of the ‘‘normal’’ visiting characters—that the ‘‘real’’ world is just as full of play-acting as the Bliss world—only people accept these everyday illusions in the name of good manners and social convention.
The unusual beliefs and behavior of the Bliss family, which confound their guests and amuse the audience, also reflect an individualistic ideology that celebrates people who rebel against the restraining conventions of society at large. Each Bliss is a unique individual and follows his or her inclinations without considering the opinion of others. Being a homosexual, Coward was particularly sensitive to the narrow definitions of ‘‘normal’’ that society placed on people. His celebration of the Blisses’ individuality can be read as a veiled criticism of such prescriptive social mores.