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Noel Coward

The most extraordinary literary figure of the period between the wars to have achieved literary repute, which then lasted into the rest of the century, was undoubtedly Noel Coward. Unlike most of the writers I have written about thus far, he came from a relatively poor background, and his propulsion towards writing came from a career on the stage, launched when he was not yet in his teens.

After an apprenticeship of less than a decade, Coward starred in 1920 in the first of his plays to be produced, when he was just 20 himself. That was not a great success, but he went on to better things and in 1925 wrote Hay Fever, one of the greatest of modern comedies. The plot, if one can call it that, is very simple, dealing with four members of the artistic aptly named Bliss family who each invite a guest for the weekend, and are horrified that the others have been so thoughtless as to not inform them of the visitations.

The guests are bemused by their charming but totally self-centred hosts, and seek solace with the wrong partner, which leads to high comedy – the dumb sportsman invited by the actress mother is attracted by her comparatively earnest daughter, while the diplomat she had intended to impress is overwhelmed by her mother; the husband, a writer, charms the older society belle his son had invited, while the son gets entangled with the ingenuous girl his father had intended to bedazzle. The visitors also pair off amongst themselves, which is not however a worry for the family for they, in the last resort, are more enamoured of each other than of anyone else, and the guests are in effect simply fodder for their entertaining excesses.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2010
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