Directing and Acting Coward

Noel Coward: In or out of Society: he WAS Society

Joe Harmstone: Notes on Directing and Acting Coward (HAYFEVER): given as a lecture to students at Birmingham University Drama Dept, Jan 2000

(Joe Harmstone is a freelance director.)

Length: 3100 words

In 1998, I was directing two Pinter plays at the Donmar warehouse when I was asked by a journalist to explain how you approach a Pinter? Before I could think of anything erudite, one of the actors responded, as befitted the question, ‘With an upturned chair, a whip and a box of matches.’

I have been agonising about this talk for some time and it seems to me that the most useful thing I can do is to examine that very question How do you approach a Coward from a directors perspective. Though I do promise to give a slightly fuller, if less witty response.

The answer is, essentially, very simple. First understand the play, then put your understanding of it into practice by directing it. Easy.

To go through this process I am going to divide this talk into two parts. So here’s part one, which I shall call:


First we must understand what Hay Fever is about.

A family of bohemian artists and a group of ‘normal’ visitors spend a weekend together. Guests wish to have love affairs with Blisses and vice versa. There are a lot of rows, the guests leave and the family enjoy a hearty breakfast. Play understood.

Of course it is about much more than this.

For a start it is about insiders and outsiders, about belonging and not belonging. The Bliss family belongs to an eccentric artist class which the guests aspire to, but which the Blisses themselves find a bore. As Sorel expresses at the start of the play, it is in order to escape being Bohemian and to try to be ‘normal’ that they have each invited their houseguests. The irony from the outset is that, as Richard best explains, the guests have come so that a little of the Bliss eccentricity may rub off on their ‘normal’ shoulders. Each group member desires to be an insider in the other group. Clearly Coward’s primary focus is the Bliss group.

They talk in a sort of code and have a frame of reference, which the outsiders don’t understand. Whether this is Loves Whirlwind or playing in the manner of the word.

Coward’s expectations of the audience are high. We are treated like insiders not outsiders. The language and manners of the family are understood and shared with us. We share the humour. We laugh with the Bliss family not at them, though at the same time he does not encourage us to laugh at the guests.

Ultimately the outsiders are not allowed to join the other group. The guests leave and the family remain. The progress is that each group is now content that it does not want to be anything other than itself. We can see in this Coward’s conservatism and rejection of the mundane the guests are simply too boring to be kept around. And yet the play is also a demonstration of the loneliness of being abnormal. Something Coward was acutely aware of. Look at the tenor of Sorel’s comments at top of Act One. first she says ‘I sometimes wish we were more normal and bouncing, Simon.’ and she follows this up with: ‘Abnormal, Simon that’s what we are. Abnormal.’ One wonders how much this is Coward, like Wilde, wanting to be on the inside of ordinary society, dull though it may be, and both revelling in and regretting, the creative eccentricities that keep him on the outside.

One thinks of Lady Bracknell: Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.

It is worth asking oneself whether this is also to do with a gay man aspiring to be part of heterosexual society? Many of his plays particularly Hay Fever and Private Lives show the desperate desire for a perfect partner and the impossibility of achieving it. Is this a gay man unable to have a relationship that is perfect in the eyes of the public? Peter Greenwell tells a lovely anecdote about talking to the Master in the sixties when the papers were first filled with tales of people ‘coming out’. When Peter asked him if he would do the same he replied that ‘There are simply hordes of little old ladies in Goring by Sea who still harbour secret desires for me and I am not going to disappoint them for all the tea in China.’ And yet the irony is that for a considerable period Coward was Society.

Although the guests leave, as it were, empty-handed, they have served a grand purpose. They have enabled the artists to be creative again. In so doing, I would go so far as to suggest a link to 12th Night where the clowns who have facilitated the lovers getting together are unceremoniously jettisoned at the end of the play having served their purpose. The clowns and the guests are sacrifices that must be made in order for an elite to fulfil its worthy purpose.

I think the play is also concerned, as is much of Coward’s work, with the devastating power of sex. Sex (or at least sexual excitement there is no literal consummation in this play) is a creative force. It is also destructive. Here Coward and Pinter come closest (and I believe they are very close as dramatists in both form and content). Michael Billington once said that Coward explores the thin line between sex and savagery. This is exactly what Pinter does in many of his plays but particularly in The Lover and The Collection. For both writers, sex is a force which, once it has taken hold of a character, can lead to totally irrational, almost deranged behaviour.

To complete our understanding of the play, we need to understand its milieu. Here we have a world where no one goes out to do a nine to five job, where no one worries about whether they can pay the mortgage. These are characters that need to find activities with which to occupy themselves. In this they are not a million miles from Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Here the imagined idyll of a country house weekend for both family and guests, takes the place of the longed for trip to Moscow.

(Though does not Judith say, as she admires the view with Sandy, You can see Moscow on a clear day?)

We are between two world-shattering wars. The 14 18 war will have had a profound affect on all our characters. Some may well have fought. If they have not they will know widows, bereaved parents, women who did war work, orphans, the wounded and the maimed. The world our characters move in has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. Corsets have disappeared, ankles have appeared. Communism has risen, the Titanic has sunk. Mercedes Benz has revolutionised travel and farming and the Wright brothers have opened up the skies. Our characters will not run through this checklist before they open the door but they will be as aware of these things in their daily life as we are everything from the Internet to high speed international travel.

Now let’s have a look at the structure of the play.

Act One: Four individual guests arrive to see four individual family members. There are eight characters in the play at this stage plus Clara. Then follow four unsuccessful attempts at love scenes in which the family try to connect with their guests. (David and Jackie are so unsuccessful we don’t even see them). Here I think of EM Forster’s notion, expressed in Howard’s End of Only Connect. Whereas Forster’s Schlegels long (mistakenly) to connect their poetry to the prose of the Wilcoxes, here the Blisses wish to moderate their riotous creativity with the normality of their guests.

Act Two: This shows us the family blown apart by their failure to play one of their own games under the bemused eyes of their guests and then progresses to rampant partner swapping. Guests are paired off with the wrong Blisses. And yet what is actually happening is that the world is being put back the right way up. The young athletic Sandy should not be with Judith, he should be with Sorel, the girl who begins the play by telling us she would like to have a passion for games. Judith in turn is far more suited to the older well-travelled diplomat Richard. Mature and sophisticated Myra and cynical author David (the Jilly Cooper of his day) make a perfect pair. And finally Jackie seems far more suited to the uncomplicated snogging love which bouncing pup, Simon seems to desire. The world is set to rights.

So what goes wrong? Richard races in from the summerhouse to ask the multi-layered question: Is this a game? And of course it is, and, as Judith quotes from Loves Whirlwind, A game that must be played to the finish.

What are the Blisses doing? They are recovering their creative abilities by relieving distracting sexual tension. The play begins with inactivity. Everyone is suffering from a form of writer’s block as a result of being unhappy with themselves as social beings. They invite people, of the type they mistakenly wish they were, to stay, make love with them and then discover they each have a ‘real’ scene to play.

By the very end of the act the family are totally reunited by speaking a language (Loves Whirlwind) which utterly excludes their guests and brings them to an orgasmic dramatic climax.

Act Three: This presents us with two characters. The guests and the Blisses. Each group has now become united by the experiences of the previous night. The Colditz escape committee atmosphere of the guests’ breakfast establishes their unity in a single goal: To get out. The Bliss breakfast is blissful. Each family member has been both purged and empowered by their experience of the previous night. Their blocks have vanished. David’s novel is finished, Simon has given birth to a new cartoon, Judith finds she is not forgotten by her public and Sorel has lost her thirst for games. In this act the two groups are so united that they do not even meet even when they are in the same room at the same time.

So much for understanding the play. The problem, to paraphrase Peter Cook, is that all this knowledge I’ve got ‘old of is useless as regards the directin’. Thus part two will be named after Coward’s famous advice to a young actor . . .


Because this is exactly what you do next. Everything I have mentioned so far gets us to Day One of rehearsal and perhaps to a few words spoken at the read through. Now all the research you have done, as actor, director, designer, gets crumpled up on the Microsoft screen of your brain and dumped into the recycle bin. This does not, of course, mean that you forget it. Rather you clear your active screen to start the work in hand. Unlike a disk drive, having learnt all you have, you cannot (short of a severe blow to the head) erase it.

The task in hand is now one of practical problem solving.

How do we:

Get on and off stage

Move around so we’re facing the right people and can be seen by the audience

Make ourselves understood by the other characters and the audience?

In other words, how do we TELL THE STORY OF HAY FEVER?

The reason that all our research and understanding is useless is that it is complex and intellectual. Acting is simple and physical. Our task is to communicate economically, boldly and stylishly. Any notion which is complex will be unclear and thus a barrier to that communication.

One thing, which is particularly of no help whatsoever, is a label. I want to scream when people tell me confidently, as if it is somehow the key to the play, that Hay Fever is a Comedy of Manners or that The Birthday Party is a Comedy of Menace or part of the Theatre of the Absurd. What possible use is that to me or the actors in communicating the play to an audience?

To regard such a label as of significance to a production of the play is to elevate form over content. Of course Hay Fever is a Comedy and the Manners of the society of the play are particular and important. However we must understand that the manners are intrinsic to the people and the place and the circumstances. The comedy does not arise from their manners per se. Instead it emerges from the friction between the characters needs or aspirations and their ability or otherwise to achieve them. True, the events, which demonstrate this friction, are governed by the manners of the time and place but those manners are not, in themselves, comic. Watching a country house weekend during which everyone got on and had a nice time would not be comedic however carefully ‘manners’ were observed.

The only form we need to take notice of is that it is a comedy. But even this should have no impact on how we approach the play. I have asked casts what the difference between playing Ibsen and playing Coward was. The answer is NONE. Comedy in a play is a literary not a performance function. That is to say that what Coward has written is a comedy and what Ibsen has written in, say, Hedda Gabler is not. (That is a generalisation of course, because Hedda is actually very comic in places.) The way we make what Coward has written, funny is to make it real. We understand what the characters want, why they are here, what they need to achieve, their objective and superobjectives, their intentions line by line. Now the actors must pursue their needs for real. The comedy then arises (we hope) from the reactions a character has to obstructions which are put in the way of achieving their objectives.

[A man walking into a lamppost because he is blind is not funny. A man walking into a lamppost because he is trying to catch the eye of a pretty girl on the other side of the street is.]

The dreadful mistake to make and yet it is so often done is to think that comic acting is required. So many writers have seen their work destroyed by the bad actor or director who believes that a comic part requires comic acting or comic production.

Another word and notion that can become problematic in relation to Coward (or Pinter or Beckett) is STYLE. What is style? Michel Saint-Denis, in his wonderful book, which I think is just called Style in the Theatre, tackles this brilliantly. Style, like ‘comedy’ is not a bolt on commodity. There are two types of style. The style of the individual performer/director/designer, and the style which is intrinsic to the text. I have style in my work in the same way as a good waiter has style in the way he takes a tray of drinks to a table or the way a skilled bricklayer builds a wall. That basic style does not change from play to play any more than it does from tray to tray or from wall to wall.

Coward’s style in writing is harder to find a simile for. It becomes most apparent when you fail to observe it. His writing is fast, economical and razor sharp. If you make it slow, complicated and blunt, it fails. The greatest clue to a writer’s style is the writer. Coward offers us a wealth of material most of it here! You can read his plays, poems, and diaries, watch him interviewed, see him act and listen to his songs. Listen to the voice which comes from all that and keep it in mind as you work. By voice, I do not, of course, mean how he sounds in The Cruel Sea, but what expresses itself through his work across all media. The last thing on earth to do is ‘Noel Coward voice acting’. Clues can come from so many quarters. I always think of Coward as a very busy and impatient man who needed to grasp things terribly quickly and then get a bloody move on. An actor recently told me that the best advice he had had for playing Coward was to remember that his mother was deaf.

I have talked a great deal about what not to do. So what DO we do? I have an organic approach both as a director and a gardener and I think that the image of the organic gardener is not a bad one for a director. Where Ground Force might come along with a JCB and dig everything up according to a beautifully drawn up plan before depositing fully grown plants into a series of evenly spaced holes, the organic gardener nurtures plants from seed, recycles everything produced, and allows things to develop gradually over time.

We do not rehearse scene one until it conforms to my plan before moving onto scene two. Instead we lay down a thin veneer sorry we’ve got to swap to carpentry images now for the whole play. Then repeat with another thin layer of more details then another and another. And what does this create? PLYWOOD, which as we all know is much stronger than ordinary wood because the grain (the detail) of each veneer runs at right angles to its neighbours. The gardening equivalent is, I suppose, that in the first visit we scatter hundreds of possible seeds and that at each successive visit we weed and thin until we have only the very strongest, well-rooted growth. The joy of this is that you don’t know what is going to emerge first or most vigorously.

I have spoken a lot about NEED. It is absolutely crucial to any play. Every actor must have a firmly held view about what they need both overall and moment by moment. Without this, the actions will be meaningless.

Hay Fever is made funny by the way characters react when their needs are either served or thwarted, it is vital that the cast are 100% clear about those needs all the time.

The most pressing need is now for me to stop, lest, like the Blisses, you begin to feel your guest has overstayed his welcome.

2001-10-01 21:51:58

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