Actor Dakin Matthews, who is directing the upcoming Drama Division production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, describes this early play as one of the British playwright’s “elegant comedies.” Written in 1924, Hay Fever centers on the eccentric Blisses. Unconventional, risqué, and often downright rude, the Blisses are everything an upper-crust English family should not be. This is made abundantly clear when each family member family invites a guest for the weekend. Alliances form, affairs begin, and formality is thrown to the wind. Filled with wit, extreme characters, and ridiculous situations, Hay Fever opens on December 8.
Part of the challenge for the Juilliard actors is Hay Fever’s style. Coward loved language, wit, charm, and the absurd, all which seem to have become almost completely foreign to our generation. Most modern comedy is based in vulgarity, and even the best crude comedians of today can’t deliver a joke with half as much style, sophistication, and elegance as the masterful Coward. This proves a unique challenge for the modern actor.
That is why James Houghton, the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division, brought in former drama faculty member Dakin Matthews to direct. Matthews is a prolific American actor who has been in scores of films (most recently Joel and Ethan Coens’ True Grit), television series (he currently has a recurring role in Desperate Housewives), and plays (including last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions). Matthews and his wife, Anne McNaughton Matthews (Group 1), were members of what is now known as the Acting Company and was then known as Group 1 Acting Company when John Houseman formed it, in 1972. Houghton described Matthews as the perfect man for the Hay Fever directing job because of his “years of rich experience as an actor, tackling a huge range of both technically and emotionally driven theater.”
In an interview with The Journal, Matthews described Hay Fever as “an eight-person Chinese checkers” game in which characters attempt to best each other using wit and word play, building to a comedic release. And while typically, an American actor will look to the emotional needs of his character first, this play is, Matthews noted, “extremely technical—the actors must honor its complex form and style in order to bring it to life.” Matthews described Coward as “less like Chopin, and more like Mozart” since his comedy resides in the rhythms and melodies of his language, and less in deep emotional undertones. But he also insisted that even a play as technically demanding as Hay Fever must be grounded in human reality: it’s the dynamic conflict between etiquette and insanity, brought to life by vicious verbal fencing that reveals its human truth. The antics of the Bliss family serve as a distorted mirror for the audience to explore the extreme possibilities of human behavior.
The play’s comedic form doesn’t just demand technical mastery of language and comedic timing; it also requires an intimate knowledge of British culture and language. To that end, the Juilliard fourth-year actors have been reading novels and listening to music Coward wrote (each cast member is learning one of his songs as a preparatory exercise) in order to assimilate the feel and cadences of England between the world wars. Of course this rigorous experience is valuable for the actors, but will the antics of the Bliss family resonate in a world where the news is dominated by the ever greater displays of debauchery of Kim Kardashian?
Hay Fever had its premiere in 1925 on London’s West End and ran for more than 300 performances. Since then, it has had close to a dozen notable revivals over the years. But the Blisses are only as risqué as their “normal” counterparts are reserved. Do we as a society even have a sense of etiquette any longer? What is normal? Will the absurdity of the Blisses be apparent to our generation? As you watch their story unfold, ask yourself, who do you relate to more? The eccentric Bliss family, or the supposedly “normal” guests? You may be surprised to find that what Coward considered absurd is more commonplace than you thought.