“A series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics,” is how Noël Coward described his comic play Present Laughter, which comes to us in July, in a new production starring Samuel West. But how autobiographical is it really?
The play tells the story of actor Gary Essendine, a charming actor – with a receding hairline and a penchant for temper tantrums. As he turns 40, Gary has to deal with a crazed young playwright, women trying to seduce him, his long-suffering secretary and his ex-wife, as well as an impending mid-life crisis. Autobiographical, you say, Mr Coward?
Let’s look at the facts. Noël Pierce Coward was born on 16 December, 1899 in Teddington in south-west London, the son of a piano salesman and a naval captain’s daughter. Coward was sent to a dance academy by his ambitious mother, and made his professional stage debut at the age of just eleven. It was as a result of his involvement in the theatrical world that he was introduced to the high society world which would be the setting of many of his plays.
So by the time Present Laughter (the play’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which contains the line “present mirth has present laughter”) was written in 1939, Noël was indeed aged 40, and an actor (he even played the role of Essendine when the play was performed for the first time in 1942). Photographs of Coward from the time even show a receding hairline. If Mr Coward threw tantrums, his contemporaries were too polite to record the fact.
But one aspect of the play certainly wasn’t autobiographical, and in the climate of the time, never could have been. While the fictional Essendine dallies with a bevy of females, Coward was homosexual, something banned in Britain until 1967. Even after this, he refused to acknowledge it publicly, saying by way of explanation, “There are a few little old ladies in Worthing who don’t know,” although he encouraged his secretary Cole Lesley to write a frank biography for publication once Coward was safely dead.
Coward’s homosexuality was probably the real reason behind Winston Churchill’s decision to block George VI’s wish to award Coward a knighthood for his war time work, both as an entertainer and with the secret service. The official reason Churchill gave to the King was that Coward had been fined for a minor breach of war time currency regulations.
Perhaps Coward had the last laugh though, as he was eventually knighted in 1969. Many of his plays, including Present Laughter, are still regularly performed, and are considered to be classics.
Present Laughter: Tuesday 19 to Saturday 23 July. Book here.