Shaw Festival Review Series: PRESENT LAUGHTER
YA novelist, Hermine Steinberg, reviews Noel Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’ at the Shaw Festival.
Tyler Cowen wrote that with the growth of universal equality and freedom in Western society individuals who wished to gain personal power and influence were forced to “cultivate personal style as the antidote to formal democratic equality”.
Noel Coward banked his career on this premise. He was affectionately referred to as “The Master” not only because of his versatility and talent but his ability to charm – in fact, raising charm to an art in itself. Time Magazine claimed his “sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise” maintained his popularity. He was one of the most loved entertainers of his day and Noel Coward admittedly nurtured that love by carefully crafting his public persona.
In this day and age, when the cult of celebrity has produced adoring fans for people who have never accomplished anything other than becoming famous, it is difficult to hear the harsh criticism so often now levelled at Coward for the superficiality of his plays. Just as he elevated charm to a higher level, so did he create light comedies such as Present Laughter, which were meant to momentarily relieve the fear and insecurities of a nation faced with Depression and then war.
Present Laughter was written in 1939 and first performed in 1942. It was intended as escapism, pure and simple. It was considered somewhat titillating and daring in its time; amusing audiences by showing the superficiality of the lives of the wealthy, while offering them a glimpse of a privileged life to which they aspired. Surprisingly, this play that explores the trials and tribulations of the cult of celebrity is as relevant today as it was when Coward first wrote it.
Garry Essendine is the debonair and egomaniac matinee idol who is about to embark on a trip to Africa when all hell breaks loose. His uncontrollable womanizing and vanity have complicated his life to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Confronting his middle-age and feeling the growing burden of an entourage that depends on him, he finds himself in the middle of a “crisis” that threatens his self-made ‘family’ and self-indulgent lifestyle. Surrounded by determined women who all want him; a star struck young ingénue, a femme fatale who is married to his friend and business partner, and his estranged wife who remains his close friend and manager, his life spins out of control. To top it all off, he is being stalked by a crazed young man who forces his way into his apartment. Pleasant Laughter is well stocked with the witticisms, ironic comedy, and farcical situations that established Coward as one of the most significant play writes of the 20th century.