Hay Fever is a comic play written by Noël Coward in 1924 and first produced in 1925 with Marie Tempest as the first Judith Bliss. Laura Hope Crews played the role in New York. Best described as a cross between high farce and a comedy of manners, the play is set in an English country house in the 1920s, and deals with the four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behaviour when they each invite a guest to spend the weekend. The self-centred behaviour of the hosts finally drives their guests to flee while the Blisses are so engaged in a family row that they do not notice their guests' furtive departure.
Some writers have seen elements of Mrs. Astley Cooper and her set in the characters of the Bliss family. Coward said that the actress Laurette Taylor was the main model. Coward introduces one of his signature theatrical devices at the end of the play, where the four guests tiptoe out as the curtain falls, leaving disorder behind them – a device that he also used in various forms in Present Laughter, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit.
In 1921, Coward first visited New York City, hoping that American producers would embrace his plays. During that summer, he befriended the playwright Hartley Manners and his wife, the eccentric actress Laurette Taylor. Their "over-the-top theatrical lifestyle" later inspired him in writing Hay Fever.
Coward wrote the play in three days in 1924, intending the lead role of Judith Bliss for the actress Marie Tempest, "whom I revered and adored". Though she found it amusing, she thought it not substantial enough for a whole evening, but changed her mind after the success of Coward's The Vortex later in 1924. Hay Fever opened at the Ambassadors Theatre on 8 June 1925 and transferred to the larger Criterion Theatre on 7 September 1925 and ran for 337 performances. Coward remembered in 1964 that the notices "were amiable and well-disposed although far from effusive. It was noted, as indeed it has been today, that the play had no plot and that there were few if any 'witty' lines."
The original cast was as follows:
Sorel and Simon Bliss, a brother and sister, exchange artistic and bohemian dialogue. Judith, their mother, displays the absent-minded theatricality of a retired star actress, and David, their father, a novelist, is concentrating on finishing his latest book. Each of the four members of the Bliss family, without consulting the others, has invited a guest for the weekend. Judith announces that she has decided to return to the stage in one of her old hits, Love's Whirlwind. She and Sorel and Simon amuse themselves acting out a melodramatic passage from the play beginning, "Is this a game?" "Yes, and a game that must be played to the finish!" They are interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.
Clara, Judith's former dresser and now her housekeeper, opens the door to the first of the four guests, Sandy Tyrell, a sporty fan of Judith's. The next arrival is the vampish Myra Arundel, whom Simon has invited. The other two guests arrive together, Richard Greatham, a diplomat, and Jackie Coryton a brainless but good-hearted young flapper. Tea is served. Conversation is stilted and eventually grinds to a halt. The scene ends in total and awkward silence.
The family insists that everyone should join in a parlour game, a variety of charades in which one person must guess the adverb being acted out by the others. The Blisses are in their element, but the guests flounder and the game breaks up. Simon and Jackie exit to the garden, Sorel drags Sandy into the library, and David takes Myra outside.
Left alone with Richard, Judith flirts with him, and when he chastely kisses her she theatrically overreacts as though they were conducting a serious affair. She nonplusses Richard by talking of breaking the news to David. She in turn is nonplussed to discover Sandy and Sorel kissing in the library. That too has been mere flirtation, but both Judith and Sorel enjoy themselves by exaggerating it. Judith gives a performance nobly renouncing her claim on Sandy, and exits. Sorel explains to Sandy that she was just playing the theatrical game for Judith's benefit, as "one always plays up to Mother in this house; it's a sort of unwritten law." They leave.
David and Myra enter. They too indulge in a little light flirtation, at the height of which Judith enters and finds them kissing. She makes a theatrical scene, with which David dutifully plays along. Simon rushes in violently, announcing that he and Jackie are engaged. Sorel and Sandy enter from the library, Judith goes into yet another bout of over-theatrical emoting. In the ensuing uproar, Richard asks "Is this a game?" Judith, Sorel and Simon seize on this cue from Love's Whirlwind and trot out the melodramatic dialogue as they had in Act I. David is overcome with laughter and the uncomprehending guests are dazed and aghast as Judith ends the scene by falling to the floor as if in a faint.
A breakfast table has been laid in the hall. Sandy enters and begins eating nervously. At the sound of someone approaching he escapes into the library. Jackie enters, helps herself to some breakfast and bursts into tears. Sandy comes out and they discuss how uncomfortable they were the night before and how mad the Bliss family are. When they hear people approaching, they both retreat to the library. Myra and Richard now enter and begin breakfast. Their conversation mirrors that of Sandy and Jackie, who emerge from the library to join them. All four decide that they are going to return to London without delay. Sandy agrees to drive them in his motor car. They go upstairs to collect their things.
Judith comes down, asks Clara for the Sunday papers and begins reading aloud what the gossip columns say about her. The rest of her family enter. David proposes to read them the final chapter of his novel. Immediately, a minor detail about the geography of Paris is blown into a full-scale family row, with everyone talking at once about whether the Rue Saint-Honoré does or does not connect with the Place de la Concorde and hurling insults at each other. They are so wrapped up in their private row that they do not notice when the four visitors tiptoe down the stairs and out of the house. The Blisses are only momentarily distracted when the slam of the door alerts them to the flight of their guests. Judith comments, "How very rude!" and David adds, "People really do behave in the most extraordinary manner these days." Then, with no further thought of their four tormented guests, they happily return to David's manuscript and to what passes for their normal family life.
The first London revival was in 1933 at the Shaftesbury Theatre with Constance Collier as Judith. Hay Fever has been revived numerous times around the world since then. A 1964 National Theatre production of Hay Fever, starring Edith Evans and Maggie Smith with Coward directing, was part of the revival of interest in his work toward the end of his life. When invited to direct the production, Coward wrote, "I am thrilled and flattered and frankly a little flabbergasted that the National Theatre should have had the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine and to give it a cast that could play the Albanian telephone directory."
Notable cast members in major revivals include:
New York, Maxine Elliott's Theater, 1925
New York, Avon Theater, 1931
London, National Theatre (Old Vic), 1964
New York, Helen Hayes Theater, 1970
New York, Music Box Theater, 1985
London, Albery Theatre, 1992
London, Savoy Theatre, 1999
London, Haymarket Theatre, 2006
A UK tour in early 2007
Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, 2008
A UK television production in 1960 featured Edith Evans as Judith Bliss and Maggie Smith as Jackie Coryton. They later played in Hay Fever on stage under the author's direction in the National Theatre revival in 1964 with Smith switching from the ingénue role of Jackie to that of the vampish Myra. Other members of the television cast were Pamela Brown, George Devine, Paul Eddington and Richard Wattis. The Times reviewed this broadcast, calling Hay Fever "Mr Noel Coward’s best play... one of the most perfectly engineered comedies of the century." A further UK television production in 1968 included Lucy Fleming as Sorel, Ian McKellen as Simon, Celia Johnson as Judith, Dennis Price as David, Richard Briers as Sandy, Anna Massey as Myra, Charles Gray as Richard, and Vickery Turner as Jackie.