Present Laughter is a comic play written by Noël Coward in 1939 and first staged in 1942 on tour, alternating with his lower middle-class domestic drama This Happy Breed. Later Coward's new play Blithe Spirit was added to the repertory for the tour. The play's title comes from a song in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which urges carpe diem ("present mirth hath present laughter"), and so the word present in the title should be pronounced as the adjective /ˈprɛzənt/, not the verb /prɨˈzɛnt/.
The plot follows a few days in the life of the successful and self-obsessed actor Garry Essendine as he prepares to travel for a touring commitment in Africa. Amid a series of events bordering on farce, Garry has to deal with women who want to seduce him, placate both his long-suffering secretary and his estranged wife, cope with a crazed young playwright, and overcome his fear of his own approaching fortieth birthday and, by implication, his impending mid-life crisis. The story was described by Coward as "a series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics".
Coward starred as Garry Essendine in Present Laughter during the original run. Later productions have featured actors such as Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Simon Callow and Ian McKellen in the lead role. The play has enjoyed numerous revivals in Europe and North America – including a U.S. tour in 1958 with Coward reprising the Essendine role.
Coward wrote, "Present Laughter is a very light comedy and was written with the sensible object of providing me with a bravura part". He completed the playscript (as well as the one for This Happy Breed) in 1939, before the outbreak of World War II, but did not produce the plays until 1942. Given the hero's repeated laments over his own ageing and mortality, the title can be seen as ironic. Coward acknowledged that the central character, the egocentric actor Garry Essendine, was a self-caricature. Coward repeats one of his signature theatrical devices at the end of the play, where the main characters tiptoe out as the curtain falls – a device that he also used in Private Lives, Hay Fever and Blithe Spirit.
The play was first produced in Blackpool in September 1942. Coward had served the British government in intelligence work in the early years of the war. Winston Churchill advised Coward that he could do more for the war effort by entertaining the troops and the home front than by attempts at intelligence work: "Go and sing to them when the guns are firing – that's your job!" Though disappointed, Coward followed this advice. He toured, acted and sang indefatigably in Europe, Africa, Asia and America. Coward premiered Present Laughter during his wartime tour of Britain after he returned to the theatre.
The notices were excellent, with The Observer writing: "Mr Coward’s production is so inventive, and his own performance so adroit in its mockery of the vain, posturing, and yet self-scrutinising and self-amused matinee idol, that Present Laughter is likely to be future mirth for as long as Mr Coward cares to run it." The Manchester Guardian added, "One is tempted to cast discretion to the winds and predict that this will be remembered as the best comedy of its kind and generation...one of those rare occasions when the critic must claim the privilege of his fellow-playgoers, simply to marvel, admire, and enjoy wholeheartedly." Coward brought the play to the Haymarket Theatre, London, in April 1947, where The Times praised it as "a wittily impudent and neatly invented burlesque of a French farce." Coward also played in a French translation, "Joyeux Chagrins" in Paris in 1948.
The play is published in Methuen's Noël Coward: Collected Plays Volume Four.
The play has been regularly revived. The first major West End revival was in 1965, with Nigel Patrick as Garry. The Times wrote, "plays as funny as this are no longer being written in England." Notable successors in the role of Garry include Albert Finney (1977), Peter O'Toole (1978), Donald Sinden (1981), Tom Conti (1993), Peter Bowles (1996), Ian McKellen (1998), Rik Mayall (2003), Simon Callow (2006), and Robert Bathurst (2009). The National Theatre revived the play in 2007 and 2008 with Alex Jennings as Garry. As many of the star actors have been significantly older than the fortyish Garry when they played the part, the text has sometimes been changed to refer to his imminent fiftieth birthday.
Present Laughter was first staged in the United States on 29 October 1946 at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway. It featured Clifton Webb as Garry. It closed in March 1947 after 158 performances. In 1958 Coward appeared in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles as Garry with Eva Gabor as Joanna. In 1982 George C. Scott directed and starred in a revival at Circle in the Square Theatre, which featured the Broadway début of Nathan Lane as Roland Maule. It also featured Kate Burton as Daphne, Christine Lahti as Joanna and Jim Piddock as Fred. It ran for 175 performances. In 1996 Frank Langella starred as Garry, and Allison Janney played Liz. This also ran for 175 performances, at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented the play in 2003 with Brent Harris as Garry and Kim Rhodes in the role of Daphne. The play was also presented in 2008 at the Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas.
A Broadway revival started in previews on January 2, 2010, with opening January 21 at the American Airlines Theatre, presented by the the Roundabout Theatre Company. Directed by Nicholas Martin the cast stars Victor Garber, Harriet Harris, and Brooks Ashmanskas.
All three acts of the play are set in Garry Essendine's London flat.
Daphne Stillington, a young admirer of the actor Garry Essendine, has inveigled herself into the flat and has spent the night there. Garry is still asleep, and while waiting for him to wake, Daphne encounters in turn three employees of Garry, housekeeper (Miss Erikson), valet (Fred), and secretary (Monica). None of them displays any surprise at her presence. Garry finally wakes and with practised smoothness ushers Daphne out.
Liz Essendine, who left Garry years ago, nevertheless remains part of his tightly-knit 'family' along with Monica and his manager, Morris Dixon, and his producer, Henry Lyppiatt. Liz suspects that Morris is having an affair with Henry's glamorous wife Joanna, and is concerned that this might break up the family. Their discussion is interrupted by the arrival of Roland Maule, a young aspiring playwright from Uckfield, whose play Garry has rashly agreed to critique. Liz leaves, and Roland rapidly becomes obsessively fascinated by Garry, who gets him off the premises as quickly as he can.
Morris and Henry arrive and discuss theatrical business with Garry. Henry leaves for a business trip abroad, and Garry privately interrogates Morris, who denies that he is having an affair with Joanna. Garry telephones Liz to reassure her.
Garry, alone in the flat, answers the doorbell to find Henry's wife, Joanna. She claims (like Daphne in Act I) to have forgotten her own doorkey and asks Garry to accommodate her in his spare room. He correctly suspects her motives, but after much skirmishing allows himself to be seduced.
Joanna emerges from the spare room wearing Garry's pyjamas just as Daphne did in Act I. She too encounters Miss Erikson, Fred, and then Monica, who is horrified at her presence in such compromising circumstances. Liz arrives and puts pressure on Joanna by threatening to tell Morris that Joanna has spent the night with Garry. Joanna retreats to the spare room when the doorbell rings, but the caller is not Morris but Roland Maule, who says he has an appointment with Garry. Monica leads him to an adjacent room to wait for Garry.
Frantic comings and goings follow, with the flustered arrivals and departures of Morris and Henry, Roland's pursuit of Garry, and the arrival of a Lady Saltburn whom Garry has promised an audition for her niece. The niece turns out to be Daphne Stillington, who recites him the same poem with which he bade her farewell in Act I. Joanna flounces out from the spare room, Daphne faints with horror, Roland is entranced, and Garry is apoplectic.
A week later, on the eve of Garry's departure on tour in Africa, he is once more alone in the flat. The doorbell rings and Daphne enters saying she has a ticket to sail with him to Africa. The doorbell rings again, and Daphne retreats to an adjoining room. The new caller is Roland, who announces that he too has a ticket for the voyage to Africa. Garry tries to get him to leave, but as the doorbell rings a third time Roland bolts into the spare room and locks the door. The third caller is Joanna, who has also bought a ticket for the Africa voyage and has written a letter to Henry and Morris telling them everything. Liz arrives and saves the tottering situation, announcing that she too is travelling to Africa.
Henry and Morris arrive and berate Garry for his night with Joanna. Garry fights back by revealing the details of Morris and Joanna's affair, and Henry's extramarital adventures. Joanna angrily slaps Garry's face and leaves for good. Her departure goes unnoticed because Garry, Henry and Morris have become embroiled in what for them is a much more serious row when it emerges that Henry and Morris have committed Garry to appear at what he considers a shockingly unsuitable theatre. Garry objects, "I will not play a light French comedy to an auditorium that looks like a Gothic edition of Wembley Stadium." When that row has blown itself out, it is business as usual and Henry and Morris leave in good humour.
Liz pours Garry a brandy and tells him she is not only going to Africa with him but is coming back to him for good. Garry suddenly remembers Daphne and Roland lurking in the adjoining rooms and tells Liz, "You're not coming back to me... I'm coming back to you", and they tiptoe out.
In the 1970s Peter Hall wrote "what a wonderful play it would be if – as Coward must have wanted – all those love affairs were about homosexuals". Whether or not Coward would have agreed, in the 1940s the transformation of real-life gay relationships into onstage straight ones was essential. The play nevertheless contains many references to Coward's own life. Monica is "unmistakably Lorn Loraine", Coward's long-serving and much loved secretary. Morris has been seen as Coward's agent and sometime lover Jack Wilson, and Henry as Binkie Beaumont. Liz, played originally by Joyce Carey, is thought to be based partly on the actress herself, who was a member of Coward's inner circle.