Present Laughter: A Light Comedy In Three Acts, by Noël Coward
I enjoy light comedic drama , and although this piece is fairly obscure, it is an enjoyable drama nonetheless, with some moral reservations. Laughter is generally a way we distance ourselves from situations, and in this play such laughter would be particularly likely, both because the lead character’s situation is so deeply awkward and uncomfortable and because it would be the sort of situation that one would want not to think about very deeply at all. Alas, in this particular reader there is someone who can relate to the extreme awkwardness of the situation all too well, even if the precise situation is not one I am familiar with or likely to ever be familiar with. With a large cast, this play is precisely the sort that would be ripe for revival, spring as it does from the period just after World War II when the world was ready for light comedies and probably looking for more than a little bit of distraction from the years of doom and gloom that had been offered to the public for years previously.
The contents of this book are as follows. An introductory note comments on the cast of size and the success of the play in its presentation in New York and its even more successful performance in London. Then there is a note on the original cast (none of whom were actors I had ever heard about) and a synopsis of the three act play. Afterwards the drama follows, with Act one being the longest and Act three being the shortest. The setup of the play is an aging actor who has just turned 40 and is trying to prepare to travel to Africa to take his show on the road finding complications with women who keep on losing their key and asking to stay with him for the night, his estranged wife who he never bothered to divorce coming back into his life, the fierce loyalty of his secretary, and drama involving the marriage difficulties of his two best friends. The play itself manages the screwball nature of the difficulties well, and eventually the truth comes out in the third act, leading everyone involved to travel with Garry Essendine (the actor) with him to Africa whether he likes it or not. While there might be present laughter, one gets the feeling there will be a lot of frustration and irritation that are soon to come given the volatile mix of personalities this play has. After the action the play has a detailed pop listing for those who wish to revive the play, and at just over 100 pages this is a book that definitely does not overstay its welcome.
At its heart this is a play about awkwardness. Garry is aging and feeling old, something I can relate to, and his popularity as an actor leads him to attract women who show themselves to be rather too persistent for the mild man. The awkwardness results from too many people in his life that he simply cannot get rid of. At the core the protagonist is an honest and decent man, and so he easily wins the sympathy of a sophisticated audience aware of the complications that often result in life, and who may have dealt with enough people whose presence in our lives and surroundings leads to all kinds of awkwardness. There are a few jokes about Peer Gynt as well for those of us who are fond of the theater (and Ibsen in particular) and overall the play is a light comedy that is light as long as one does not think too much about the implications of the play’s action for the awkwardness in so many of our own lives. Overall, it is an excellent work that deserves attention for fans of comedy.
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