A fast-paced and witty bedroom farce of the 1930s, Present Laughter was written by Coward as a vehicle in which he himself planned to star, and it may well reflect some of the less attractive aspects of his own life. The play concerns a well-known, 40-ish actor, Gary Essendine, who is about to set off for a series of performances in Africa. Essendine enjoys all the perks of stardom, including women who can't resist him, fawning fans, and late nights of partying, followed by late mornings of undisturbed sleeping. Though he is married to Liz, they have been separated for a couple of years, and neither minds the other's dalliances, or the serial dalliances of their circle of friends.
In the course of the play, several women "forget their latch keys" and have to spend the night at Essendine's apartment, where his secretary, valet, and housekeeper hide them to keep succeeding visitors from discovering them. One of them, Joanna, is married to Essendine's friend Henry, but she has had a long-standing affair with another friend, Morris, and she seduces Essendine in the course of the play. In the midst of all this deception, a young playwright also arrives, wanting to know if Essendine has read his play, at the same time confessing to having an obsession with Essendine himself, before he is shuttled off to the office when yet another unexpected visitor arrives.
As is always the case with Coward, each scene sets the stage for the next scene, and the play unfolds with dramatic ease and considerable dramatic irony. The characterizations are exaggerated for comic effect, and the dialogue is witty, with many tongue-in-cheek remarks, as the all-consuming game of "musical beds," "heartfelt" confessions, and diabolical scheming takes place. Fast pace is crucial to the action, demanding the split second appearances and disappearances of some characters as new characters enter and depart.
Though the hijinx are distinctly sexual, the play maintains an elegance of language and an on-stage formality. The clever repartee never descends to vulgarity, and the love scenes all take place off-stage. Universal in its observations of human nature, this play is still being revived and finding audiences after more than half a century. This play and Private Lives are Coward at his best. Mary Whipple