- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
NOEL COWARD 1930
Private Lives is considered a prime example of the sophisticated comedies of Noel Coward, one of the most-prominent dramatists of his era. An over-whelming critical and commercial success when it was first produced in 1930, Private Lives remains a standard of repertory and non-professional theatre companies everywhere and has entertained audiences for well over half a century.
The action of the play concerns a divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda, who meet on their respective honeymoons to second spouses. They realize that they are still in love with each other and should never have divorced; they abandon their new spouses and run off together, though they are soon caught up in the same violent arguments that originally plagued their stormy marriage. This simple, somewhat contrived situation provides all the structure Coward requires to display his eccentric wit and deft comedic stagecraft, which are considered the main strengths of the play. The protagonists lampoon the hypocrisies and pretensions of modern manners and social conventions and seek true love regardless of the cost to their reputations. Once they free themselves from the “outside world,” however, their inner passions and jealousies (their “private lives”) consume them, leaving them trapped in an inescapable cycle of love and hate.
Expressed in such terms, the plot resembles that of a tragedy, but Coward (who acted the role of Elyot himself in the early productions) fashions Page 301 | Top of Articlefrom it a fast-paced comedy, moving from misfortune to full-blown absurdity before tragedy has time to take hold. Prone to cynicism and irreverence, his glamorous upper-class characters seem incapable of taking much of anything seriously for long—a condition which usually proves contagious for the audience as well. Often accused of wasting his evident talent on superficial entertainments, Coward firmly believed the theatre existed for people’s amusement, not to teach or reform them. On these terms, Private Lives is considered one of the enduring successes of modern comedic theatre.
Noel Peirce Coward is celebrated as one of the most prominent and prolific talents of the modern British theater. His witty, sophisticated comedies were immensely popular in the early part of the twentieth century and have been widely performed ever since. A theatrical jack-of-all-trades, Coward made his mark not only as a playwright but as an actor, director, producer, songwriter, and lyricist; he also wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, and several volumes of autobiography, as well as being a popular night-club entertainer. In a career that spanned over a half-century, he was associated with most of the leading personalities of the London stage. A show business legend and renowned raconteur (a person skilled in telling amusing stories or anecdotes), Coward was known to his contemporaries as much for his off-stage personality as for his many professional accomplishments.
Born on December 16, 1899, in Teddington-on-Thames, Middlesex, England, Coward was drawn to the stage in early childhood. Encouraged by his parents, he made his professional acting debut at the age of twelve and had begun writing plays and songs by the time he was twenty. In 1925, his reputation as a playwright was established by the hit comedy Hay Fever. Over the next twenty years he produced a string of critical and commercial successes, including Bitter Sweet (1929), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1933), Tonight at Eight-Thirty (1936), Blithe Spirit (1941), and Present Laughter (1942).
While the majority of Coward’s work consists of satiric “comedies of manners” (dramatic works that poke fun at the manners and fashions of a particular social class) and musical revues, his style also encompassed elements of melodrama, modern
psychological theatrics, and social drama. During World War II, he wrote two plays celebrating British nationalism and ideals (This Happy Breed  and Peace in Our Time ) and the film In Which We Serve, a tribute to the British Royal Navy, which he co-directed with noted film director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai).
After the War, Coward’s popularity faded somewhat, due in part to changing tastes among audiences and critics; though he remained a prominent Page 302 | Top of Articlefigure in the theatrical world, his slightly-darker stage comedies of this period (including South Sea Bubble  and Nude with Violin ) failed to elicit the same enthusiasm as his lighter pre-war triumphs. While his work for the stage diminished, he continued to write short fiction, and his 1960 novel, Pomp and Circumstance, was a bestseller. His published diaries and reminiscences also found a wide audience, particularly an early autobiography, Present Indicative (1937) and its sequel, Future Indefinite (1954).
Coward died of a heart attack on March 26, 1973, in Blue Harbor, Jamaica. Among his many honors, he was given the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (Best Foreign Play, 1942, for Blithe Spirit), a Special Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1942, for In Which We Serve), and a Special Tony Award from the League of American Theatres and Producers in 1970. Coward was knighted in 1970 and memorialized in Westminster Abbey in 1984.
The setting is the terrace of an elegant hotel on the French Riviera; two separate suites open onto it, from either side of the stage. This simple situation contains a number of remarkable coincidences, as the audience quickly learns in a series of brief, mirror-image episodes. Each suite is occupied by a honeymooning couple, fresh from the altar: Elyot and Sibyl Chase on one side, and Victor and Amanda Prynne on the other. Elyot and Amanda were each previously married, a matter of some anxiety to their new spouses; in fact, they happen to have been married to each other, a three-year union they both describe as an intolerable round of violent arguments and passionate jealousies. Five years after their divorce, each is starting off on a new life, with what seems to be a more stable and manageable partner. Adding to the coincidence, they happen to have married at the same time . . . and to have chosen the same hotel for their honeymoon . . . and to have been assigned adjoining suites.
Each couple makes an appearance on the terrace, then goes back inside, in a series of alternating episodes and near-misses that establishes the complex situation. The honeymoons are not starting well, for Sibyl and Victor each persist in asking about their new spouses’ first marriages. Annoyed, Elyot and Amanda both profess to be far happier with their new mates but also give indications of already becoming bored by them. Finally, Amanda and Elyot notice each other, without coming face-to-face, and react with panic. They rush to their spouses, each demanding to leave the hotel immediately, but neither Sibyl nor Victor will agree to such a sudden change in their honeymoon plans. The result is each new couple’s “first quarrel,” with Victor stalking off to the bar and Sibyl to the hotel casino. Left alone, Elyot and Amanda finally confront each other again.
Sharing the cocktails their spouses have abandoned, they behave coolly, making civil small talk, inquiring about the new spouses, toasting each other’s happiness, and light-heartedly reminiscing over their disastrous marriage. The hotel orchestra (playing in the garden below the terrace) strikes up an old love song, and Amanda sings along while Elyot watches her intently. Their reactions suggest that it had been “their song” when they were a couple; when the music ends, Amanda is fighting back tears. After an awkward moment, their reminiscences grow more regretful. They ascribe their marital fireworks to having been “ridiculously over in love.” “To hell with love,” Amanda vows; love had led them into “selfishnessness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy.” And yet, she observes, here they are, “starting afresh with two quite different people. In love all over again, aren’t we?” Elyot fails to answer at first, then gives the answer she doesn’t want to hear: “No. . . . We’re not in love all over again, and you know it.” Saying goodnight, he turns abruptly back toward his suite.
Amanda is panic-stricken, and calls him back. The moment, the music, and the memories have clearly rekindled their former passion, but she refuses to face that fact, asking him to divert her with small talk until she can pull herself together. The effort fails miserably, however, and they soon confirm that they are—and have always been—in love. After some negotiations, they agree to elope immediately, abandoning the people they have just married and escaping to an apartment Amanda keeps in Paris. Worried that they will soon ruin their love all over again with their arguing, Amanda insists on a promise “never to quarrel again,” to be enforced by a code-phrase, “Solomon Isaacs.” When they feel a fight developing, one or the other will say “Solomon Isaacs,” a signal for two minutes of silence (“with an option of renewal”) in which to cool down. Agreeing to the pact, they Page 303 | Top of Articleescape. The act ends with the jilted Victor and Sibyl returning to the terrace, discovering their common plight, and trying to absorb it all as they drink the cocktails Elyot and Amanda have left behind.
A few days later, the scene picks up the fugitive couple in Amanda’s well-appointed Paris flat, savoring their sudden happiness. They have sent the maid home and are relaxing in cozy domestic bliss. Throughout this Act, their rambling conversations reveal the mixed emotions of their situation. The ever-shifting flow of talk runs into three alternating streams: the exchange of romantic endearments, coupled with witty banter that parodies aristocratic manners; the revival of “old scores” from their marriage, leading to arguments that are only headed off by the invocation of Solomon Isaacs (who is soon abbreviated to “Sollocks” for economy’s sake); and anxious speculation about the future—what to do when Victor and Sibyl catch up to them—and whether they will make their love work out this time around. Soon Elyot grows passionately romantic, but Amanda is not in the mood. His resentment at her refusal escalates into a battle that is just barely contained with an urgent “triple Sollocks.”
In the calm following this storm, Elyot sits down to the piano and begins playing idly. Amanda joins him and they sing several old songs together, concluding with “their” song from the terrace scene. The sudden ring of the telephone breaks their reverie. Although it turns out to be a wrong number, their first, terrified thought is that it is Victor and Sibyl. “What shall we do if they suddenly walk in on us?,” Elyot asks; “Behave exquisitely,” Amanda replies airily. But the phone call has shaken her composure; as she grows somber (speculating that happiness like theirs cannot last), Elyot earnestly tells her not to be serious. He urges her to “be flippant” and “laugh at everything”—including themselves, their love, and the inevitability of death. “Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers,” he rhapsodizes; “Let’s blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can, like very small, quite idiotic school-children.”
A tender moment follows but soon another “skeleton” from the past is being tossed around, an affair Elyot had suspected during their marriage. Tempers rise quickly, until Amanda calls him a “ridiculous ass,” and turns on the record-player to shut him out. Elyot turns it off, and a battle for the machine ensues. Elyot hastily calls for the truce of “Sollocks,” but this time the skirmish will not be contained. “Sollocks yourself,” Amanda cries furiously, smashing the phonograph record over his head. “You spiteful little beast,” he answers, slapping her in the face. They settle down to a full-scale brawl, with lamps and vases flying, furniture overturned, unrestrained verbal assaults, and slapstick choreography. As they roll on the floor in what Coward describes as “paroxysms of rage,” Victor and Sibyl enter through the front door, and gape at the combatants in silent shock. The struggle continues until Amanda knocks Elyot down, rushes through a side door, and slams it behind her. He jumps up, runs into the room opposite hers, and slams the door. As Victor and Sibyl creep inside and sink wordlessly onto the sofa, the curtain falls.
At 8:30 the next morning, amid the debris from last night’s battle, Victor sleeps on a sofa blocking the doorway to Amanda’s room, while Sibyl is similarly encamped at Elyot’s door. Louise, the maid, arrives for work, waking the jilted spouses. Amanda soon emerges from her room with a packed suitcase and heads for the door; cut off from escape, she is “gracefully determined to rise above the situation.” Acting the role of the perfect hostess, she arranges for Louise to bring breakfast out. Elyot completes the group and is upbraided by Victor for his “flippant” attitude towards the situation; soon they are on the verge of coming to blows, and Amanda and Sibyl withdraw to another room. Elyot refuses to fight, however; he argues that it would prove nothing and would only satisfy the “primitive feminine instincts” of the women, who want to be fought over. Victor tries to discuss the legal details of their situation, but Elyot storms off to his room, calling him a “rampaging gas bag.”
Sibyl soon joins Elyot in his room, leaving Victor and Amanda to negotiate a settlement. At first, they agree that Victor will sue for divorce immediately while Amanda exiles herself in some foreign country. Victor soon softens his position, however, offering to live apart but delay a formal divorce to protect her reputation. Sibyl and Elyot emerge and announce that they have reached a similar decision: she will not divorce him for a year.
Louise brings breakfast, and the four settle down awkwardly to dine. Amanda makes light conversation in an effort to smooth over the discomfort, but Elyot will not play along: he mocks her “proper” manners, and soon disrupts her composure. As she “chokes violently,” Victor again assails Page 304 | Top of ArticleElyot’s flippancy, while Sibyl defends her husband. Soon Victor and Sibyl are arguing lustily; for three days they’ve been getting on each other’s nerves and their anger now comes spilling out, as Elyot and Amanda watch in amazement. As the argument escalates, they laugh to themselves, and Elyot blows Amanda a kiss across the table. Their spouses don’t even notice as they rise and walk silently to the front door, hand-in-hand. Sibyl slaps Victor, he shakes her violently, and Elyot and Amanda, with their suitcases, go smilingly out the door, as the curtain falls.
The witty and cynical Elyot is the male lead, whose love/hate relationship with Amanda forms the centerpiece of Private Lives. Though his occupation (if any) is unidentified, he is wealthy and fashionable, accustomed to luxury, and self-indulgent. In conversation, his habit is to “be flippant” and mock traditional social conventions; if he has a philosophy, it lies in his refusal to ever be serious, in defiance of “all the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable.” He holds to no Great Truths; everything is “nonsense” in the long run, nothing is eternal, and the intelligent response is to live for the moment and savor all pleasures, to “be superficial and pity the poor philosophers” who search for higher meanings and moral truths.
For all his eloquent rebellion, however, Elyot has his insecurities, and is not unaffected by social expectations. At the play’s beginning, he has willingly entered into a conventional marriage; though it appears doomed and promises to be unfulfilling for him, he is resigned (before meeting Amanda again) to acting out the shallow role of husband. Confronted by Victor in Act III, he doesn’t defend his actions, admitting that he is completely in the wrong, and that his flippancy is meant “to cover a very real embarrassment.” Though he is wise to its hypocrisies, Elyot is not immune to society’s demands—just as he is not immune to his attraction for Amanda, despite the bitter history of their marriage, and the violent jealousies they inspire in each other.
Sibyl is Elyot’s second wife, seven years younger than her husband; but although she is the newlywed “Mrs. Chase,” she is quickly thrown together with Victor Prynne by their shared fate. From the end of the first Act, she and Victor become a kind of “couple,” traveling together as they seek justice from their wandering spouses. As a couple, they balance the central pairing of Elyot and Amanda, and while they are the “wronged parties,” they are meant to receive little sympathy from the audience. As Coward has sketched them, they contrast unfavorably in every sense with the passionate, witty couple at the heart of the action.
In comparison to Amanda, Sibyl is shallow, inexperienced, and unreflective, dutifully acting out her social roles with a false, exaggerated femininity. As the blushing bride, she is bubbly and romantic, deferring to her husband and denying any intention to “manage” or run his life. Cast as the abandoned wife, she gives way to dramatic tears and self-pity, while demonstrating an ability to “manage” both Victor and Elyot in order to get her way. Coward leaves her character relatively undeveloped; like Victor, she is a superficial foil for the sophisticated protagonists, Elyot and Amanda.
Louise is the maid at Amanda’s Paris flat, a minor character; she appears briefly in Act III, primarily to serve breakfast to the four protagonists.
As Coward’s heroine, Amanda is sharp-witted and glamorous, strong-willed and passionate. By abandoning Victor (and by being sexually active while unmarried), she defies the conventional, reserved, and subordinate role for her gender—especially as dictated by the society of the first half of the twentieth century. Her relationship with Elyot, though hopelessly plagued by their hateful bickering, also offers a more equal—and honest—alliance than that with the stodgy Victor: she and Elyot are intellectual equals and comfortable companions, at least in the moments between their violent conflicts.
Though she and Elyot mock the formalities of aristocratic manners, Amanda is well-versed in social conventions and their power to smooth over conflicts. If Elyot’s philosophy is to “be flippant,” hers is to “behave exquisitely”; like Elyot’s, Amanda’s strategy serves to cover the embarrassment of facing the consequences of their actions and Page 305 | Top of Articleto distance herself from the uncomfortable realities of their volatile relationship.
Steadfastly conventional and self-consciously masculine, Victor is the conservative counterpart to Elyot’s rebellious flippancy. Habitually “serious,” proper, and moderate in all things, he is paternally protective of Amanda; yet his formal, dignified posturing seems to cover a bland and passionless nature. When he confronts Elyot in Act III, he strikes a belligerent pose, but Elyot sees through his blustering threats, calling him “all fuss and fume, one of these cotton-wool Englishmen”; unable to defend his own position, Elyot nonetheless expresses contempt for Victor: “[I]f you had a spark of manliness in you, you’d have shot me.” In defense of his and Sibyl’s “honor,” Victor presents a caricature of manly chivalry, which evaporates completely when it is confronted and questioned by Elyot: his violence is easily neutralized by Elyot’s clever argumentation, but when his temper is roused, he is not above striking the woman he claims to defend. Like Sibyl, he is an underdeveloped character, a dull stereotype who serves as a background to highlight the brilliance of the unconventional protagonists.
Public vs. Private Life
As a “comedy of manners,” Private Lives deals with the conventions and social rituals by which a person presents their “public” self to the world—and with the “private” passions and motivations that lie beneath the veneer of etiquette and respectability. The title comes from a speech Amanda makes early in the first Act. “I think very few people are completely normal, deep down in their private lives,” she muses. “It all depends on a combination of circumstances;” given the right conditions, “there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.” She soon illustrates the point by impulsively running off with Elyot, in contradiction to law, social taboo, and the marriage vows she has just taken—yet in accordance with her personal needs and private desires.
Victor and Sibyl represent the traditional, “normal” modes of behavior for their gender-roles. He is conservative and reliable, moderate in all things, and paternally protective of his bride; she is bubbly and romantic, given to dramatic emotional displays, expecting (and needing) to be “taken care of” by her man. Coward sketches them as shallow, comic exaggerations of their types: Victor is a stodgy, blustering charade of “rugged grandeur,” while Sibyl is a coquettish “flapper,” flighty, empty-headed, and demanding. Neither appears capable of an original thought, and the sympathies of the audience are clearly meant for Elyot and Amanda, in their rebellion against the restrictive bonds of convention. Glamorous and witty, Elyot and Amanda lampoon “respectable” manners mercilessly and dare to follow their hearts, regardless of the social consequences.
These appealing “social outlaws” do not live happily ever after, however. Once free to “be themselves,” they are soon fighting like animals, despite their best intentions and the great love they have for each other. On one side, Coward presents social conventions as silly and restrictive, causing people to repress their “private lives” or urges and behave hypocritically. But he also suggests that they have an important, and necessary,“civilizing” effect; without them, the worst of human nature
arises and people become slaves to violent passions and petty jealousies. Manners and rules give life a structure, helping to manage and mediate the inevitable conflicts that arise when people interact.
For all their rebellion and mockery, Elyot and Amanda are fluent in social ritual and deploy it strategically throughout the play: in their pact that the magic words “Solomon Isaacs” will halt their quarreling, for example, and in Amanda’s resolve to “behave exquisitely” when Victor and Sibyl catch up with them. In Act III, she does exactly that, acting the perfect hostess amid the debris of her brawl with Elyot, who admires her cool ability to “carry off the most embarrassing situation with such tact, and delicacy.” Confronted at last by Sybil and Victor, Elyot observes that the four of them have “no prescribed etiquette to fall back upon”; in such a case, his habitual response is cynical “flippancy,” while Amanda relies on the very social conventions they have both been ridiculing. In the end, the wronged-but-ridiculous spouses are beaten at their own game; the outlaws escape the (public) consequences of their transgressions, at least temporarily, while their conventional counterparts descend to the same savage passions that have plagued Elyot and Amanda’s stormy love.
Love and Passion
Like the protagonists in a sentimental romance, Elyot and Amanda seem meant for each other, drawn together by a deep, inescapable love that overrides all other concerns (and common sense). Coward uses them, however, to refute the conventions of romantic love: instead of bringing contentment and fulfillment, “True Love” has the couple locked in a passionate death-grip, tossing them helplessly between the extremes of love and hate, pleasure and pain.
Having married for love and found it a disaster, Amanda and Elyot try to make “safer” choices in their second marriages; each envisions a steadier, if less-passionate alliance, with a more-manageable, less-sophisticated partner. Elyot tells Sibyl that love should be “kind, and undramatic. Something steady and sweet, to smooth out your nerves when you’re tired. Something tremendously cozy; and unflurried by scenes and jealousies.” Similarly, Amanda assures Victor that their love will last, because she loves him more “calmly” than she loved Elyot. But the spark of the old couple’s reunion instantly reveals these platitudes as pure self-deception: very often, love is not “calm” or easily-managed but an uncontrollable force that disarms self-control, dispels reason, and sweeps people away with the force of its passion. As embodied by Amanda and Elyot, love can be both a blessing and a curse; it intoxicates and elates but can just as quickly lead to “selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, [and] petty jealousy.” “To hell with love,” Amanda vows—just before she risks everything for it, once again. She and Elyot are veterans in the battle of the sexes, wise to love’s traps and minefields, but their wisdom fails to bring them the least bit of immunity from the pitfalls of love.
While Coward is known for his witty dialogue, his work is relatively short on quotable “punch-lines” Page 307 | Top of Articleor one-liners, the kind of which define the comedic style of writers like playwright Neil Simon (The Odd Couple) and filmmaker Woody Allen (Annie Hall). The humor of Private Lives depends greatly on its expert stagecraft and carefully-balanced construction. In his introduction to the anthology Play Parade, Coward modestly describes the play as “a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and provide contrast.” This self-deprecating assessment points to two of the playwright’s strengths: his awareness of the abilities of the “experienced performers” with whom he worked, and his attention to contrast and symmetry.
Coward used actors he knew; he often tailored his fictional characters to match his thespians personalities and physical traits, and he paced his dialogue to fit these actors’ timing and delivery. (Private Lives was specifically written for Gertrude Lawrence, who essayed Amanda, and Coward himself; the pair had worked together often before starring in the play’s first production.) As Enoch Brater noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Coward’s language “is not by itself inherently funny; what makes it effective on stage is the way it has been designed as a cue for performance.” The shifting moods and volatile chemistry of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship are carefully orchestrated through their conversation. While their clever dialogue “works” reasonably well on the page, it is difficult to read the text without also envisioning the give-and-take of gestures, expressions, and voice inflections (not to mention the broad physicality of the slapstick fights) that mark its performance. These are large, “meaty,” and demanding roles, characters meant to capture and hold the attention of the audience; for all the “literary” nature of their conversation, their every nuance has been fashioned with an eye toward the visual, toward a realization on the living stage.
Coward freely acknowledged that the play’s secondary characters, Sibyl and Victor, were relatively insubstantial (“little better than ninepins,” he wrote in Play Parade, “lightly wooden, and only there at all in order to be knocked down repeatedly and stood up again.”) Although they are the hapless “butts” of Coward’s humor and never threaten to outshine the protagonists, their deployment is crucial to the play’s success. Their conventional notions of marriage provide a contrast to the risky, emotional alliance between Elyot and Amanda; in turn, the protagonists’ passion, glamour and intelligence are heightened by the bland personalities of their counterparts.
In the tightly-scripted first Act, Coward achieves another kind of balance, through the individual scenes of the two newlywed couples, which lead up to Elyot and Amanda’s reunion. In alternating appearances, the couples are presented as mirror-images of one another, separately enacting the same scenarios with an exaggerated symmetry, down to the pacing and content of their dialogue. The audience is quickly cued to the similarities between Sibyl and Victor—and between Amanda and Elyot. Long before they switch partners, each pair (Sibyl/ Victor, Amanda/Elyot) is revealed as a kind of “couple,” having more in common with each other than they do with their new spouses. The jilting of Sibyl and Victor is a “scandal,” but Coward has already enlisted the audience’s sympathy for it; dramatically speaking, the rearranged “couples” make far more sense, and their re-shuffling allows each character to escape from what would clearly have been a disastrous mismatch.
A comparable symmetry marks the play’s ending: as Elyot and Amanda sneak off together (echoing their sudden disappearance in Act I), their conventional, “respectable” spouses are locked in an escalating argument, which mirrors Elyot and Amanda’s fireworks in Act II. Thrown together by circumstances, Sibyl and Victor have truly become a “couple,” however temporary, and their fight serves to make that fact official. Given a few years, they might become well-matched, veteran combatants, like their wayward spouses. Their argument, and Elyot and Amanda’s sly escape, may each be humorous in themselves, but the juxtaposition heightens the effect considerably, making a comic moment resonate with the themes Coward has developed throughout the play.
Throughout the 1920s, and particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many of the most popular plays and films were light comedies set
among the wealthy, privileged members of “high society.” When such works are associated with the Depression, their appeal is usually ascribed to the audience’s need for escape from their grim circumstances, if only briefly, and only in imagination: they offered glamorous fantasies of unimaginable luxury, to audiences who were struggling to secure the bare necessities. Given its upper-class setting and its appearance in the year after the 1929 New York stock market crash, Private Lives might appear to be such a work of Depression-era “escapism.” Yet when the play was written, the full and lasting effects of the economic crisis were not yet widely recognized, either in Europe or America. While it may be classed as light entertainment, intended more for diversion than enlightenment, Private Lives belongs to an earlier tradition, associated with the social transformations of the “Roaring Twenties.” In this tradition, the escapades of the “idle rich” were not only glamorous and amusing but provided a way to address ongoing controversies over manners and morals.
The 1920s are usually characterized, both in Europe and in America, as a turbulent decade in which established truths of all kinds came under question and the traditional bounds of social conduct were widely challenged. After the unprecedented destruction of World War I, with its enormous toll in human life, many felt disillusioned with “the old order.” Many felt that the common practices of the nineteenth century yielded years of senseless slaughter and economic hardship. At the same time, science was increasingly seen as a challenge to traditional religious beliefs (a fact borne out by the Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted the theories of divine human creation and evolution against each other). Rapid technological advances (a continuance of the industrial revolution that was begun in the latter half of the 1800s) were changing
daily life in many ways, suggesting that a new, “modern” world was coming into being—one that would require new values and new standards of behavior.
While the United States had outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol in 1920 (the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, often referred to as simply Prohibition), the law was widely defied. Criminal elements rose to supply the illegal commodity so many citizens demanded. Many historians credit the birth of powerful organized crime in the U.S. to the illicit alcohol trade; crime bosses came to significant prominence and wealth during this period, the most notable being Al Capone. Too late to curb the tide of organized crime or the American public’s increasing pleasure in moderate disobedience, prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Social standards of the Victorian era were also challenged on several fronts, particularly in regard to the changing status of women, who were demanding and taking on public roles traditionally denied them, including voting, land ownership, and careers. The alleged immorality of “the younger generation” became a matter of intense scrutiny, Page 310 | Top of Articlecentered on behaviors ranging from smoking, drinking, and dancing to sexual promiscuity; the image of amoral “flaming youth,” celebrated in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bestselling novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), was the subject of public controversy throughout the early Twenties. The stereotypes of the young female “flapper” (young women who dressed suggestively and indulged in excessive socializing) and the illicit underworld “speakeasy” (establishments that served contraband liquor) suggested a revolution in public attitudes and a momentous change in moral standards. Depending on one’s viewpoint, such sensations in popular culture represented either a long-overdue liberation from obsolete, restrictive standards, or the catastrophic decline of civilization itself.
One of Fitzgerald’s most famous aphorisms is that “the very rich are different from you and I”; that difference apparently creates a dual fascination in the larger culture, a mix of envious admiration and moralistic disapproval. “You and I” seem to enjoy fantasizing about the conspicuous luxury of the upper classes, while still cherishing the belief that a moderate lifestyle is more safe and secure; wealth cannot truly buy happiness—and may even be an obstacle to personal fulfillment. In their pursuit of fashionable sensation and self-indulgent consumption, the “idle rich” seem immune from traditional moral codes: they can afford to risk public disapproval by defying convention, though they are often made to pay for their excesses in the long run. Thus, the world of the wealthy can serve as a “safe” stage for the consideration of moral questions, for it presents a “special case,” distanced from the conditions of the everyday; the wealthy are licensed to behave in ways that might be unacceptable for characters with whom the audience identified more closely.
While Amanda and Elyot’s casual attitude toward divorce and marital fidelity may seem unremarkable to modern audiences, it represented a controversial “new morality” in its time. Audience members could either admire their liberated, “progressive” outlook, or else enjoy the crisis and conflict that result from their “immoral” actions. Though Coward presents them as glamorous and sophisticated, their faults are also apparent, and they pointedly do not “live happily ever after”; regardless of one’s moral standards, it is difficult to either idolize or demonize them without reservations.
While its sexual references are few and quite indirect, Private Lives was considered somewhat suggestive, though well within the accepted standards of the day. In terms of the prevailing morality, it was both mildly titillating and ultimately reassuring. Had Elyot and Amanda been working- or middle-class characters, their attitudes would have been more controversial, and their story would seem less a proper subject for light-hearted entertainment. In the alluring, unreal world of “high society,” however, audiences could approach themes that might otherwise have hit uncomfortably close to home.
Private Lives was a runaway hit when it debuted in 1930, and the play has remained popular in revivals ever since. In the initial production, Coward himself starred as Elyot opposite Gertrude Lawrence’s Amanda. The play was produced at London’s Phoenix Theatre, opening in September, 1930, after preview runs in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester, and Southsea. The Daily Mail reported that tickets to the three-month engagement were in great demand, “though the piece is meant neither to instruct, to improve, nor to uplift.” In the New York Times, drama critic Charles Morgan called the play “a remarkable tour de force,” despite a story that was “almost impudently insubstantial. . . . The speed, the impudence, the frothiness of [Coward’s] dialogue are his salvation, and his performance is brilliant.” After its New York debut, at the Times Square Theater in January of 1931, J. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times found the essence of the play to be its “well-bred petulance” and “cosmopolitan fatigue.” “Mr. Coward’s talent for small things remains unimpaired,” Atkinson reported; “[he] has an impish wit, a genius for phrasemaking, and an engaging manner on the stage.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) quickly acquired the film rights to Coward’s international sensation and had a feature adaptation (starring Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer in the leads) in theaters by the end of 1931.
Subsequent critical assessments (both of Private Lives and of Coward’s work in general) tend to follow the tone of these early reviews. While noting a lack of substance, of “big ideas” or grand themes, critics nonetheless acknowledge an abundance of style, wit, and comedic pacing; the result is taken not as “Immortal Drama,” but as highly-entertaining dramatic spectacle. Producing such work was Page 311 | Top of ArticleCoward’s conscious intention; he once said he had “no great or beautiful thoughts” to express, and no particular desire to include such thoughts in his plays if he did have them. “The primary and dominant function of the theatre is to amuse people,” he believed, “not to reform or edify them.” His “smart” humor is prized for its eccentricity; as Atkinson observed of Private Lives, “Mr. Coward’s wit is not ostentatious. He tucks it neatly away in pat phrases and subtle word combinations and smartly bizarre allusions.” While satiric humor is a staple of his work, he is not usually considered to present any unified critique of society, or to advance a consistent, identifiable philosophy. For this reason, his characters and situations are often considered to be superficial, even trivial. His wit, however, is nearly always classed as “sophisticated,” and his dialogue is praised for its intelligence and cleverness. Disdaining “high-brow” conceptions of art, Coward claimed not to be writing for posterity; yet his “talent for small things” has shown a remarkable staying-power, and his work has delighted audiences for several generations.
Private Lives remains a popular standard for repertory companies everywhere. After more than a half-century, it evidently retains its appeal for a wide audience. Major London revivals were staged in 1944, 1963, 1969 (a 70th birthday tribute for Coward at the Phoenix Theater), and 1980, marking its 50th anniversary. Tammy Grimes won a Tony Award for her performance as Amanda in a 1970 Broadway revival, and a 1983 production featured Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Faulkner is a professional writer with a B.A. in English from Wayne State University. In this essay, he examines Coward’s treatment of gender-roles and marriage.
As Noel Coward repeatedly insisted, Private Lives is a light comedy, intended to amuse and captivate its audience, rather than to teach moral lessons or advance a particular ideology. It is exactly the sort of popular work scholars may “murder to dissect:” to over-analyze its “deeper meanings” is to risk blinding ourselves to its glittering surfaces or sacrificing the light-hearted pleasures its author has carefully provided. Nonetheless, the lasting popularity of Private Lives indicates that it does have “something to say” beneath its eccentric, entertaining banter, something that has appealed to audiences for several generations now. Its many intriguing qualities include Coward’s cynical perspective on the eternal “battle of the sexes” and an exploration of traditional gender-roles that can be seen to anticipate the social and sexual transformations of more recent years.
In this reading, Victor and Sibyl are cartoonish representatives of the traditional male and female roles: he is stolid and conservative, paternally wishing to “look after” his new wife; she is emotional and sentimental, fully expecting to be taken care of by her husband. Coward intentionally sketches these characters as dull and two-dimensional, thoroughly predictable in their blind embrace of society’s expectations. In contrast, Elyot and Amanda are alluring rebels, who mock convention and follow their individual desires, despite the social disapproval they invite.
In historical terms, Coward can be said to dramatize the opposition between Victorian moral codes and such “modernist” doctrines as “free love,” “companionate marriage,” guilt-free divorce and female equality. These were among the catch-phrases of a widespread moral controversy at the time Private Lives was written; in different words, similar concerns have appeared in more recent debates over feminism, sexuality, and “family values” (a debate that reached a high point with former vice president Dan Quayle criticizing the sitcom Murphy Brown for a plotline that involved the title character becoming a single mother). Amanda and Elyot clearly represent the “progressive” moral position, in opposition to restrictive traditions. Yet in another sense they are firmly traditional; while they defy conventional notions of social respectability, they remain faithful to the dictates of another convention, that of romantic love. When Elyot and Amanda escape the legal bonds of their new marriages it is not to pursue a promiscuous lifestyle or to make a philosophical statement but to follow the stronger love between themselves: they are romantics following their own hearts regardless of the consequences, not revolutionaries who seek to overthrow all conventions.
Victor and Sibyl embrace the sterile, unequal terms of traditional marriage. Coward implies that, unlike their worldly and sophisticated partners, they lack the imagination to feel restricted by the artificial
confines of their stereotypical gender-roles or the self-awareness to notice any conflict between their private desires and the public images they strive to maintain. It may be that they simply cannot conceive of any alternatives to the parts they have always expected to play. Amanda and Elyot, on the other hand, are too intelligent and self-aware to be satisfied for long in the confinement of a conventional marriage—even though they were both willing to enter into such an alliance before their youthful passion was rekindled. Their impulsive decision is a courageous (if selfish) search for a more fulfilling alternative, which allows them more equal roles. The traditional marriage represented by Victor and Sibyl is an unbalanced equation: either the man has full authority over his submissive wife or she “runs” him surreptitiously, bending him to her will while maintaining a dependent pose. Though it is marked by violent strife, Amanda and Elyot’s precarious relationship is distinctly more honest and equal than the second marriages they had anticipated and truer to their individual “private lives” or desires.
“Private lives,” however, turn out to be messy and volatile, requiring boundaries of some sort to keep from breaking out in primitive, passionate conflict. While this psychological truth is evident in Elyot and Amanda’s love/hate relationship, it applies equally to Victor and Sibyl, whose repressed passions come spilling out at the end of Act III, echoing the wild skirmishes between the play’s central couple. Confused and distraught, lacking a “prescribed etiquette to fall back upon,” they drop their “respectable” poses, and soon engage in the very behavior which they found so shocking and reprehensible in Elyot and Amanda. As Amanda observes in the play’s signature speech, few of us are “completely normal” beneath our public roles, even those like Sibyl and Victor who seem most tediously normal; when “the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.”
By traditional standards, Elyot and Amanda’s previous marriage and divorce, as well as their troubled reunion, are proof that they are “incompatible” as marriage partners. Yet they seem to be made for each other and to be far more compatible as a couple than they are with their new spouses. The problem with their first marriage, they agree, was that they loved each other too much; their romantic passion brought out other passions, and they became “two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.” In their second marriages, they have overcompensated for their bitter experience, seeking to avoid the problem by marrying people with whom they are clearly not in love. Apparently, they have convinced themselves that these unions can last, precisely because they feel no passionate attachment to their partners: there is utterly no danger of loving too much.
When Amanda and Elyot’s passion for each other is awakened, however, such a safe, lukewarm relationship is no longer an acceptable compromise—though a satisfying, long-term marriage seems no more possible than it was their first time around. Early in Act II, Amanda offers a different diagnosis of their troubles, targeting not love but marriage itself: “I believe it was just the fact of our being married, and clamped together publicly, that wrecked us before.” Marriage is claustrophobic, a “nasty little bottle” that contains passion under pressure, building until it explodes. To Coward’s sensibility, it is love and marriage that are incompatible. His protagonists may have one or the other but not both.
Amanda and Elyot begin their second tryst with a number of advantages on their side. They are not only lovers but old friends and, intellectually, kindred spirits. They hold no surprises for each other, yet remain strongly attracted. Their disastrous experience has made them aware of the pitfalls of marriage, and they are consciously determined to avoid repeating their mistakes. A marriage counselor would likely consider such a couple well-prepared for partnership and rate their chances of success high. But their good intentions and hard-earned wisdom are little, if any, help, and they are soon caught up in the same jealousies and resentments that had made their life together intolerable.
Overall, this amounts to a severely pessimistic view of the prospects for men and women. While the conventional marriages are unacceptably hollow and passionless, Elyot and Amanda’s efforts to live their love prove no more workable; their commitment to their passion only dooms them to endless cycles of love and hate. When they sneak off together at the final curtain, it is clear that their escape is temporary and provisional and their happiness momentary and precarious. They have triumphed and regained their equilibrium but nothing is guaranteed. Though the audience may wish them well, their future together is questionable. They easily outsmart and outmaneuver Victor and Sibyl and presumably can do so indefinitely, for the weaker characters are clearly no match for them. Unfortunately, they are too good a match for each other, too alike and too evenly-matched for one to successfully “manage” the other. Worse yet, they both seem incapable of managing themselves. Marriage is quite possible, Coward seems to be saying—but not among two people who share so many personality traits—and not in the presence of passionate love.
Drama often dictates that the people and events it portrays are larger than life. In this sense Amanda and Elyot’s relationship can be seen as an exaggerated case of marital ups and downs. Marriage is very often hard work for the two people who try to maintain it, for every happiness there is often matched sorrow or disappointment. Through his protagonists, who represent an extreme of the precarious-ness of relationships, Coward is making the humorous statement that sharing your life with another is not always easy and true romance does not always end “happily ever after.”
Source: Tom Faulkner, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
In this review of a 1968 revival performance of Private Lives, Gill offers the opinion that this work is Coward’s finest and a prime example of skilled farce. The critic also states that the enduring appeal of the play is a fitting birthday present for Coward, whose seventieth anniversary was marked by the new production.
Four of the most fruitful days of 1929 were surely those that Noel Coward, on a lazy holiday trip around the world, spent writing Private Lives. The first act of the play, which I don’t hesitate to call as nearly flawless a first act for a comedy as any in the language, is said to have been jotted down overnight—formidable proof of the fact, repugnant to
puritans, that time and effort have no necessary connection with achievement in the arts. Neither, for that matter, does age—Coward was twenty-nine when he wrote Private Lives, and he was never to surpass it. (Indeed, he had already composed, at twenty-five, its only possible rival for comic excellence, Hay Fever.) The play had its world premiere in Edinburgh, in 1930, starting Gertrude Lawrence (who had inspired it) as Amanda and Coward as Elyot, with Laurence Olivier and Adrianne Allen in supporting roles. The sun has long since set on the British Empire that Coward made such fun of and later glorified, but I doubt if it has ever set, or ever will set, on Private Lives. Now the play has bobbed up here, at the Billy Rose Theatre, in an APA production sponsored by David Merrick. The production is an admirable one and will serve nicely to help celebrate the occasion of Coward’s seventieth birthday, on Tuesday next. As a small sprig to add to the laurels being heaped up in honor of that day, I will repeat an opinion that I have often expressed, with a gravity not quite wholly based on a desire to irritate certain friends of mine in Academe—that Coward is the greatest of English theatrical figures in the multifariousness of his gifts. Who but he has written his own plays and musical comedies, directed them, acted in them, danced in them, and sung in them songs of his own composition? Poor Shakespeare, after all (and I have been waiting a long time to set down the words “poor Shakespeare”), merely wrote, acted, and composed the lyrics of a few songs in his plays. As far as I know, there isn’t much likelihood that when he played the Ghost in “Hamlet” he broke out into song and dance, though the idea is an appealing one and somebody is bound to make use of it sooner or later.
Simple as it may seem in the reading, Private Lives is extremely hard to act well; the lines of the play turn out to matter less than the silences between the lines, and the duration of these silences must be calculated to the millisecond. The director of the present production, Stephen Porter, has performed these calculations with exemplary skill. He is aware that much of our pleasure in the play comes from our being allowed to know, from moment to moment, more than the characters themselves are allowed to know. Our laughter springs as much from the sudden glory of anticipation fulfilled as from the witty expression of any ordinary human feeling or—perish the thought!—thought. The first act has a symmetry of word and deed so exact as to be almost uncanny; the two newly wed couples in the swagger hotel in Deauville are made to move through a series of discomfitures as neatly introduced, exhibited, and dismissed as so many magic hoops, cards, coins, and colored handkerchiefs. In the second act, the prestidigitator risks losing control by losing momentum. We perceive that he has time to kill on his way to a third act (in the twenties, a playwright who plotted a comedy in two acts would no doubt have been accused of shortchanging his audience), and we come dangerously close to seeing Amanda and Elyot for what they are—in real life, two of the least delightful people imaginable, with nothing to do but eat, drink, bicker, make love, and congratulate themselves on their isolation from a world unworthy of them. In the third act, the prestidigitator is again in full control; after a flurry of slapstick physical encounters, he rings down the curtain on a breakfast scene that is at once consummately trivial and just the right size.
Amanda and Elyot are played by Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford. I wouldn’t have guessed that Miss Grimes, whose voice to my ears is like chalk on slate, could bring off the role of a pretty, willful English girl of those distant flapper days, but she does, she does, and Brian Bedford is appropriately clipped of accent and selfish of purpose as Elyot. David Glover plays the staunch and obtuse ninny who has just become Amanda’s second husband, and Suzanne Grossmann, looking a trifle jaded for the part, plays Elyot’s bewildered twenty-three-year-old bride. The amusing Art-Deco settings and the lighting are by James Tilton and the costumes are by Joe Eula.
Source: Brendan Gill, “Happy Birthday, Dear Noel,” in the New Yorker, Volume XLV, no. 43, December 13, 1969, pp. 115-16.
In this review of the original Broadway production—which starred playwright Coward in the lead Page 315 | Top of Articlerole of Elyot—Atkinson gives a favorable appraisal of the play’s comedic offerings.
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Source: Brooks Atkinson, “Mr. Coward Still Going Along” (1931) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 122-23.
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Private Lives in the New York Times, January 28, 1931; May 14, 1931.
Brater, Enoch. “Noel Coward” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Gale, 1982.
Coward, Noel. Introduction to Play Parade, Doubleday, 1933, p. xiii.
London Daily Mail, reprinted in the New York Times, September 25, 1930.
Morgan, Charles. Review of Private Lives in the New York Times, October 12, 1930.
Castle, Charles. Noel, Doubleday, 1972.
One of several fond tributes to Coward, Castle’s book is drawn from the reminiscences of friends and theatrical colleagues, as well as Coward’s own observations.
Coward, Noel. Present Indicative, Doubleday, 1937; and Future Indefinite, Doubleday, 1954.
Coward’s two major volumes of autobiography provide glimpses of his legendary personality and storytelling ability. Present Indicative includes more detail from the period in which Private Lives was written and first produced.
Hoare, Philip. Noel Coward: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
A extensively-researched biography, written with the cooperation of Coward’s estate, Hoare’s volume draws on previously-unavailable source material to produce a thorough account of the playwright’s life and times.
Levin, Miller. Noel Coward, Twayne, 1968.
A concise survey of Coward’s long career, it includes a biographical essay and a critical assessment of each of his major works.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692800026