Private Lives is considered a prime example of the sophisticated comedies of Noel Coward, one of the most-prominent dramatists of his era. An overwhelming 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 then-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 m such terms, the plot resembles that of a tragedy, but Coward (who acted the role of Elyot himself in the early productions) fashions from it a last-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 leach or reform them. On these terms. Private Lives is considered one of the enduring successes of modern comedic theatre.