Sybil and Elyot are in Paris on their honeymoon. Elyot has been married previously to Amanda, who happens to be living in the suite next door, across an adjoining terrace. She has taken Victor as her would-be second husband, but as the scenes move back and forth between Sybil and Elyot and Amanda and Victor, it becomes clear that these couples are wrong for each other.
Sybil is timid, submissive, clinging; Elyot is wickedly arch, independent, and insulting. Amanda is really Elyot’s counterpart; she is sly, clever, independent, while Victor in his courtly way is more akin to Sybil. In the course of the play, Elyot drifts away from Sybil and rekindles his relationship with Amanda, while Victor and Sybil draw closer together.
Near the end of the play, Victor remarks angrily to Elyot about his “damned flippancy,” to which Elyot responds that flippancy is meant to cover a real embarrassment. “We have no prescribed etiquette to fall back upon,” he says. Elyot’s lament points to his loss of faith, his lack of connection with a meaningful tradition. In the post-World War I world, flippancy is a major means of survival.
Thus, Elyot provides a crucial clue for understanding the frivolous repartee that is basic to PRIVATE LIVES. The play is essentially talk--amoral chatter, broken only by heated argument and physical grappling. The talk disguises the private lives--the empty, faithless relationships, the pain beneath the...
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