The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Private Lives opens on the terrace of a French hotel overlooking the seaside. Two suites of rooms open onto the terrace, which faces the audience and is separated from it by a stone balustrade. It is evening, the cocktail hour, and an orchestra plays not far away. From the suite stage right enters Sibyl Chase, twenty-three, blonde, and very pretty in her traveling clothes. Soon afterward, Elyot Chase, her new husband, enters, also in traveling clothes. Sibyl and her older husband are English, moneyed, and—especially he—sophisticated in their disregard for conventional propriety. It is their honeymoon, yet she quizzes him about his first wife, Amanda. Her questions provoke his wit, tinged with sarcasm. As the repartee unfolds, the audience realizes that the witty Elyot is easily exasperated by Sibyl’s harping, which barely conceals her wish to shape him into a conventionally acceptable husband. He resists petulantly. They go inside to dress for dinner.
Victor Prynne next enters from the suite stage left. A handsome man in his mid-thirties, Victor is the new husband of Amanda, Elyot’s former wife, who joins him in her negligee. They too are honeymooners just arrived. Like the other new spouse, Victor is trying to draw Amanda out about her former partner, but as the conversation unfolds, it becomes evident that Amanda will no more accept Victor’s assessment of Elyot as a cad than Elyot would accept Sibyl’s poor opinion of Amanda. Like Sibyl, Victor is conventional, blustering about Elyot’s bad behavior and wishing to disparage him. Like Elyot, Amanda is not prepared to go along, and she somewhat flippantly defends her former spouse. She and Victor go in to dress for dinner.
In a beautifully comic double take, exquisitely drawn out, first Elyot and then Amanda enter their separate parts of the terrace with champagne cocktails. They sit down facing away from each other. The band plays a romantic tune, and Elyot begins to hum along; Amanda gasps, turns, sees who it is, and then begins to hum too. Now Elyot gasps, turns, and sees her. They both retreat in a huff. Elyot’s attempts to persuade Sibyl to return at once to Paris are no more successful than Amanda’s attempts to persuade Victor to leave. The two new spouses stalk off, inadvertently leaving Elyot and Amanda alone on the terrace, each in a rage at the turn of events. From sharing cigarettes, they soon move to sharing complaints about their new spouses, nostalgia for...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Master of the theater, Noël Coward embraced an art that is not afraid to proclaim itself. The comedy of manners, the genre of his most successful plays, presupposes an audience that knows and to some extent shares the cultural milieu of the characters. Thus, Coward assumes that the audience is familiar with the custom of dressing for dinner, the occasion that brings the two couples together. He also assumes that the audience knows the conventional attitudes of Victor and Sibyl, representatives of the British upper class, and, further, that audience members have heard about, even if they do not know at first hand, emancipated divorced people like Amanda and Elyot. Without such a common ground, the comedy can fall flat. Nevertheless, Private Lives plays well to urban audiences decades after its original production, remaining surprisingly fresh despite its Jazz Age milieu.
Coward’s dialogue is witty, often self-consciously so. In this he follows a comic tradition going back at least as far as the Greeks, who coined the word stichomythia to describe a verbal battle in which each side throws one-liners at the other. The wit arises in part from what is said—a sharp turn of phrase, a telling simile—but also, in large part, from what is not said. At one point in the play, for example, Amanda, in reference to her and Elyot’s rediscovered happiness together, intones, “How long, Oh Lord, how long?”—somewhat blasphemously echoing the complaint of Job in the Bible. Elyot responds that she has “no faith” and asks what she does believe:
Elyot: Don’t you believe in-—-? (He nods upwards.)Amanda: No, do you?Elyot (shaking his head): No. What about-—-? (He...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
French hotel. Unnamed Parisian hotel in which the play is set. Noël Coward’s stage directions describe the terrace of a French hotel as the setting of the first act, which begins with a mood of honeymoon romance. He calls for two French windows at the back of the terrace to open onto two separate suites. In addition to the small trees in tubs and awnings shading the windows, a low stone balustrade separates the balconies. This simple division serves the action well, for the mechanics of the plot depend on the unexpected meeting of former spouses Elyot and Amanda, who are both on honeymoons with their new partners. The terrace setting, with an orchestra playing nearby, sets the scene for romance, but the coincidental meeting leads to amusing tensions.
*Avenue Montaigne (av-new moh[n]-ten). Parisian street on which Amanda’s flat is located. The flat is supposed to be her urban retreat and blends well with Coward’s suggestion of characters who hunger for new adventures in exotic settings. Amanda and Elyot talk about their separate travels around the world, without really realizing that physical flight is not always the solution to one’s problems. Swapped partners lead to swapped settings, but things go awry here as well. While the piano helps the pair rediscover an intense romantic pull beneath their often-clashing dialogue, some of the other furniture and props (especially the uncomfortable sofa, gramophone, and records) suffer in the comedic farce that results from the inevitable quarrels between Elyot and Amanda and later those of Sibyl and Victor, who reappear on the scene.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Coward, Noël. Future Indefinite. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1954. A continuation of his autobiography. Charmingly written, witty, gossipy, and with much of biographical interest.
Coward, Noël. Present Indicative. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1937. Detailed autobiog-raphy, in which Coward says of Private Lives: “As a complete play, it leaves a lot to be desired. . . . (T)he secondary characters [Sybil and Victor] . . . are little better than ninepins, lightly wooden, and only there to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again.” Declares that he wrote the play as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the...
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