What pleasures do the characters pursue in Noël Coward's play Private Lives? Are those pleasures taboo or mainstream? How much of the story is about pleasure?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Pleasure-seeking is most definitely a dominant theme in Noël Coward's play Private Lives. The characters' lives are ruled by seeking pleasure, especially the characters Elyot and Amanda. While pleasure is a dominant theme, the characters have contrasting pleasures that serve to develop their characters. In addition, some of those pleasures are mainstream; some are taboo.

We see a few different examples of contrasting pleasures in the first act. The pleasures pursued by both female characters stand in contrast and so do the pleasures pursued by both male characters.

The first example of a pleasure concerns the fact that Sibyl takes great pleasure in behaving in a way that society deems feminine. One example is that she opposes women getting "sunburnt," meaning tanned, because, in this time period, it was considered more feminine for women to have very fair skin. However, she approves of men getting tanned because, since getting tanned rebels against society's norms, she feels it looks strong and masculine. In other words, she takes great pleasure in feeling that men and women have their proper places and seeing to it that they are in their proper places. In contrast, Amanda behaves in what can be considered a very masculine way because she rebels against society's norms. She takes great pleasure in having a skewed perception of morals. Unlike Sibyl, she takes great pleasure in getting tanned because it suits her rebellious, masculine perspective.

Gambling is another pleasure discussed in the first act that shows great contrast between the characters. When Sibyl asks, "Are you a gambler?," Elyot replies that he likes to gamble "every now and then." Sibyl's character, with respect to gambling, more closely resembles Victor's--both personally refrain from gambling and dread excessive gambling. Since Victor doesn't gamble, his character stands in contrast to Elyot's character. Likewise, Amanda's character stands in great contrast to both Sibyl's and Elyot's characters when it comes to taking pleasure in gambling. When Amanda is asked by Victor, "You're not a terrible gambler, are you?," Amanda replies she is "inveterate," meaning addicted; she further states, "Chance rules my life." Since Amanda is passionate about gambling, about taking chances in all aspects of her life, she stands in great contrast to both Sibyl and Victor who are the more practical, down to earth characters.

Coward uses the pleasure of gambling to show which of his characters are more sensible, with a tendency to flow with society, and which are wild, with a tendency to break free from society.

The final pleasure, the one pleasure that dominates the play, is sexual pleasure. Both Elyot and Amanda seek sexual pleasure to the extent that they forsake all else, even morality. They forsake morality by leaving their newlywed spouses and breaking their new marriage vows for the sake of seeking sexual pleasure.

Some of these pleasures were mainstream for the time period; some were not. Sibyl taking pleasure in being fair and feminine fits mainstream beliefs for the period, whereas Amanda taking pleasure in being tanned and masculine is very taboo for the time period. Plus, while gambling addictions are never considered moral for any time period, gambling itself was and still is certainly a very mainstream pleasure. Finally, breaking marriage vows for the sake of pursuing sexual pleasure is always considered taboo.

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