What is the symbolic and thematic meaning of the hotel in Noel Coward's play "Private Lives?"

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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There are two main settings in Noel Coward’s 1930 play “Private Lives,” the hotel in Deauville, France, where two honeymooning couples find themselves with adjoining rooms, and Amanda’s apartment in Paris.  Coward's script provides no thematic or symbolic significance to the settings.  Act One takes place in the hotel.  The script describes the opening scene succinctly:

"The scene is the terrace of a hotel in France.  There are two French windows at the back opening onto two separate suites.  The terrace space is divided by a line of small trees in tubs, and, downstage, running parallel with the footlights, there is a low stone balustrade."

Amanda is on her honeymoon with staid, boring Victor, and Elyot is registered at the hotel with his new wife, Sybil, who, Elyot discovers in their hotel room, has designs on his character – in effect, she intends to shape him into the kind of man’s man she envisions for herself.  It become clear that neither of these newly-married couples are destined for happiness together, which allows for Amanda and Elyot, who are divorced from each other, to rekindle their relationship, tempestuous though it was, and will remain.

The function of the hotel in “Private Lives” rests not only with its logical purpose of providing a setting for a honeymoon or two, but, its clearly-posh interior and the reference to its casino downstairs represent the cosmopolitan, upper-scale lifestyle to which the play’s characters are obviously accustomed.  “Private Lives” was written in 1930 by the famously urbane Coward during an era when none but the truly wealthy could afford to honeymoon in northern France at an expensive hotel like that portrayed in the play.  Unlike today, casinos were not ubiquitous and represented financial success.  Coward’s setting is intended to illuminate the upper-stratum of society occupied by his characters and the manner in which they comfortably travel around the continent. 

Similarly, Amanda’s apartment in Paris, where the second two acts take place, also represents the wealth and cosmopolitan nature of the characters.  Coward was British, and his plays reflect British customs and personalities.  The British routinely vacation and honeymoon on the continent, as France is obviously a short distance from Britain’s shores.  The settings of “Private Lives,” however, reflect the world Coward knew best.

In addition to the symbolic and practical function of the settings in “Private Lives,” they also serve the purpose of containing the action.  Nothing provides a self-contained atmosphere – outside of a prison cell – like a hotel room, and placing the entirety of his scenes in these two enclosed settings helped Coward to convey a sense of the world the characters inhabit.  Plays, of course, are by nature relatively confined in the settings they can utilize.  The nature of Coward’s script, however, does not allow for more than minimal insight into Amanda and Elyot’s world.  These are superficial personalities driven by intense passion and hatred for each other.  Confining their interactions to small, enclosed settings help to isolate them from the outside world.  They are entirely obsessed with each other, and nobody and nothing else matters.

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