Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

Design for Living was an immediate success on Broadway because it was brilliantly acted by Noël Coward (Leo), Alfred Lunt (Otto), and Lynn Fontanne (Gilda), but its subject matter caused both debate and distaste, while the Lord Chamberlain’s objections prevented its production in England until 1939. The triangular relationship of...

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Design for Living was an immediate success on Broadway because it was brilliantly acted by Noël Coward (Leo), Alfred Lunt (Otto), and Lynn Fontanne (Gilda), but its subject matter caused both debate and distaste, while the Lord Chamberlain’s objections prevented its production in England until 1939. The triangular relationship of Gilda, Leo, and Otto, and Gilda’s rejection of marriage and of the stereotypical female role seemed to constitute an attack on social norms. In his introduction to the first volume of Play Parade (1933), Coward argued that he had produced not a general design for living but a design for the three witty, amoral, unconventional egotists who are his chief characters. Alien to any environment but their own, they are, like many of Coward’s more orthodox couples, happy neither together nor apart. Part of the thematic ambiguity arises from the play’s conclusion: The laughter with which it ends could be interpreted as lascivious anticipation, mockery of Ernest, or, as in act 1, hysteria. Coward said that he preferred to envision the trio as laughing at themselves.

While many comments made by characters in the play support Coward’s claim that the design is only for those whose “lives are a different shape,” the demand that unconventional souls should be free to find the sexual modus vivendi that suits them, without being subject to moral judgments, challenged social conventions and societal norms. Thus the Lord Chamberlain, if he sniffed moral relativism in Design for Living, was almost certainly correct.

Other questions are raised in the play: the effect of success on the creative artist, his dual functions as creator and entrepreneur, and the leveling of artistic attainment by the pressure of public taste. Is living or creating the first priority for an artist? Is success a danger, a reward, or simply an aspect of change? These issues are dealt with perfunctorily. Many are raised only in the conversations which occur while characters are preparing for—or recovering from—changes in the emotional triangle.

Gilda, however, is central to the action, the bone fought over in every act. Her character is the most developed, and her self-discovery, in act 2, appears to be the focus of the play. Her attempt to find a fulfilling role in life is an important theme.

When she recognizes that she is dependent on Leo and Otto’s need for her, that this dependency is demeaning, and that instead of trying to share their achievement she needs success of her own, she appears to have grown in stature; lonely and free, she leaves Leo and Otto at the end of act 2. Act 3, however, shows that the feminine skills she despises have captured Ernest, that she who disapproved of marriage has married, and that she uses her home and hospitality as a sales technique; these things necessarily diminish both her stature and the thematic importance of her quest.

In the last act, the play returns to Gilda’s emotional dilemma: She loves two men, both of whom love her and each other. The re-formed ménage à trois begs all questions: Will three successful characters live together without the jealousies and pains that bedeviled the past, or will the pattern repeat itself? Leo, Otto, and Gilda have demonstrated both their understanding of their predicament and their inability to change it. The whole design of the play is repetitive, and it is easy to believe that, once the trio is back in Paris, the whole drama will be reenacted. If so, the play really argues that even the most gifted humans are helpless before their own instincts. “Everything’s glandular,” as Gilda says, and the action exemplifies it.

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Characters