Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 609 words.)