Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

Design for Living is placed by some critics alongside Private Lives (pr., pb. 1930), Blithe Spirit (pr., pb. 1941), Hay Fever (pr., pb. 1925), and The Vortex (pr. 1924) as one of Noël Coward’s five best comedies. Others have complained that the serious and the farcical are not welded into any unity of tone, still others that the seriousness is only apparent and that stretches of superficial discussion interrupt the sparkling frivolity at which Coward excels.

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In many respects, Design for Living, written in 1932, resembles Private Lives, written three years earlier. The structure is provided by pattern rather than plot; in both plays characters who are unhappy together attempt escape and are drawn back into their old alliance, not because they have solved their problems but because no alternative works. Like Elyot and Amanda, the trio in Design for Living compete when together, droop when apart. They are brilliant, unconventional, and frivolous; marriage does not suit them, ordinary people are dull to them, and conventional sexual roles are alien to their natures. Design for Living goes further than Private Lives, however, in dealing with aspects of sexuality not previously considered appropriate for the stage.

Coward took the well-made play of Eugène Scribe, Arthur Wing Pinero, and W. Somerset Maugham and used many of its conventions: the upper-middle-class characters, their social and psychological problems (which arise from transgressing the class code), and scenes that encapsulate a whole complex process of change. Coward handled the old formula, however, with new lightheartedness and flair. Doors and discoveries are important, but pattern and repetition are equally so. He stripped down the dialogue of the well-made play—Maugham complained that he reduced it to hieroglyphics—and found a way to express feeling almost in code. On his stage, words take on connotations that are absent on the page, and language not normally emotive acquires emotional (or amusing) significance. The rapid changes of mood and the ability to sustain two moods at once may owe something to Coward’s experience in revue. The Coward style quickened the pace of the well-made play and made it effervescent.

Design for Living may be somewhat out of the mainstream of Coward’s comic writing. Some have charged that it introduces serious questions but fails to treat them fully because such issues are fundamentally alien to the tightness of form and lightness of style that are the Coward trademark. The playwright himself observed that Design for Living had been “liked and disliked, and hated and admired, but never sufficiently loved by any but its three leading actors.” Whatever its inconsistencies, its theatrical effectiveness cannot be doubted.

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