Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 435 words.)