The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1209

Design for Living opens in Otto’s shabby Paris studio, at about ten o’clock on a spring morning. Gilda adds a coffeepot and milk jug to the breakfast table, laid for two, looks into the bedroom, and closes the door. She answers a knock at the front door, and Ernest enters,...

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Design for Living opens in Otto’s shabby Paris studio, at about ten o’clock on a spring morning. Gilda adds a coffeepot and milk jug to the breakfast table, laid for two, looks into the bedroom, and closes the door. She answers a knock at the front door, and Ernest enters, carrying an Henri Matisse painting he wishes to show to Otto. Gilda claims that Otto has neuralgia and must be left undisturbed. They discuss Otto’s talent and Gilda’s maternal concern for him; Gilda complains of the squalor of the studio, and Ernest complains of the untidiness of Gilda’s emotional life, asking why she does not marry Otto. It is not because they are dashingly bohemian, Gilda assures him, but because marriage offers her nothing she wants.

Ernest announces that Leo has returned on the Mauretania from the successful production of his play in Chicago. Gilda wonders uneasily about the changes success may bring but is not envious of it. She reiterates her love for Otto, warns that an explosion is impending, and reveals that she finds her own feminine drives humiliating. Otto returns from Bordeaux with a rejected portrait under his arm, and Gilda sends him away with Ernest in search of Leo—who emerges from the bedroom as soon as they disappear. Leo and Gilda discuss their real motives in having an affair: Leo was jealous because Gilda had originally preferred Otto; Gilda has a predatory female nature and is attracted and unsettled by Leo’s success. Leo recollects his and Otto’s first quarrel over Gilda, when he pushed Otto into the bath and he became wedged in it. Otto reenters to find Leo and Gilda in gales of laughter. Otto guesses the truth, and in spite of Gilda’s and Leo’s reassurances about how much they love him, he resents their laughter, describes their affair as treachery, and storms out.

Act 2, scene 1 takes place eighteen months later, in Leo’s comfortable London flat. The curtain rises on Gilda and Leo reading the review of his latest hit. Gilda offends him by agreeing with the critic who says that Leo’s play Change and Decay is thin. They argue about the effect of Leo’s success on his work and on their lives and agree that something is missing. Gilda rejects the idea of marriage as offensive to her moral principles—and upsetting to Otto. She dislikes the social whirl Leo’s status involves; she feels unoccupied, bored and boring, and parasitic. Leo accepts an invitation to attend a weekend house party, but Gilda decides to stay home. They argue again about success, and Leo points out that change is inevitable and a return to the past impossible. Although he is not pleased to see a reporter, the curtain falls on him posing for photographs.

Act 2, scene 2 takes place a few days later. Having talked to the cleaning lady about the unattractiveness of marriage, Gilda is alone when Otto enters. Now a successful painter, he has just returned from a cruise on a Norwegian freighter and has come to visit Leo. Otto and Gilda rush into each other’s arms. She says that when she and Leo felt something was missing, it must have been Otto. They discuss his reaction eighteen months earlier to Gilda’s affair. Otto explains that he no longer feels any resentment; Gilda explains that their laughter was caused by hysteria.

Otto, like Leo, defends his success and accuses Gilda of having romantic notions about love among struggling artists, notions about a time that has gone forever. He also argues that the love he and Gilda feel for each other is not degrading. It is now his turn. Gilda, Otto, and Leo have intertwined lives and are not conventional people, so their behavior concerns no one but themselves and harms no one. They can be condemned only by the irrelevant codes of those who are unlike them. The scene ends with Gilda and Otto together on the sofa, as Otto shouts “How do you do?” in Norwegian.

Act 2, scene 3 takes place the next morning. As before, Ernest, returned from a cruise, enters to find Gilda apparently alone; this time she is dressed to go out. Again the bedroom door is firmly shut; again she produces a fictitious illness—this time a stomachache—as a reason that Leo should not be disturbed.

Gilda announces that she is free, alone, and lonely; no one needs her anymore, and she is leaving. Realizing that she has weighed down the canoes of others while persuading herself that she was steering them, she must now paddle her own craft. Ernest has bought a penthouse in New York and is planning to settle down. They leave together, after she has propped up a note against the brandy bottle. She returns surreptitiously to place a second letter beside the first.

Otto appears from the bedroom and encounters the disapproving cleaning lady. He tells her that it is presumption to disapprove of something which is not her concern. Leo, returning early because he has missed Gilda, finds Otto, not yet dressed, smoking on the sofa. Realizing the situation, Leo accuses Otto of taking revenge for what had happened eighteen months before. Otto, referring to his experience then, tells Leo that they can never hate each other, for they all love one another too much. Wondering what to do, the two men see the letters, open them, and find identical messages of farewell. They finish the brandy and then the sherry, discussing their relation to Gilda, to each other, and to their success, which they vow to enjoy in spite of its disadvantages. Otto suggests that Leo take a cruise on a freighter. They discuss absurd words such as “rigamarole” and “wimple” and finally, acknowledging their debt to Gilda and their sorrow at her loss, fall on each other’s shoulders, sobbing drunkenly and promising to support each other in the lonely years to come.

Act 3, scene 1, takes place two years later in Ernest’s luxurious penthouse in New York. Gilda is entertaining guests—who are in fact customers, for everything is for sale in the Friedman home. Gilda is promoting both her own art as an interior decorator and Ernest’s business as an art dealer. Leo and Otto appear, just back from a world cruise on a Dutch freighter. They are rude to the guests and assert the claims of the past, recalling significant images such as Gilda’s green dress, trees in a London square, and two letters beside a brandy bottle. Gilda sees her guests out and gives Otto and Leo a key, so they can depart with the others and return later. In the meantime, she leaves by the fire escape.

Act 3, scene 2 takes place the next morning, when Ernest returns to find that Leo and Otto have been sleeping not only in his penthouse but also in his pajamas. Gilda has disappeared. When she returns, she announces that she has decided to leave Ernest and live once again with Leo and Otto. Ernest is furious and leaves, ranting. As he departs he falls over a package of canvases, and the curtain falls on Gilda, Leo, and Otto helpless with laughter.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

As in many Noël Coward comedies, Design for Living attracts and amuses by witty dialogue and patterned action. “Are you presenting yourself as a shining example?” asks Gilda. “Not shining my dear, just dully effulgent,” replies Ernest. Many place names, not in themselves amusing on the page, are comical when spoken. The charwoman, for example, has had two husbands—one dead and one in Newcastle.

Clothes are significant; Gilda wears her green dress as a “hunting costume,” and characters appear in borrowed clothes as they intrude on the roles of others. Props are also significant; in the opening scene, when Ernest appears with a picture he has bought, art is presented as a salable commodity. Later in the same act, Otto appears with a finished but unflattering portrait for which the client refused to pay; act 2 begins with the success of Leo’s play, evidenced by the newspaper reviews. Act 3 begins with Gilda trying to sell the contents of her home; it ends with Ernest falling over the canvases he has just bought.

The changes of locale are also important. Each change signifies that time has elapsed and that a rearrangement of the triangle (or quadrangle) is about to take place. Moreover, the increasing success of the characters is mirrored in the settings. The squalid studio in which the play opens gives way to the comfortable London flat of act 2, while the third act takes place in the luxury of Ernest’s penthouse. Although it is Ernest’s home and is not rented, the fact that everything is for sale suggests that the rootlessness of the characters has not changed. This floating quality is also evident in their constant journeys: Ernest, Otto, and Leo all return from journeys in act 1; Otto has been cruising on a Norwegian freighter before he appears in act 2; and Otto and Leo have been cruising on a Dutch freighter before they reappear in act 3. The constant traveling is evidence of the characters’ failure to belong anywhere, to any community except the one they create together.

Images introduced with apparent casualness are picked up again with great effect. Gilda’s green dress is mentioned by her with scorn, by Leo with admiration, by Otto with bitterness, and it is recollected by all in act 3. Phrases like “clever little dear” echo from act to act. The most notable dramatic device, however, is action repeated in a slightly variant form. Ernest’s appearance in act 1 finds Gilda alone in the apartment she shares with Otto, the bedroom door shut (supposedly because of Otto’s neuralgia), and the wrong man behind it. Ernest’s appearance in act 2 finds Gilda alone in the apartment she shares with Leo, the bedroom door shut (supposedly because of Leo’s stomachache), and the wrong man behind it. The last act varies: Ernest appears to find that both men have slept in the apartment, but Gilda is absent. In act 1 Otto loses Gilda, while in act 2 both Leo and Otto lose her, and in act 3 it is Ernest’s turn. In act 1 Gilda and Otto have missed Leo, in act 2 Leo and Gilda have missed Otto, and in act 3 Gilda has missed both Otto and Leo.

These patterned changes do not merely amuse. The role reversals create for the audience the feeling of shared identity that make Leo, Gilda, and Otto all of a piece, inseparable. The repetitive patterns, as already noted, suggest that the situation is not developing but recurrent. Thus, the laughter of the trio on which the curtain falls echoes the laughter of the duo at the end of act 1.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 120

Sources for Further Study

Cole, Stephen. Noël Coward: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Coward, Noël. Noël Coward Autobiography. London: Methuen, 2000.

Coward, Noël. Play Parade. London: Heinemann, 1933.

Fisher, Olive. Noël Coward. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction, 1993.

Greacen, Robert. The Art of Noël Coward. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1970.

Hoare, Philip. Noël Coward. New York: Simon and Schuster Trade, 1996.

Kiernan, Robert F. Noël Coward. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright. 1982. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. Theatrical Companion to Coward. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Morley, Sheridan. A Talent to Amuse: A Biography of Noël Coward. Rev. ed. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Russell, Jacqui, ed. File on Coward. London: Methuen, 1988.

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