The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 600 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.