A prolific writer, Noël Coward was in every way a man of the theater. His stage career began in childhood, and his early success as an actor was matched by his early success as a dramatist. Unconventional and controversial, such works as The Vortex (pr. 1924), Fallen Angels (pb. 1924), and Hay Fever (pr., pb. 1925) established him as in the forefront of postwar dramatists. A star actor on both sides of the Atlantic, Coward maintained a frenetic pace through a long and productive career. Among his other famous plays, some of them revived in the commercial theater as well as in university theaters, are Design for Living (pr., pb. 1933), Blithe Spirit (pr., pb. 1941), Present Laughter (pr. 1942), Nude with Violin (pr. 1956), Waiting in the Wings (pr., pb. 1960), and Sail Away (pr. 1961).
Coward’s importance as a man of the theater is difficult to exaggerate. His stylish grace fits perfectly with his audiences’ taste for glamour and elegance in the theater. He himself first took the part of Elyot; his partner Gertrude Lawrence played Amanda, a part later played by Tallulah Bankhead (1948). The continued popularity of his plays in general, and Private Lives in particular, points to something deeper than mere entertainment. Traditional attitudes toward sexual morality held more force when Coward first wrote, and his plays were denounced by conservatives as sensationalizing serious moral issues. As divorce and remarriage have become more common, the sensational or risque dimension of Private Lives has faded. Amanda and Elyot may be outrageous by any standard, but the predicament in which they find themselves is, at least in general outline, one that many in modern society have experienced.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, Coward emerges as a more sympathetic author than his earlier reputation held him to be. Rather than being a dramatic artifact, relevant to its time but now dated and dusty, Private Lives, which enjoyed a good run as recently as 1980, in London, stands the test of time. Like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895), Private Lives, with its combination of wit, ingenious plotting, and appealing characters, has become a classic, if a minor classic, of the English-speaking theater.