Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742

In the centuries since the life of William Shakespeare, probably the best British dramatists have been those who wrote comedies of manners, from the Restoration period, to Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth century, to Noël Coward in the twentieth century. To paraphrase one critic, Coward actually wrote comedies of bad manners; when society’s rules prove too stringent for his characters, they sulk, throw tantrums, become regressive, or go into denial. This may sound unpleasant, but Coward renders these reactions hilariously funny.

A professional actor by the age of twelve, Coward brought a sure sense of theater to his dramas, an informed ability to decide what lines, moves, and situations would prove most telling. He often acted in his own plays, and it was while playing the lead in The Vortex (written by Coward, and first produced in Hampstead, London, in 1924) that he won fame as both actor and writer. Later in life, he was successful as an actor in motion pictures as well as television shows.

Private Lives is vintage Coward. The situation is at once unlikely and provocative: Two newlywed couples honeymooning at the same hotel turn out to have a prior connection—one of the husbands used to be married to one of the wives. Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne find the moonlight and their chance propinquity irresistible. All their romantic feelings for each other come flooding back, causing them to abandon their new mates. Such behavior is inexcusable by any measure of decency, but Coward wins some sympathy for the erring couple. To begin with, he makes their mates slightly unsympathetic—a bit doltish, a trifle too eager to please. By contrast, the dialogue only starts to crackle when Elyot and Amanda are alone together, and their witty duels are entertaining. The audience is encouraged to believe what Elyot and Amanda are inclined to believe, that they belong together and made a mistake in divorcing each other.

That said, it must be admitted that there are severe limitations to this play. Witty though they are, the characters are shallow people, with neither work nor aspirations to give them personality. The fact that they lead pampered lives in the shadow of World War I and the Great Depression without once referring to either of these giant catastrophes calls their creator’s humanity into question. Elyot and Amanda are particularly selfish, self-indulgent, spoiled, and infantile, but Coward’s heart appears to be with them. They cannot live without each other, but they cannot live with each other. Moreover, they cannot face these or any other facts for more than a few seconds without a drink, a cigarette, a quarrel, or a change of subject. They appear to have no parents to care for, neither do they have (or speak of having) children. So bleak are their lives, that some authorities have proclaimed Coward as a forerunner of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Private Lives is a far cry from Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1959) or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952). Its characters are not waiting for anything—they are far too impatient.

Even so, they show us a truth of being human. Their attempts to make light of their lot point out their profound vulnerability. With nothing to count on except each other, there is nothing of which they can be sure. Although they long to be swept off their feet—for in the grip of an impulse, one can, however briefly, feel confident—at the same time, they do all they can to avoid losing their heads.

Perhaps the best passages in Private Lives are those where the characters walk a tightrope between sentimentality and cynicism, as in act 2, when Elyot and Amanda discuss their heartbreak and their longing for each other. Although the audience can be sure that this mood will not last long, it is just as certain that it will recur. Coward and his leading lady, Gertrude Lawrence, for whom these roles were created, were brilliant at skirting such issues, turning the English gift for understatement into a highly stylized comedic mode. To hear their recorded performance is to grasp how this delicate work could best be presented. There is a sense of the private that will not be violated, even in the casual and rather promiscuous world of Private Lives. What is admirable about these four characters has to do with their inviolability, which, try as they might, they cannot shed.

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