Sybil and Elyot are in Paris on their honeymoon. Elyot has been married previously to Amanda, who happens to be living in the suite next door, across an adjoining terrace. She has taken Victor as her would-be second husband, but as the scenes move back and forth between Sybil and Elyot and Amanda and Victor, it becomes clear that these couples are wrong for each other.
Sybil is timid, submissive, clinging; Elyot is wickedly arch, independent, and insulting. Amanda is really Elyot’s counterpart; she is sly, clever, independent, while Victor in his courtly way is more akin to Sybil. In the course of the play, Elyot drifts away from Sybil and rekindles his relationship with Amanda, while Victor and Sybil draw closer together.
Near the end of the play, Victor remarks angrily to Elyot about his “damned flippancy,” to which Elyot responds that flippancy is meant to cover a real embarrassment. “We have no prescribed etiquette to fall back upon,” he says. Elyot’s lament points to his loss of faith, his lack of connection with a meaningful tradition. In the post-World War I world, flippancy is a major means of survival.
Thus, Elyot provides a crucial clue for understanding the frivolous repartee that is basic to PRIVATE LIVES. The play is essentially talk--amoral chatter, broken only by heated argument and physical grappling. The talk disguises the private lives--the empty, faithless relationships, the pain beneath the glittering surface. Clearly, Elyot and Amanda love each other, but their love survives only amid their conflicts, thrives only on their arguments, their insults.
Coward, Noël. Future Indefinite. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1954. A continuation of his autobiography. Charmingly written, witty, gossipy, and with much of biographical interest.
Coward, Noël. Present Indicative. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1937. Detailed autobiog-raphy, in which Coward says of Private Lives: “As a complete play, it leaves a lot to be desired. . . . (T)he secondary characters [Sybil and Victor] . . . are little better than ninepins, lightly wooden, and only there to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again.” Declares that he wrote the play as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the principal roles.
Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright. New York: Methuen, 1982. Chronological study, with extended excerpts from individual plays. Notes that Private Lives is the first play Coward wrote after the advent of the Great Depression following the stock market crash of October, 1929, and that the play catches the mood of dissolution: “a plotless play for purposeless people.”
Lesley, Cole. The Life of Noël Coward. London: Penguin Books, 1978. Thorough account of one of the most charismatic entertainment careers of the twentieth century. Replete with quotations from Coward’s peers, both friends and enemies.
Levin, Milton. Noël Coward. New York: Twayne, 1968. Survey of Coward’s body of work that neither idolizes nor condemns him. Sound comments on the structure and impact of Private Lives.
Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. Theatrical Companion to Coward. London: Rockcliff, 1957. Full information on casts, productions, biographical background, and critical reception. Excellent introduction by Terence Rattigan.
Tynan, Kenneth. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975. Witty book by one of Britain’s foremost drama critics. The passages on Coward sum up much that the post-World War II generation found objectionable in his work.