Private Lives opens on the terrace of a French hotel overlooking the seaside. Two suites of rooms open onto the terrace, which faces the audience and is separated from it by a stone balustrade. It is evening, the cocktail hour, and an orchestra plays not far away. From the suite stage right enters Sibyl Chase, twenty-three, blonde, and very pretty in her traveling clothes. Soon afterward, Elyot Chase, her new husband, enters, also in traveling clothes. Sibyl and her older husband are English, moneyed, and—especially he—sophisticated in their disregard for conventional propriety. It is their honeymoon, yet she quizzes him about his first wife, Amanda. Her questions provoke his wit, tinged with sarcasm. As the repartee unfolds, the audience realizes that the witty Elyot is easily exasperated by Sibyl’s harping, which barely conceals her wish to shape him into a conventionally acceptable husband. He resists petulantly. They go inside to dress for dinner.
Victor Prynne next enters from the suite stage left. A handsome man in his mid-thirties, Victor is the new husband of Amanda, Elyot’s former wife, who joins him in her negligee. They too are honeymooners just arrived. Like the other new spouse, Victor is trying to draw Amanda out about her former partner, but as the conversation unfolds, it becomes evident that Amanda will no more accept Victor’s assessment of Elyot as a cad than Elyot would accept Sibyl’s poor opinion of Amanda. Like Sibyl, Victor is conventional, blustering about Elyot’s bad behavior and wishing to disparage him. Like Elyot, Amanda is not prepared to go along, and she somewhat flippantly defends her former spouse. She and Victor go in to dress for dinner.
In a beautifully comic double take, exquisitely drawn out, first Elyot and then Amanda enter their separate parts of the terrace with champagne cocktails. They sit down facing away from each other. The band plays a romantic tune, and Elyot begins to hum along; Amanda gasps, turns, sees who it is, and then begins to hum too. Now Elyot gasps, turns, and sees her. They both retreat in a huff. Elyot’s attempts to persuade Sibyl to return at once to Paris are no more successful than Amanda’s attempts to persuade Victor to leave. The two new spouses stalk off, inadvertently leaving Elyot and Amanda alone on the terrace, each in a rage at the turn of events. From sharing cigarettes, they soon move to sharing complaints about their new spouses, nostalgia for...
(The entire section is 1009 words.)