The Play

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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 their failed marriage, admission of their continuing love, and, finally, the impulsive decision to abandon their new spouses and leave for Amanda’s flat in Paris. They agree to forestall any incipient quarrel by uttering the words “Solomon Isaacs” and observing two minutes of silence. They leave at once. The first act closes with the puzzled Victor and Sibyl meeting on the terrace and toasting, with the remaining champagne, “To absent friends.”

Act 2 finds Amanda and Elyot some days later in the Paris flat. They have finished dinner and are lingering over coffee and liqueurs. Their wildly swinging moods—from ecstatic romance and passion to petty bickering and sharp repartee—seem to be leading to a seduction. They shorten “Solomon Isaacs” to “Sollocks,” and the conversation jumps on a comic roller coaster from their former marriage to their current spouses to the meaning of life, radio, modern medicine, and each other’s personality. Their celebration of unconventionality and of the insufficiencies of their second mates seems to make a passionate ending to the evening inevitable, until the mood shifts when Amanda, snuggled up to Elyot on the sofa, puts him off with the flip...

(This entire section contains 1009 words.)

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rejection: “It’s too soon after dinner.” They try to revive the passion—singing love songs from musicals—when the telephone (a wrong number) interrupts them. Soon they find themselves upbraiding each other for unfaithfulness during and after their marriage. Elyot defiantly turns off the gramophone, scratching the record, and now they begin to fight in earnest, knocking over lamps, hitting each other, and wrestling on the floor before rushing off to opposite rooms, slamming doors stage left and stage right. In the final moments, Victor and Sibyl have entered unobserved, to sink down onto the sofa as the fighters leave and the curtain falls.

Act 3 begins the next morning, with Sibyl and Victor stretched out on separate sofas, each in front of the door behind which the mate retreated. Louise, the French maid, enters and awakens them. Victor entreats Sibyl to stay and see things through; she agrees, though protesting that it is all a bit squalid. Amanda comes out of her room, dressed for traveling, carrying a small bag, and ready to flee. Victor demands that they talk. With elegant poise, she agrees, but insists on having breakfast served first. When Elyot enters, Sibyl breaks down in tears, and Amanda returns to her room. In an unconscious imitation of Amanda, Elyot apologizes to the guests for the state of the room, offers to order breakfast and coffee, and generally tries to smooth things over. When Amanda reenters, her high-handed manner provokes Elyot to sarcasm, which in turn provokes Victor to challenge Elyot to a fight. Amanda takes Sibyl into her room. After taunting Victor into a seething rage, Elyot slams into his room. Amanda and Sibyl reenter, and the comic minuet takes another turn. Now Sibyl’s hostility toward Amanda tempts her to reclaim Elyot, drawing him after her into his room to talk. In their absence, Amanda blames Elyot for drinking too much, and Victor pledges to allow her to divorce him (the gentlemanly thing to do).

Louise brings in the breakfast. In a delightful parody of breakfast small talk, travel plans are discussed. Victor and Sibyl begin to quarrel, he sarcastically accusing her of having had the intelligence to marry a drunkard, she accusing him of being “an insufferable great brute” and slapping his face. As she does, Amanda and Elyot go smilingly out the door with their suitcases, and the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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Master of the theater, Noël Coward embraced an art that is not afraid to proclaim itself. The comedy of manners, the genre of his most successful plays, presupposes an audience that knows and to some extent shares the cultural milieu of the characters. Thus, Coward assumes that the audience is familiar with the custom of dressing for dinner, the occasion that brings the two couples together. He also assumes that the audience knows the conventional attitudes of Victor and Sibyl, representatives of the British upper class, and, further, that audience members have heard about, even if they do not know at first hand, emancipated divorced people like Amanda and Elyot. Without such a common ground, the comedy can fall flat. Nevertheless, Private Lives plays well to urban audiences decades after its original production, remaining surprisingly fresh despite its Jazz Age milieu.

Coward’s dialogue is witty, often self-consciously so. In this he follows a comic tradition going back at least as far as the Greeks, who coined the word stichomythia to describe a verbal battle in which each side throws one-liners at the other. The wit arises in part from what is said—a sharp turn of phrase, a telling simile—but also, in large part, from what is not said. At one point in the play, for example, Amanda, in reference to her and Elyot’s rediscovered happiness together, intones, “How long, Oh Lord, how long?”—somewhat blasphemously echoing the complaint of Job in the Bible. Elyot responds that she has “no faith” and asks what she does believe:

Elyot: Don’t you believe in-—-? (He nods upwards.)Amanda: No, do you?Elyot (shaking his head): No. What about-—-? (He nodsdownwards.)Amanda: Oh dear no.Elyot: Don’t you believe in anything?Amanda: Oh yes, I believe in being kind to everyone, andgiving money to old beggar women, and being as gay as possible.

Such blase nonreaction to admissions of spiritual despair contributes as much to the witty humor as does Elyot’s reluctance to do more than point to Heaven and Hell.

Coward’s characters, especially the knowing Amanda and Elyot, seem to be “playing” their parts, now trying sincerity, now trying a bluff, slipping like eels from one social role to another but hinting wistfully at a wish for certainty and continuity. Sibyl and Victor serve as the tradition-bound foils to the emancipated, self-aware Amanda and Elyot. While one might find remote ancestors for the quarreling spouses in the commedia dell’arte or in Punch and Judy, their droll self-awareness makes them closer kin to the sophisticates of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Paris or New York. Coward’s characters, however, seem to suffer less than Fitzgerald’s, for they are protected by their wit and by their own sense of self-irony. Their experience is poignant and their response indomitable, even noble.

The plot works variations on bedroom farces usually associated with Restoration comedy: The true husband or wife discovers—as often as not in a bedroom closet—his spouse’s infidelity. Because Amanda and Elyot are divorced and because they do not try to conceal their affair, the plot has a modern twist that carries through to the unconventionally unresolved ending. Do they or don’t they? In a more traditional comedy, the tangled affairs of the lovers would have been resolved at the end. In this modern world, such an ending seems too pat.

The physical action alternates between smart, sophisticated behavior—the preparations for dinner at the hotel, the amorous activity on the sofa after brandy, the serving of breakfast by a French maid—and farcical slapstick. Faces are smacked, the men nearly come to blows as Victor huffs and puffs, and Amanda and Elyot end the second act rolling on the floor in pitched battle. As with the dialogue, characterization, and plot, in the staging of the play Coward builds on the ironic tension between the restraint of civility and the aggressions ready to burst out at any moment into bickering and slanging.

In terms of performance and staging, Coward’s requirements are straightforward, if not especially modest. The play requires two built sets: the hotel terrace and Amanda’s flat. It assumes, but does not absolutely require, a picture-frame stage and realistic decor. Because the play’s comedy depends in part upon the repeated breaking down of sophisticated behavior, an elegant, glamorous setting can only enhance the production. About costumes the script is explicit, asking for traveling clothes or a negligee, again with the assumption that the glamour of the costumes will provide a comic contrast to the behavior of those wearing them.

Places Discussed

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French hotel

French hotel. Unnamed Parisian hotel in which the play is set. Noël Coward’s stage directions describe the terrace of a French hotel as the setting of the first act, which begins with a mood of honeymoon romance. He calls for two French windows at the back of the terrace to open onto two separate suites. In addition to the small trees in tubs and awnings shading the windows, a low stone balustrade separates the balconies. This simple division serves the action well, for the mechanics of the plot depend on the unexpected meeting of former spouses Elyot and Amanda, who are both on honeymoons with their new partners. The terrace setting, with an orchestra playing nearby, sets the scene for romance, but the coincidental meeting leads to amusing tensions.

*Avenue Montaigne

*Avenue Montaigne (av-new moh[n]-ten). Parisian street on which Amanda’s flat is located. The flat is supposed to be her urban retreat and blends well with Coward’s suggestion of characters who hunger for new adventures in exotic settings. Amanda and Elyot talk about their separate travels around the world, without really realizing that physical flight is not always the solution to one’s problems. Swapped partners lead to swapped settings, but things go awry here as well. While the piano helps the pair rediscover an intense romantic pull beneath their often-clashing dialogue, some of the other furniture and props (especially the uncomfortable sofa, gramophone, and records) suffer in the comedic farce that results from the inevitable quarrels between Elyot and Amanda and later those of Sibyl and Victor, who reappear on the scene.

Historical Context

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Throughout the 1920s, and particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many of the most popular plays and films were light comedies set among the wealthy, privileged members of "high society.'' When such works are associated with the Depression, their appeal is usually ascribed to the audience's need for escape from their grim circumstances, if only briefly, and only in imagination: they offered glamorous fantasies of unimaginable luxury, to audiences who were straggling to secure the bare necessities. Given its upper-class setting and its appearance in the year after the 1929 New York stock market crash, Private Lives might appear to be such a work of Depression-era "escapism." Yet when the play was written, the full and lasting effects of the economic crisis were not yet widely recognized, either in Europe or America. While it may be classed as light entertainment, intended more for diversion than enlightenment, Private Lives belongs to an earlier tradition, associated with the social transformations of the “Roaring Twenties." In this tradition, the escapades of the "idle rich" were not only glamorous and amusing but provided a way to address ongoing controversies over manners and morals.

The 1920s are usually characterized, both in Europe and in America, as a turbulent decade in which established truths of all kinds came under question and the traditional bounds of social conduct were widely challenged. After the unprecedented destruction of World War I, with its enormous toll in human life, many felt disillusioned with "the old order." Many felt that the common practices of the nineteenth century yielded years of senseless slaughter and economic hardship. At the same time, science was increasingly seen as a challenge to traditional religious beliefs (a fact borne out by the Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted the theories of divine human creation and evolution against each other). Rapid technological advances (a continuance of the industrial revolution that was begun in the latter half of the 1800s) were changing daily life in many ways, suggesting that a new, "modern" world was coming into being—one that would require new values and new standards of behavior.

While the United States had outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol in 1920 (the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, often referred to as simply Prohibition), the law was widely defied. Criminal elements rose to supply the illegal commodity so many citizens demanded. Many historians credit the birth of powerful organized crime in the U.S. to the illicit alcohol trade: crime bosses came to significant prominence and wealth during this period, the most notable being Al Capone. Too late to curb the tide of organized crime or the American public's increasing pleasure in moderate disobedience, prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Social standards of the Victorian era were also challenged on several fronts, particularly in regard to the changing status of women, who were demanding and taking on public roles traditionally denied them, including voting, land ownership, and careers. The alleged immorality of "the younger generation" became a matter of intense scrutiny, centered on behaviors ranging from smoking, drinking, and dancing to sexual promiscuity; the image of amoral "flaming youth," celebrated in F. Scott Fitzgerald's bestselling novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), was the subject of public controversy throughout the early Twenties. The stereotypes of the young female "flapper" (young women who dressed suggestively and indulged in excessive socializing) and the illicit underworld "speakeasy" (establishments that served contraband liquor) suggested a revolution in public attitudes and a momentous change in moral standards. Depending on one's viewpoint, such sensations in popular culture represented either a long-overdue liberation from obsolete, restrictive standards, or the catastrophic decline of civilization itself.

One of Fitzgerald's most famous aphorisms is that "the very rich are different from you and I"; that difference apparently creates a dual fascination in the larger culture, a mix of envious admiration and moralistic disapproval. "You and I" seem to enjoy fantasizing about the conspicuous luxury of the upper classes, while still cherishing the belief that a moderate lifestyle is more safe and secure; wealth cannot truly buy happiness—and may even be an obstacle to personal fulfillment. In their pursuit of fashionable sensation and self-indulgent consumption, the "idle rich" seem immune from traditional moral codes" they can afford to risk public disapproval by defying convention, though they are often made to pay for their excesses in the long run. Thus, the world of the wealthy can serve as a "safe'' stage for the consideration of moral questions, for it presents a "special case," distanced from the conditions of the everyday; the wealthy are licensed to behave in ways that might be unacceptable for characters with whom the audience identified more closely.

While Amanda and Ely of s casual attitude toward divorce and marital fidelity may seem unremarkable to modern audiences, it represented a controversial “new morality'' in its time. Audience members could either admire their liberated, "progressive" outlook, or else enjoy the crisis and conflict that result from their "immoral" actions. Though Coward presents them as glamorous and sophisticated, their faults are also apparent, and they pointedly do not "live happily ever after"; regardless of one's moral standards, it is difficult to either idolize or demonize them without reservations.

While its sexual references are few and quite indirect, Private Lives was considered somewhat suggestive, though well within the accepted standards of the day. In terms of the prevailing morality, it was both mildly titillating and ultimately reassuring. Had Elyot and Amanda been working- or middle-class characters, their attitudes would have been more controversial, and their story would seem less a proper subject for light-hearted entertainment. In the alluring, unreal world of "high society," however, audiences could approach themes that might otherwise have hit uncomfortably close to home.

Literary Style

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While Coward is known for his witty dialogue, his work is relatively short on quotable "punch-lines'' or one-liners, the kind of which define the comedic style of writers like playwright Neil Simon (The Odd Couple) and filmmaker Woody Allen (Annie Hall), The humor of Private Lives depends greatly on its expert stagecraft and carefully-balanced construction. In his introduction to the anthology Play Parade, Coward modestly describes the play as "a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and provide contrast." This self-deprecating assessment points to two of the playwright's strengths: his awareness of the abilities of the "experienced performers" with whom he worked, and his attention to contrast and symmetry.

Coward used actors he knew, he often tailored his fictional characters to match his thespians personalities and physical traits, and he paced his dialogue to fit these actors' timing and delivery. (Private Lives was specifically written for Gertrude Lawrence, who essayed Amanda, and Coward himself; the pair had worked together often before starring in the play's first production) As Enoch Brater noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Coward's language "is not by itself inherently funny; what makes it effective on stage is the way it has been designed as a cue for performance." The shifting moods and volatile chemistry of Elyot and Amanda's relationship are carefully orchestrated through their conversation. While their clever dialogue "works" reasonably well on the page, it is difficult to read the text without also envisioning the give-and-take of gestures, expressions, and voice inflections (not to mention the broad physicality of the slapstick fights) that mark its performance. These are large, "meaty," and demanding roles, characters meant to capture and hold the attention of the audience; for all the "literary" nature of their conversation, their every nuance has been fashioned with an eye toward the visual, toward a realization on the living stage.

Coward freely acknowledged that the play's secondary characters, Sibyl and Victor, were relatively insubstantial ("little better than ninepins," he wrote in Play Parade, "lightly wooden, and only there at all in order to be knocked down repeatedly and stood up again.'') Although they are the hapless "butts" of Coward's humor and never threaten to outshine the protagonists, their deployment is crucial to the play's success. Their conventional notions of marriage provide a contrast to the risky, emotional alliance between Elyot and Amanda; in turn, the protagonists' passion, glamour and intelligence are heightened by the bland personalities of their counterparts.

In the tightly-scripted first Act, Coward achieves another kind of balance, through the individual scenes of the two newly wed couples, which lead up to Elyot and Amanda's reunion In alternating appearances, the couples are presented as mirror-images of one another, separately enacting the same scenarios with an exaggerated symmetry, down to the pacing and content of their dialogue. The audience is quickly cued to the similarities between Sibyl and Victor—and between Amanda and Elyot. Long before they switch partners, each pair (Sibyl/Victor, Amanda/Elyot) is revealed as a kind of "couple," having more m common with each other than they do with their new spouses The jilting of Sibyl and Victor is a "scandal," but Coward has already enlisted the audience's sympathy for it; dramatically speaking, the rearranged "couples" make far more sense, and their re-shuffling allows each character to escape from what would clearly have been a disastrous mismatch.

A comparable symmetry marks the play's ending: as Elyot and Amanda sneak off together (echoing their sudden disappearance in Act I), their conventional, "respectable" spouses are locked in an escalating argument, which mirrors Elyot and Amanda's fireworks in Act II Thrown together by circumstances, Sibyl and Victor have truly become a "couple," however temporary, and their fight serves to make that fact official. Given a few years, they might become well-matched, veteran combatants, like their wayward spouses. Their argument, and Elyot and Amanda's sly escape, may each be humorous in themselves, but the juxtaposition heightens the effect considerably, making a comic moment resonate with the themes Coward has developed throughout the play.

Compare and Contrast

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1930: Astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, discover a ninth planet in the solar system and name it Pluto. It is the first "new" planet since Neptune was sighted in 1846. The discovery is made with mankind's most-advanced tool for space exploration: a telescope.

Today: Humans have walked on the moon, first landing m 1969. Unmanned spacecraft have explored the outer reaches of the solar system, mapping the surfaces of planets known only as points of light in 1930. The satellite-mounted Hubbell telescope was launched into space in the mid-1990s, providing astronomers with the most in-depth space pictures to date. No probes have yet made close observations of Pluto, though in 1978, the planet was discovered to have a moon, named Charon.

1930: The world's population reaches two billion, with the great majority of people living in rural areas.

Today: Global population passed the five billion mark during the 1980s, and continues to grow; more than fifty percent of the populace now live in towns and cities.

1930: In India, Mahatma Ghandi begins a civil disobedience campaign in protest of British colonial rule, by leading his followers on a 165-mile march.

Today: Ghandi's efforts drew worldwide attention to the cause of Indian independence, which was finally achieved in 1947 His doctrines of passive resistance and civil disobedience helped inspire the strategies employed by the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and influenced the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Such peaceful practices continue to be employed by contemporary protesters.

Media Adaptations

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A film adaptation of Private Lives was released in December, 1931, by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It starred Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery as Amanda and Elyot, with Reginald Denny and Una Merkel as Victor and Sibyl. While it retained most of Coward's story and dialogue, director Sidney Franklin also made significant alterations: extending the "set-up" in Act I while compressing the action of Acts H and HI; and having the lovers escape not to a Paris flat but to a Swiss chalet. The film is available on videocassette through MGM/UA Home Video

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Private Lives in the New York Times, January 28,1931, May 14,1931.

Brater, Enoch, "Noel Coward'' in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 10 Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Gale, 1982.

Coward, Noel. Introduction to Play Parade, Doubleday, 1933, p. xiii.

London Daily Mail, reprinted in the New York Times, September 25,1930.

Morgan, Charles. Review of Private Lives in the New York Times, October 12,1930

Further Reading
Castle, Charles. Noel, Doubleday, 1972. One of several fond tributes to Coward, Castle's book is drawn from the reminiscences of friends and theatrical colleagues, as well as Coward's own observations.

Coward, Noel. Present Indicative, Doubleday, 1937; and Future Indefinite, Doubleday, 1954. Coward's two major volumes of autobiography provide glimpses of his legendary personality and storytelling ability. Present Indicative includes more detail from the period in which Private Lives was written and first produced.

Hoare, Philip. Noel Coward A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1995. A extensively-researched biography, written with the cooperation of Coward's estate, Hoare's volume draws on previously-unavailable source material to produce a thorough account of the playwright's life and times.

Levm, Miller. Noel Coward, Twayne, 1968. A concise survey of Coward's long career, it includes a biographical essay and a critical assessment of each of his major works


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide