As the title suggests, Private Lives puts on comic display the carryings-on of the glamorous smart set—expatriate English people in France. The love affairs and posturings of the sophisticated—Amanda and Elyot—are held up to gentle ridicule, as is the more conventional behavior of their new spouses, Victor and Sibyl. Noël Coward’s special genius transforms what might otherwise be the stuff of a situation comedy into poignant social satire, in part through deft wordplay: The sharp one-liners reward careful listening as they puncture conventional attitudes. The themes—love, belief in God, the advance of medicine—are modern. The ironic comic treatment keeps the tone light and relatively quiet. Amanda and Elyot share a bittersweet cynicism.
The emptiness of these “gay” lives emerges again and again as a sad, minor-key melody underneath the dazzling repartee. When the characters are serious, as they occasionally are, they fall into outdated posturing—Victor denouncing Elyot as a “cad” and a “swine”—that is merely ludicrous. Also, they adopt equally inappropriate “modern”—meaning unsentimental—poses that belie their true feelings. Given leisure, wit, and money, these denizens of the Jazz Age seem unable to find the lasting love that they seek. Sibyl and Victor are trapped in conventional views of women and men. Emancipated from convention, Amanda and Elyot find themselves unable to discover a replacement: However blithe and unsentimental, their fights reveal timeless and familiar jealousies. The play’s ending leaves their fate ambiguous: Do they leave to try again together, or do they leave to part?