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 When the characters are serious, as they occasionally are, they fall into outdated posturing—Victor denouncing Elyot as a “cad” and a “swine”—that is merely ludicrous.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?
Public vs. Private Life As a "comedy of manners," Private Lives deals with the conventions and social rituals by which a person presents their "public'' self to the world—and with the "private" passions and motivations that lie beneath the veneer of etiquette and respectability. The title comes from a speech Amanda makes early in the first Act. "I think very few people are completely normal, deep down in their private lives," she muses. "It all depends on a combination of circumstances;" given the right conditions, "there's no knowing what one mightn't do." She soon illustrates the point by impulsively running off with Elyot, in contradiction to law, social taboo, and the marriage vows she has just taken—yet m accordance with her personal needs and private desires.
Victor and Sibyl represent the traditional, "normal" modes of behavior for their gender-roles. He is conservative and reliable, moderate in all things, and paternally protective of his bride; she is bubbly and romantic, given to dramatic emotional displays, expecting (and needing) to be "taken care of" by her man Coward sketches them as shallow, comic exaggerations of their types: Victor is a stodgy, blustering charade of "rugged grandeur," while Sibyl is a coquettish "flapper," flighty, empty-headed, and demanding. Neither appears capable of an original thought, and the sympathies of the audience are clearly meant for Elyot and Amanda, in their rebellion against the restrictive bonds of convention. Glamorous and witty, Elyot and Amanda lampoon "respectable" manners mercilessly and dare to follow their hearts, regardless of the social consequences.
These appealing "social outlaws" do not live happily ever after, however. Once free to "be themselves," they are soon fighting like animals, despite their best intentions and the great love they have for each other. On one side, Coward presents social conventions as silly and restrictive, causing people to repress their "private lives'' or urges and behave hypocritically. But he also suggests that they have an important, and necessary, “civilizing'' effect; without them, the worst of human nature arises and people become slaves to violent passions and petty jealousies....
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Manners and rules give life a structure, helping to manage and mediate the inevitable conflicts that arise when people interact.
For all their rebellion and mockery, Elyot and Amanda are fluent in social ritual and deploy it strategically throughout the play: in their pact that the magic words "Solomon Isaacs" will halt their quarreling, for example, and in Amanda's resolve to "behave exquisitely" when Victor and Sibyl catch up with them. In Act HI, she does exactly that, acting the perfect hostess amid the debris of her brawl with Elyot, who admires her cool ability to "carry off the most embarrassing situation with such tact, and delicacy.'' Confronted at last by Sybil and Victor, Elyot observes that the four of them have "no prescribed etiquette to fall back upon''; in such a case, his habitual response is cynical "flippancy," while Amanda relies on the very social conventions they have both been ridiculing. In the end, the wronged-but-ridiculous spouses are beaten at their own game; the outlaws escape the (public) consequences of their transgressions, at least temporarily, while their conventional counterparts descend to the same savage passions that have plagued Elyot and Amanda's stormy love.
Love and Passion Like the protagonists in a sentimental romance, Elyot and Amanda seem meant for each other, drawn together by a deep, inescapable love that overrides all other concerns (and common sense). Coward uses them, however, to refute the conventions of romantic love: instead of bringing contentment and fulfillment, "True Love" has the couple locked in a passionate death-grip, tossing them helplessly between the extremes of love and hate, pleasure and pain.
Having married for love and found it a disaster, Amanda and Elyot try to make "safer" choices in their second marriages; each envisions a steadier, if less-passionate alliance, with a more-manageable, less-sophisticated partner. Elyot tells Sibyl that love should be "kind, and undramatic. Something steady and sweet, to smooth out your nerves when you're tired. Something tremendously cozy; and unflurried by scenes and jealousies." Similarly, Amanda assures Victor that their love will last, because she loves him more "calmly" than she loved Elyot. But the spark of the old couple's reunion instantly reveals these platitudes as pure self-deception: very often, love is not "calm" or easily-managed but an uncontrollable force that disarms self-control, dispels reason, and sweeps people away with the force of its passion. As embodied by Amanda and Elyot, love can be both a blessing and a curse; it intoxicates and elates but can just as quickly lead to "selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, [and] petty jealousy." "To hell with love," Amanda vows—just before she risks everything for it, once again. She and Elyot are veterans in the battle of the sexes, wise to love's traps and minefields, but their wisdom fails to bring them the least bit of immunity from the pitfalls of love.