Coward’s Epitomizes the 1930’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Noël Coward kept a promise to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and wrote a comedy that epitomized the laughter and despair of the 1930’s.

Summary of Event

Design for Living (pr., pb. 1933) resulted from an eleven-year-old promise. In 1921, actors Noël Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne were relatively unknown. They dreamed of stardom, and they agreed that, when fame arrived, Coward would write a play to star all three. [kw]Coward’s Design for Living Epitomizes the 1930’s (Jan. 2, 1933)[Cowards Design for Living Epitomizes the 1930s (Jan. 2, 1933)] [kw]Design for Living Epitomizes the 1930’s, Coward’s (Jan. 2, 1933) Design for Living (Coward) [g]United States;Jan. 2, 1933: Coward’s Design for Living Epitomizes the 1930’s[08230] [c]Theater;Jan. 2, 1933: Coward’s Design for Living Epitomizes the 1930’s[08230] Coward, Noël Fontanne, Lynn Lunt, Alfred Gordon, Max

Coward had begun to perform in 1910; he had worked in Charles Hawtrey’s company in 1911 and, among other appearances, had briefly acted in D. W. Griffith’s film Hearts of the World (1918). His first major hit was the 1923 revue London Calling, based largely on his lyrics. He performed in it with Gertrude Lawrence. Fontanne made her English debut in a 1905 production of Cinderella before arriving in the United States in 1910. She met Lunt in 1917 and appeared with him for the first time on stage in 1919 in a play titled A Young Man’s Fancy. In 1921, she made her reputation in George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Dulcy. Lunt’s first major recognition came for his Broadway performance as the title character in Booth Tarkington’s Clarence (pr. 1919). After their marriage in 1922, Lunt and Fontanne achieved the kind of fame they desired with their appearance as a team in a 1924 Theatre Guild production of Ferenc Molnár’s The Guardsman (Hungarian title A testőr, pr., pb. 1910).

Coward’s major breakthrough came with his own serious drama The Vortex (pr. 1924), Vortex, The (Coward) in which he played the role of Nicky. The Vortex provided a considerable and scandalous sensation, and it presented a theme that was to remain a constant in Coward’s work: the struggles of post-World War I characters to work out their own values, as the values of the past had become outmoded or bankrupt. The principal characters in The Vortex are Nicky, who is addicted to drugs, and his mother, who is addicted to eternal youthfulness. She refuses to admit her maturity, takes lovers her son’s age, and cannot relinquish her own pleasures to be a mother to her son. At the end, mother and son vow to reform, but they leave the audience with no particular reason to believe that they will.

This contrast between the meaningless lives of moderns and the values of the past that are lost underlies many of the Coward hits that followed. In Cavalcade (pr. 1931), Cavalcade (Coward) a panorama of England from the Boer War to 1929, Coward ends by juxtaposing the weary song “Twentieth Century Blues” with the figures of six basket-weaving wounded World War I veterans as well as with a cacophony of noise from planes, jazz, and loudspeakers; these suddenly give way to a singing of the traditional “God Save the King.” At the end of Coward’s musical Bitter Sweet (pr., pb. 1929), Bitter Sweet (Coward) heroine Sari Linden sings of the enduring loves and loyalties of the past only to find herself abandoned by her uncomprehending audience of Jazz Age young people. Most bitterly in Post-Mortem (pb. 1931), Post-Mortem (Coward)[Postmortem (Coward)] Coward shows his affinity with the great wave of revulsion that swept Europe, England, and, to some extent, the United States in reaction to the traditional values that had produced the devastation of World War I, with its aerial bombardment, gas and trench warfare, and millions of casualties. In Post-Mortem, young John Cavan, killed in action, returns from the dead to learn that his death, apparently, meant little. Attitudes have not changed; the platitudes and hypocrisy that made the war possible still conceal its brutal reality. Young people, survivors of the war, cannot accept these values but have nothing with which to replace them.

Design for Living moved to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City on January 24, 1933, after opening at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 2. Although the play is high comedy, indirectly it reflects the grim world of the 1930’s, a world in which frivolous laughter barely conceals despair. The play reflects the decade’s insecurity, recorded in Coward’s autobiography and letters, about the Great Depression and the European situation that was to lead to World War II. Coward wrote Design for Living very quickly on his way back from Chile, where he had received a cable from the Lunts informing him that their Theatre Guild commitment was over and asking him about the play he had promised to write. He returned to California, the lone passenger on a Norwegian freighter, and completed the play two days before the ship docked at Los Angeles. Clearly, the play emerged from preoccupations, especially the idea, suggestive of George Bernard Shaw’s beliefs, that moderns must overthrow traditional moral and social sanctions to create their own lives and values. Coward’s play is light, seemingly frivolous, but its action points irrevocably to this single conclusion.

Gilda, Leo, and Otto are the play’s principal characters. Leo (played by Coward in the original production) is a playwright, Otto (Lunt) is a painter, and Gilda (Fontanne) loves both. In the first act, Gilda lives with Otto in Paris. She and picture dealer Ernest Friedman (played in 1933 by Campbell Gullan) are talking as Otto returns from a trip. Leo emerges from the bedroom. Conventionally furious, Otto stalks off, feeling betrayed. In the second act, Gilda is living with Leo in London. Leo leaves for a country weekend but returns early to find Otto with Gilda. Disgusted with both men’s reactions, Gilda stalks out. She marries Ernest, a merchant, not a creator, and tries to live a conventionally money-hungry life in New York. The third act takes place in their New York apartment, where their pictures and even their furniture are for sale. Otto and Leo enter and scandalize some guests. Gilda walks out again. Ernest returns the next morning to find both Otto and Leo emerging from the bedroom, wearing his pajamas. They claim they want Gilda. Conventional Ernest is horrified and flies into a fury, mouthing the platitudes of an outraged moralist, when Gilda returns to say she is leaving with Otto and Leo. She cannot live without them both. It is Ernest’s turn to stalk out, but he trips and falls flat, and the play ends with the laughter of Otto, Leo, and Gilda.


Like many other Coward plays, Design for Living was a success, but critical reviews were mixed. Having exhausted himself during the run of The Vortex, Coward had promised himself that he would appear in no more than a three-month run, but Design for Living was so successful that he extended this to five months. According to Coward biographer Cole Lesley, during the final week of the play’s run, police had to be called out to control the crowds. For the only time in his life, Coward had to hire a bodyguard. He had rented a secluded cottage and was receiving threatening letters, which may have been related to the play.

Critics, while praising Design for Living, often described it as decadent or amoral. The most famous still photograph from the 1933 production emphasizes a possible homosexual relationship between Leo and Otto; one man reclines in the arms of the other while reaching out to Gilda, who sits separately. Then, too, the play supports an aristocracy of the elite, whose duty is to live by its own precepts regardless of the conventional morality for which Ernest, as his name suggests, is the humorless spokesman. Finally, Gilda walks out on her marriage to Ernest, not for high principles, as was true of Henrik Ibsen’s Nora in Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), but simply because she wants to do so. In fact, problems with British censorship probably explain why the play was not performed in England until 1939. Paramount filmed the play in 1933, with Ernst Lubitsch as director, but screenwriter Ben Hecht threw out most of Coward’s script. (The film starred Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, and Edward Everett Horton.)

The popularity of Lunt, Fontanne, and Coward himself, however, was such that would-be censors had no power over the production, thus opening up hitherto questionable material for future playwrights, such as Coward’s admirer Edward Albee. Of those involved, only theatrical producer Max Gordon’s career was profoundly affected, and that positively. Coward had been impressed by Gordon’s frank critique of his performance in Coward’s earlier play Private Lives (pr., pb. 1930). When Coward offered Gordon the opportunity to produce Design for Living, he apparently did not know that Gordon was having financial problems so severe that they had brought him near bankruptcy; he was suicidal and had been hospitalized. For Gordon, Design for Living was a lifeline; he became solvent again and went on to produce such hits as Roberta (1933), The Great Waltz (1934), The Women (1936), My Sister Eileen (1940), and Born Yesterday (1945). The Lunts, too, went on from this success to others such as Reunion in Vienna (1931), Idiot’s Delight (1936), Amphitryon 38 (1937), There Shall Be No Night (1940), and The Pirate (1942).

Coward’s career was at its height with Design for Living. He followed it with Conversation Piece in 1934, written for French singer Yvonne Printemps, and in that year the first volume of his collected plays appeared. Of the many plays that followed, the two most important are Tonight at 8:30 (a collective title for nine plays designed to be presented in various combinations of three bills of three plays; pr. 1935) and Blithe Spirit (pr., pb. 1941). In 1942, he gained wartime celebrity for writing and acting in the patriotic film In Which We Serve, which also starred John Mills and Michael Wilding. The film was a starkly realistic account of the German destruction of a British ship and its effects on the people involved.

In the post-World War II world, Coward lost critical favor but retained his popular audience. John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956) introduced a new kind of realism, as shocking in its way as Coward’s had been two decades earlier. Coward continued to write plays, but he rarely repeated his earlier successes. He continued entertaining as well. In 1953, for example, he appeared as King Magnus in a London production of Shaw’s The Apple Cart (pr. 1929). Shaw’s advice had been an early influence on him, and a continuing influence can be seen in the structure and dialogue of Coward’s plays.

By the mid-1950’s, the critical tide again turned, and Coward became celebrated as the grand old man of British theater. He appeared several times in the 1950’s at London’s Café de Paris, and in 1954 he gave a royal command performance at London’s Palladium. In the following year, he wrote and directed Together with Music, a U.S. television review, for himself and Mary Martin. He also made other television appearances, including, in 1967, a role in a U.S. performance of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion (pr. 1913). A number of his own plays were adapted for television. In 1955, to his astonishment, he was offered forty thousand dollars a week to appear at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas; that engagement was a personal triumph. Also in that year, he appeared in the film version of Around the World in Eighty Days. He followed this with a noteworthy performance in the 1959 film of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. A London revival of Private Lives led to major revivals of many of his other plays.

In 1970, Coward was knighted in recognition of his contributions, and in 1971, he received an honorary Tony Award for his career achievements. In 1972, the Coward revue Cowardy Custard played in London, and the revue Oh! Coward played in New York in 1973; both shows were essentially anthologies of his lyrics. Design for Living (Coward)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castle, Charles. Noël. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Informal compilation of biographical notes, photographs, texts of songs, extracts from plays, and recollections of friends provides an interesting supplement to more formal biographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coward, Noël. Collected Plays. Vol. 3. London: Methuen, 2000. Collection of plays includes Design for Living, Cavalcade, Conversation Piece, and three plays from the Tonight at 8:30 cycle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Noël Coward: Autobiography. 1986. Reprint. London: Methuen, 2003. Contains his three autobiographies: Present Indicative (1937), Future Indefinite (1954), and Past Conditional (an unfinished work). Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Max, with Lewis Funke. Max Gordon Presents. New York: Bernard Beis, 1963. Readable, generally anecdotal account of Gordon’s rise from New York slums to prominence as a theatrical producer. Includes some coverage of his work with Coward.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoare, Philip. Noël Coward: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Comprehensive, thoroughly researched biography places Coward’s work within the context of his life and times. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright. 1982. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. One of the earliest studies to take full account of Coward’s homosexuality. Stresses that topic and Coward’s desire for fame, sometimes at the expense of the plays’ substance. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lesley, Cole. Remembered Laughter: The Life of Noël Coward. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Well-written memoir is tipped slightly toward a personal, rather than professional, biography. First employed by Coward in 1936, Lesley remained his companion and assistant until Coward’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levin, Milton. Noël Coward. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Workmanlike study includes chronology, bibliography of Coward’s works, and limited bibliography of works about him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. The Theatrical Companion to Coward. 1957. Reprint. London: Oberon Books, 1999. Extremely useful for information on Coward’s early plays and other works. Includes a tribute to Coward by playwright Terence Rattigan as well as cast lists, production dates, synopses, a discography, and a list of individual songs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morley, Sheridan. A Talent to Amuse: A Biography of Noël Coward. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Focuses slightly more on Coward’s professional life than on his personal life. Includes a valuable chronology that lists his work as playwright, performer, composer, author, and director as well as major revivals of his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Margot. Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Biography of the Lunts features considerable material about their relationship with Coward. Includes photographs, chronology, selected bibliography, and index.

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