Places: Private Lives

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1930

First produced: 1930

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comedy of manners

Time of work: 1929

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedFrench hotel

French Private Liveshotel. 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.

BibliographyCoward, 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.
Categories: Places