Private Lives by Noel Coward- Critical Diary
Upon approaching reading Private Lives for the first time, one could feel sceptical regarding the subject matter or the intellectual value contained within the play. However upon researching Noel Cowards personal life and beliefs it becomes apparent that he had a way of communicating his thoughts and arguments in a way which can come across as wit and satire, but at their core these instances could be thought of as reflections of Coward as a person. Coward was once quoted as saying Why am I always expected to wear a dressing gown, smoke cigarettes in a long holder and say Darling, how wonderful? (Richards, 1968, pg 32). The reason for this could be seen to be that this is the image he carefully crafted for himself an image of being a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise (Time Magazine, 1969, Available at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,941819-2,00.html, Accessed 29/11/11). This image exudes throughout his plays, and is most in evidence throughout Private Lives, which is a comedy of manners set in three acts, during the 1930s; Cowards heyday.
Private Lives centres around the new relationships of a divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda. When they discover that they are honeymooning with their respective new spouses in adjoining suites, they are forced to confront their feelings for each other and their new spouses. The play begins with Elyot and his new wife, Sibyl conversing on the terrace of their hotel in France. The scene serves to illustrate Elyots passionate hatred for Amanda, and Sibyls conventional, sweet personality. During this scene Sibyl remarks that she does not wish to get sunburned, saying I hate it on women (Vintage International Edition, pg 188) to which Elyot responds Youre a completely feminine little creature, arent you? (pg 188). This immediately illustrates the character of Amanda as opposed to this ideal before she is even introduced to the audience. During the 1930s women were gradually becoming more independent and feminism was beginning to take root; in 1931 a women won the Nobel peace prize for the first time. It could be said that society of the time were split between the modern woman and the traditional ideal of the 30s lady, with her role clearly defined. Amanda is already painted as wilful and passionate, and she herself admits in the subsequent scene that she knows she is unreliable (pg 195). During this opening scene we come to realise that Elyot and Amandas characters could, at base, be seen as a metaphor for their very love which is described as two violent acids bubbling away in a nasty matrimonial bottle. This immediately paints a picture of their relationship being unhealthy and unusual, fuelled by passion, and this is further illustrated by the revelation that Elyot has struck Amanda and Amanda once broke four gramophone records over his head (pg 191). This could be argued as a metaphor for Cowards love life, and his love of sex. As a homosexual Coward was aware of breaking social norms, and although his homosexuality was never widely discussed, it was widely known. It was said by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan that Forty years ago he was slightly in Peter Pan, and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since. (Available at http://www.alanbrodie.com/clients/client_pages/C/Noel_Coward.html, accessed 29/11/11). Therefore it is a possibility that by creating two such characters who defied the traditional gender roles of the day, Coward was, in fact, liberating himself.
When Private Lives opened in 1930 at The Kings Theatre in Edinburgh it was to a mixed reception. It was described as tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring (Richards, 1968, pg 48). The critics were unsure as to what to make of the play and the passionate love scene in act two was considered so risqu at the time it was surprising it escaped the censors, it could be assumed that the gender roles that are explored in the play were unconventional and possibly distasteful for a 30s critic and this overshadowed the stronger themes of the play. However, one critic from the New Statesman thought differently. He picked up on Cowards darker view of love and passion, and he wrote that "It is not the least of Mr Coward's achievements that he has... disguised the grimness of his play and that his conception of love is really desolating." (Guardian Online, 2003, Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2003/sep/17/theatre, accessed 30/11/11). This is a particularly insightful comment as it brings to the forefront the discussions involved in the play of the darker side of love and what that can bring out in people. During the final scenes of the play we see the previously good-natured and sweet Victor and Sybil begin to turn on one another, with Victor exclaiming Youre one of the most completely idiotic women Ive ever met! (pg 252) and Sybil retorting And youre certainly the rudest man Ive ever met! (pg 252). This is a complete reversion from their previous character build-ups, and yet as an audience have been led to believe that this vehement passion is what the true love of the play consists of, the ending can be construed as Victor and Sybil ending up together, although this is ambiguous.
Coward himself believed that the theatre was for amusement, not to leach or reform them (Private Lives Study Guide, Available at http://www.enotes.com/private-lives, accessed 30/11/11), but despite this belief he created a piece of theatre which can encourage the audience to examine themselves and their own publicly shown visage.It could be said that, by its very title, Private Lives is a play about the secrets which lurk inside us all, and which were never more apparent than in the period of great change surrounding the time it was written. Exploring themes of passion and social acceptability, Private Lives encapsulates the view that very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstance. (pg 195).