Noel Coward, always an actor, often performed in his own plays, while in real life he assumed a public persona that closely resembled one of his own characters. As Sarah Duerden tells us, "the name 'Coward' has become synonymous with a certain English style: the elegant silk dressing gown, the cigarette holder, charm, wit, clipped phrases, upper-class accents, and sex appeal." On stage, Coward’s characters are always struggling to maintain this sort of high-toned British suavity and social polish in the face of their clamorous sexual desires and their uncontrollable feelings of jealousy, anger, and spite. Out of this conflict between elegant sang-froid and the hot-blooded madness of passion arises the distinctive comedy of his best work.
See more about Noel Coward here.
ct One takes place on the terrace of a luxury hotel in Deauville, France. Two adjoining suites open onto opposite sides of this terrace, which is divided in two by a line of potted plants. Each set of rooms is occupied by a pair of honeymooning guests—the social situation mirroring the architectural symmetry. On either side of the line of plants is a “set of suitable terrace furniture, two chairs, and a table. There are orange and white awnings shading the windows, as it is summer.”
As the Frommer travel guide to the region tells us, “Deauville has been associated with the rich and famous since it was founded as an upscale resort in 1859 by the duc de Morny, Napoléon III's half-brother. In 1913, it entered sartorial history when Coco Chanel launched her career here by opening a boutique selling tiny hats that challenged the then-current fashion of huge-brimmed hats loaded with flowers and fruit.”
Although the script does not name the hotel at which the characters are staying, chances are it is either the Royal Barriere or the Hotel Normandy.
The latter, again according to Frommer, “is the most famous hotel in Deauville, with a legendary chic that dates back to the Edwardian Age. The Anglo-Norman design, from 1912, includes half-timbering, dovecotes, turrets, gables, and a decor that resembles a cozy but stately English country house. . . . Originally built to house well-heeled gamblers from the nearby casino, it continues to draw the gambling crowd today.”
On the other hand, if the honeymooners are staying at the Royal Barriere, built in 1913, they are enjoying a location that, “adjoins the casino and fronts a park near the Channel.” Moreover, says Frommer, “It rises like a palace, with columns and exposed timbers. Although it doesn't have the ‘insider’ cachet of the Hôtel Normandy, it is a grander and more opulent hotel.”
In either case, a top-class suite at one of these hotels at 2004 prices will cost between $1200 and $1600 per night. The rates would no doubt have been comparably high in 1930.
Act Two is set in Paris in a “charmingly furnished flat” on the Avenue Montaigne, a street that has been described as “well-known for its couturiers and perfume shops . . . one of the most fashionable in the capital.” This flat, large enough to accommodate a grand piano and a full complement of tables, chairs, sofas, settees, and china cabinets is, like the hotel in Deauville, comfortable, spacious, and ultra deluxe.
And so the action unfolds in settings that embody glamorous fantasy. Casinos, renowned couturiers, and Parisian chic form the context for this erotic farce, providing an elegant backdrop to hormonal chaos. This is the world of dreamlike opulence that would be captured in escapist Hollywood films of the 30s, the kind of setting where Fred and Ginger might find themselves dancing gracefully in evening wear as a society orchestra plays the buttoned-up jazz of Paul Whiteman and a be-furred society matron talks on a white telephone.
Apart from creating an aura of stylish luxury, the settings also provide an ironic contrast to the shenanigans of the characters. You can install human beings amid palatial architecture, house them at swank addresses, and surround them with pricey furniture, but none of this will prevent them from falling prey to the demons of desire. The baronial hotel or chic flat is just as likely a venue for illicit sex and jealous violence as the dingiest dive in town.
Act One opens with Sibyl, a young honeymooner, calling to her new husband, Elyot, to join her on the terrace of their Deauville hotel. As they talk, we learn that this is Elyot’s second marriage—his first, to Amanda, having ended in divorce five years earlier after a sensationally stormy relationship. Sibyl’s relentless curiosity about Amanda yields little in the way of information from Elyot, who is irritated by her questioning. But it reveals a great deal about Sibyl’s impression of her predecessor—an impression quite probably conveyed by Elyot himself in previous conversations. “She lost you,” Sibyl asserts, “with her violent tempers and carryings on.” She was “uncontrolled, and wicked, and unfaithful.”
Elyot, however, does not join the attack on his ex-wife. Although he says that he despises her, mostly he claims to feel sorry for her “because she’s marked for tragedy.” Rather than tearing Amanda apart, Elyot jabs at Sybil, playfully but caustically, insulting her bossy mother, her bad dancing, and her kittenish feminine wiles. Meanwhile he insists that Amanda “had some very good qualities,” which included being “pretty and sleek” and dancing “like an angel.”
With his guarded attitude to Amanda, and his arm’s length stance toward Sybil, Elyot seems, at best, ambivalent in his feelings about his second marriage. As the newlyweds head back into their suite to dress for dinner, it’s clear that romantic passion has had little to do with luring Elyot into the arms of his new wife.
No sooner do Sibyl and Elyot disappear than Victor steps onto the terrace from the neighboring suite, calling for “Mandy” to join him, thereby producing the mirror image of the play’s beginning. Within a handful of lines, we learn that an impish fate has placed Amanda and her second husband—also on their honeymoon—right next door to Elyot and Sybil.
The scene between Victor and Amanda is a virtual echo of the previous exchange between Sybil and Eliot. Victor insistently harps on Elyot’s faults, Amanda irritably evades the subject, and both convey a fundamental impression of incompatibility. As with their counterparts on the other side of the terrace, their scene ends with their leaving to dress for dinner at the casino.
After a moment during which the stage is empty, Elyot appears bearing a tray of cocktails. As he sits on the balustrade, looking out at the view, with an orchestra somewhere below playing a romantic tune, Amanda appears, also with a tray of drinks. The parallel dramatic lines laid down in the first two scenes are about to be wrenched into convergence, as the fugitives from a catastrophic marriage meet again.
At first they are horrified to find themselves in such proximity. After a few strangled lines expressing their dismay, each rushes off to a respective spouse to demand an immediate departure from Deauville.
This apparently mad whim provokes quarrels on both sides of the terrace, first between Sibyl and Elyot, then between Victor and Amanda. Reduced to tears by Elyot’s insults, Sibyl storms off to the dining room; driven to a fury by Amanda’s abuse, Victor exits to the bar. Equally incensed at their departed partners, Elyot and Amanda share cigarettes, cocktails, grievances, and, eventually, romantic memories.
One thing leads to another, and these two volatile lovers find their old passion for each other re-ignited. In a moment of madness, they decide to abscond together to Paris and take up residence in Amanda’s flat on the Avenue Montaigne, living together in reckless bliss without benefit of matrimony or social approval. But before they run off, they decide they must make a plan to avoid “all those awful rows” that separated them in the past. Amanda insists that she, “won’t move from here unless we have a compact, a sacred, sacred compact never to quarrel again.” She proposes a “phrase or catchword” which, when spoken by either, will cut off all conversation for five minutes. Agreeing on “Solomon Isaacs” as the magic words, they flee into the night, headed for Paris and unwedded bliss.
A moment later Victor and Sibyl return to the terrace, looking sheepishly for their missing mates. As the curtain falls, they decide to share the remaining cocktails, drinking to “absent friends.”
Act Two opens with Elyot and Amanda enjoying after-dinner drinks in their Parisian apartment. Since returning from Deauville, they have spent the evenings at home, enjoying the “strangely peaceful” consolations of each other’s company. Given their explosive tempers, however, such tranquility seems likely to break down sooner or later. In anticipation of which, they have decided to shorten their time-out phrase from “Solomon Isaacs” to “Sollocks.”
Their conversation meanders along, touching wittily but uneventfully on such miscellaneous topics as foreign travel, religion, and the psychological hazards of marriage. Until they come to the subject of Claire Lavenham, an attractive widow with whom Amanda often pictured Elyot “bouncing about” on a divan. Suddenly, the embers of jealousy send up a lick of fresh flame:
AMANDA: Did you ever have an affair with her? Afterwards I mean?
And they’re off, trading darts about promiscuity and loose behavior until they find themselves on the brink of the precipice, about to tumble over into one of their hair-pulling rows. At which point Amanda notes, “We should have said Sollocks ages ago.”
They calm down, and try again to make their way through the evening as a quietly loving couple, only to work their way once more—as if drawn by an irresistible force—to the brink of violence, as Elyot works himself into a jealous rage over Victor. This time he calls, “Sollocks,” halting their mad descent into conflict.
And so it goes throughout the act: they move through a kind of repetitive dance, a cyclic sequence wherein charm leads to sarcasm, which leads to spite, which leads to rage, which leads to “Sollocks.” Each cycle draws them closer to the edge, each escape grows narrower and narrower, until finally they work themselves into a fit of passion far too potent to be quelled by the feeble magic of their catchword. Words lead to blows, blows to overturned furniture, and overturned furniture to mad grappling on the floor, until at last they exhaust themselves in an orgy of farcical violence. At which moment Victor and Sybil appear, having finally tracked their absconding spouses to this den, not of iniquity, but of absurdity. And so the curtain falls on Act Two.
Act Three begins the following morning, with Victor and Sybil sleeping amid the wreckage of the previous night’s row. As Amanda and Elyot emerge from their respective bedrooms, they realize they must confront a social situation “entirely without precedent,” as Elyot says, and for which “we have no prescribed etiquette to fall back upon.” The remainder of the act consists in watching these four people picking their way awkwardly through this no-man’s-land of manners and morals.
Will Elyot and Victor resort to fisticuffs? Will Sybil consider a reconciliation with Elyot? Will Victor divorce Amanda, leaving her to struggle through the remainder of life under a cloud of disgrace? (Under English divorce laws of the time, a man would have to prove that his wife had committed adultery in order to divorce her. This would be a harsh step, since the woman would then suffer an ineradicable moral blemish, becoming a pariah in respectable society. A woman divorcing her husband would also have to charge and prove adultery, but the man would not be subject to the same opprobrium.) All of these possibilities are explored in a sequence of two-character scenes, until finally the options are sorted out: Elyot and Victor will not come to blows; Victor will do the gentlemanly thing, and allow Amanda to divorce him; and Sybil will not move to divorce Elyot for a year, thus leaving open the possibility of reconciliation.
Having settled these nettlesome, and potentially explosive, questions in reasonably civilized fashion, the fractured couples then sit down to a French breakfast of coffee and brioches. As they awkwardly attempt to sustain a stream of polite small talk, we begin to see that Victor and Sybil have not worn well on each other during their Deauville to Paris adventure. As jab leads to dig, and dig to insult, they begin acting just like Elyot and Amanda in Act Two. Soon, they start saying the unspeakable to one another. Victor to Sybil: “You’re one of the most completely idiotic women I’ve ever met.” Sybil in return: “You’re certainly the rudest man I’ve ever met . . . . You insufferable great brute.” And what is the casus belli of these hostilities? Nothing other that the relative merits of their guilty spouses, with Victor spewing contempt for Elyot, and Sybil pouring scorn on Amanda. Simply to talk of Elyot and Amanda, it seems, is to touch an emotional third rail, to be hit with the same sort of behavioral voltage that regularly jolts them. And so, as the guilty lovers exchange affectionate signals of yet another post-Sollocks reconciliation, Victor and Sybil fall to their own Apache dancing: “she slaps his face hard, and he takes her by the shoulders and shakes her like a rat.” Meanwhile, their own demons on hold, “Amanda and Elyot go smilingly out through the double doors, and—the Curtain falls.”
Elyot worries his new wife by being blasé about their honeymoon. After all, he has been this route before. Thus our first impression is of a man who is somewhat disengaged from what ought to be one of life’s landmarks. Not only does he seem to be detached from the moment, he also strikes us as emotionally distant from his bride. “You’re very strange all of a sudden, and rather cruel,” Sybil tells him after he accuses her of being a calculating “little sharp-eyed, blonde kitten.” But it is not so much cruelty that Sybil detects as its first cousin, irony—a way of standing outside experience, observing it with a mocking smile. Earlier, for example, there is this exchange:
SIBYL: I musn’t get sunburnt.
When Elyot offers to learn pipe-smoking, he is making an ironic joke. He no more intends to take up that sort of hearty, masculine habit than he means to fight with Victor in Act Three. Instead, by pretending to conventional masculinity, he mocks it, showing he stands humorously outside the scheme of values and allegiances of which pipes and fistfights are symbols. Such tokens of social conformity are merely poses to be assumed and cast off as whim or convenience dictates. Later on, an enraged—and deeply sincere—Victor accuses Elyot of “incessant trivial flippancy.” He is exactly right. Elyot takes nothing seriously, certainly not marriage vows, those dreary expressions of conventional morality. Instead, he stands apart, watching himself and others with a weary smile.
What he expects from his second marriage, he tells Sybil, is a sort of emotional somnabulism, something “undramatic. . . . steady and sweet, to smooth out your nerves when you’re tired. Something tremendously cozy.” A prescription, he realizes at once, for tedium: “Oh my dear, I do hope it’s not going to be dull for you.” Clearly, he expects it to be dull for him. His only compensation, it seems, will be the amusement to be gained by living his life as a private joke.
It is only when he reconnects with Amanda that he overcomes his detachment and begins to live as if he meant it. He stops posturing, and swats down Amanda’s assertion that they are “starting afresh with two quite different people. . . . In love all over again.” “No,” he tells her forthrightly, “We’re not in love all over again, and you know it.” Being with Amanda shakes him out of his ironic aloofness. Like a male sleeping beauty awakened by a kiss, he emerges from the emotional hibernation he has described to Sybil, and runs off with his charming princess to Paris.
Of course, real feeling turns out to be rather strong medicine—too strong even for “Sollocks”—but no matter. Once the elixir of life is back in his veins, he seems unable to give it up, and so off he runs again with Amanda at the end of the play, fleeing from convention and detachment, and from the state of suspended animation in which they imprison him.
Amanda too seems to be merely playing at life when she is apart from Elyot. As she says to Victor by way of explaining the failure of her first marriage, “I suffered a good deal and had my heart broken. But it wasn’t an innocent girlish heart. It was jagged with sophistication. I’ve always been sophisticated, far too knowing.”
Clearly this is pure camp, a self-mocking performance. Only a joker—or a pretentious fool—would call herself “jagged with sophistication.” And Amanda is certainly no fool. Like Elyot, she seems to be standing outside herself, making fun of what she sees, and pulling Victor’s leg. Poor square that he is, his leg is always available, waiting to be yanked by his mocking wife. Thus, in their first exchange on the terrace, her tongue is always in her cheek, while Victor’s foot seems stuck in his mouth:
VICTOR: You look wonderful. . . . Like a beautiful advertisement for something.
Seen through Amanda’s ironic gaze, poor Victor becomes a cartoon Englishman: a humorless, pompous bore, wrapped in excessively fuzzy tweeds. He is a ball of yarn that feline Amanda plays with as long as it amuses her, and then drops in a sudden fit of indifference. Only Elyot’s arrival knocks her off kilter, upsets her perfect, mocking poise. Upon first sight of him, she flies into a panic, and spins absurd falsehoods in an attempt to persuade Victor to leave the hotel immediately. Staid Briton that he is, he refuses to act on such flimsy premises, driving Amanda into a rage. On the spot she seems to validate her theory about the real nature of our private lives, which, she maintains, are dictated by the operation of “various cosmic thingummys,” thanks to which “there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.” She and Elyot, in fact, were like “two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty matrimonial bottle.”
The enemy of irony, then, is chemistry—or rather, the heat produced by the chemical interaction of such dangerous elements as love, jealousy, lying, and recklessness. In passing from Victor to Elyot, Amanda moves from inertia to explosiveness. But even as she makes this transition, the ironic part of her stands back, amusedly observing the pull of the “thingummys.” Having quarreled with Victor, she stands on the terrace with an equally vexed Elyot, looking out at the gorgeous view and listening to the orchestra play a romantic tune they remember from their own honeymoon. It’s a perfectly cliched moment (“Darling, they’re playing our song!”), and Amanda knows it. But if she cannot resist the cliché’s seductiveness, neither can she resist commenting ironically on it. “Strange how potent cheap music is,” she says—as if watching herself in the mirror while she falls in love.
So Amanda replicates Elyot, and as everyone knows that’s not supposed to work in romance where, as the commonplace has it, opposites attract. Which also means that similars ought to repel. Eventually, in Act Two, they do, and, as we have seen, the fur flies as cosmic thingummys and violent acids splatter the walls.
Elyot’s response to the embarrassments of Act Three is, as Victor notes scornfully, flippancy. Amanda’s, as we might expect, is further camp performance. At first, with Victor, she plays the role of fallen woman—an echo, perhaps, of La Dame aux Camelias:
I ought never to have married you; I’m a bad lot. . . . I won’t make any difficulties. I’ll go away, far away, Morocco, or Tunis, or somewhere. I shall probably catch some dreadful disease and die out there, all alone—oh dear!
When even Victor sees through her self-pitying histrionics, she changes her tune, and declares, “I’ve changed my mind, it’s the wrong time of year for Tunis. I shall go somewhere quite different. I believe Brioni . . . is very nice in the summer.” [Brioni being an idyllic archipelago in the Adriatic Sea.] Victor is not having any of this either, demanding, “Why won’t you be serious for just one moment.” But her seriousness is pretty much reserved for Elyot—or, at least, for quarrelling with Elyot.
In her next role, she offers her unwelcome guests a parody of the gracious hostess, handing about coffee and brioches, and chatting airily about the pleasures of travel:
AMANDA: (with great vivacity) Do you know, I really think I love travelling more than anything else in the world! It always gives me such a tremendous feeling of adventure. . . . [T]he thrill of . . . trundling along on trains and ships, and then the most thrilling thing of all . . . arriving at strange places, and seeing strange people, and eating strange foods--
At which point, the synergy of Amanda’s campy-ness and Elyot’s flippancy produces a dynamic result: she explodes with laughter, choking on her coffee. The two lovers reunite over a joke that undermines the bourgeois proprieties of the breakfast table.
Sybil doesn’t like to get suntanned, finding it unfeminine. She likes a man to be a man, and vice versa. She hates “half-masculine women who go banging about,” has a mother who seems to intimidate Elyot, and claims a “talent for organization.” Despite which, she loses her trunk on the trip from Deauville to Paris, a misadventure she blames on Victor, who failed to tip the porter adequately. So despite her managerial skills, she depends on men to get things done right.
Victor finds her “an ass,” “one of the most completely idiotic women” he’s ever met, “a silly, scatter-brained, little fool.” Finally, in a superb burst of invective, Victor empties both barrels at Elyot’s pretty, blonde bride:
It’s a tremendous relief to me to have an excuse to insult you. I’ve had to listen to your weeping and wailing for days. You’ve clacked at me, and sniveled at me until you’ve nearly driven me insane. I always thought you were stupid from the first, but I must say I never realized that you were a malicious little vixen as well.
Poor Sybil. Is she guilty of this monstrous indictment? Or is Victor simply driven over the edge of civility by his raging hormones?
The answer is doubtless somewhere in between. In Act One, Elyot worries that Sybil will manage him—that is, turn him into her idea of a suitably conformist male. That would be vixen’s work indeed, the project of a sly little fox. But in the end she is defeated, no match for Elyot’s elusive ironies. Like Elyot and Amanda, the thingummys seize her by the scruff of the neck, and hurl her into a battle-royale with Victor. But unlike them, she has never engaged in any elegant verbal sparring before the slugfest.
Victor is in many ways the male counterpart of Sybil. He dislikes suntanned women, too. And he also likes men to be men, as he demonstrates with his vigorously fuming pipe and scratchy tweeds. Indeed, among his most ardent moments in the play is his declaration that, “I’m glad I’m normal.”
Amanda is nonplussed by that remark, normalcy being among the lowest items on her personal list of desirables. But she has chosen Victor, after all, presumably in full knowledge of his abounding conventionality. He is her anti-Elyot, the man who will replace the flippant ironist in her life.
In trying to handle Amanda, however, Victor is like a man trying to get a grip on mercury. It simply cannot be done. He is helpless before her. As she says in Act Two, “He used to look at me hopelessly like a lovely spaniel, and I sort of melted like snow in the sunlight.” Victor is a faithful dog; Amanda is the new-fallen snow. How must a dog feel as it watches snow melt? Confused about its disappearance, one might guess.
And such is the case with Victor. He tries to do the “right thing” in response to his wife’s delinquency, but nobody will deal with him forthrightly, and so he is left befuddled, like a dog with a stick no one will toss. Elyot treats the idea of fisticuffs as risible while Amanda treats the notion of serious moral discussion as a boorish imposition. Amanda patronizes him, and Elyot calls him a rampaging gas bag. Such are the rewards of simple virtue in the land of the thingummy.
Private Lives seems to dramatize the successful escape of its chief characters, Amanda and Elyot, from the arena of public events into the realm of exclusively personal experience. A product of the giddy sexual upheavals of the 1920s, Private Lives premiered in 1930, on the heels of the stock market crash, and at the dawn of a decade of social and political turbulence that Harold Clurman would later call the "fervent years." For Amanda and Elyot, however, the political upheavals of the "Red Decade" lie in an inconceivable future. The outrage over economic injustice that would fuel the labor movements in England and America; the looming tumult of fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany; the growing appeal to western political "progressives" of Bolshevik Russia and Big Brother Stalin all lurk on the far side of a horizon that these blessed hedonists never cross. Amanda and Elyot seem to be the favored children of history, privileged madcaps whose main concern is preserving the atmosphere of "incessant trivial flippancy" that envelops their unconventional lives.
The opening of the play finds them in adjoining rooms in a posh hotel on the coast of France. Each is on a second honeymoon with a second spouse—Elyot with Sibyl, and Amanda with Victor. But both for them and for their new mates, their first marriage to one another remains an inescapable focus of conversation and concern. In spite of the passage of time and the encounter with others, Amanda and Elyot still dominate one another's erotic imaginations. Their marriage was brief, intense, passionate, violent, and unforgettable. As Amanda says, attempting to describe their gorgeous eccentricity,
I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there's no knowing what one mightn't do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.
These volatile lovers separate only to reunite, like chemical elements enacting the irresistible compulsions of nature. When they discover one another across the shrubbery separating their terraces, the violent reacton of their "cosmic thingummys" is swift and overwhelming. The memory of the passionate love they shared five years earlier makes them forget for the moment their equally passionate jealousies and resentments, and they decide to run off together to Paris, abandoning their new spouses in a single instant of madness.
Thus far, Amanda and Elyot seem to function outside the grim realities of the everyday social world. Their lives occur in a happy bubble of deluxe resorts, swank hotels, expensive restaurants, glittering casinos, and charming little flats on the
Right-Bank. What propels them is pure appetite, for food, scenery, champagne, and love—commodities on which they are apparently free to spend limitless amounts of time and money. They are fabulous creatures, unconstrained by jobs, or families, by moral inhibition or religious belief. As Elyot says after they have arrived in Paris:
ELYOT: You have no faith, that's what's wrong with you.
This is a pretty flimsy code of ethics, especially since Amanda's kindness apparently does not extend to Elyot's new wife, to her own second husband, or, through much of the play, to Elyot himself. Which leaves one wondering how old beggar ladies would actually fare at her hands.
But for all its omissions—or perhaps precisely because of them—this credo does sound a distinctively modern note. In fact, like so many of her literary siblings in the twentieth century, Amanda believes in nothing. She inhabits a universe devoid of transcendent meaning in which the only imperative is to be "gay." In his own agnostic moment Elyot asserts, “You musn't be serious . . . It's just what they want. . . . All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths.”
Their withdrawal from the everyday world of their fellow mortals is thus complete: they have removed themselves physically from contact with daily banality, and spiritually from any communion with the believers and moralists whose convictions roil the world outside their private sanctuary. All that matters to them is feeling, the individual drama of love. And even that has its limitations:
AMANDA: What is so horrible is that one can't stay happy.
And of course the whole thrust of the play is to show what a colossal joke love is, how tenderness and romance can change in an instant to bickering and violence, and then, just as irrationally, morph back again. The whole second act is just such a sequence of oscillating emotions, culminating in a ludicrous explosion that shatters their Parisian idyll. The tides of feeling ebb and flow pointlessly in their pointless universe, and yet this flux is all they live for.
Thus, Amanda and Elyot, seemingly carefree children of the naughty 20s, might actually be viewed as older cousins of that absurdist duo of the 50s: Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. Though they are blessed with fatter bankrolls and better clothes (and exhibit no interest in Godot), they have approximately the same goals, namely to pass the time while waiting for their private lives to end.
Eventually, though, the world does catch up with them in the persons of their pursuing spouses, an encounter Elyot and Amanda have been dreading from the outset of their escapade. Victor and Sibyl bring with them a middle-class concern for moral and legal propriety, for some semblance of meaning and rationality in life. Theirs is the voice of the community, of the universe of social values at which the fugitive lovers have been thumbing their noses throughout the play.
Victor and Sibyl arrange for divorces, and devise face-saving strategies that will avoid humiliation and "mud-slinging." Victor even attempts to achieve something like a moral accounting in the wake of the chemical chaos of Elyot's and Amanda's passions:
AMANDA (turning away): I see you're determined to make me serious, whether I like it or not.
Evidently Victor hasn't heard that one does change all in a minute, and that we are powerless to resist this natural volatility.
And so the play approaches its conclusion, Amanda and Elyot chastened by the realization of their folly and by the sobering influence of their betrayed spouses. The social world seems in the end to have triumphed over their private insurrection—until, that is, the two fractured couples sit down to eat breakfast together, a civilized ritual that will send them all on their ways back to sanity.
Beneath the rattle of small-talk, however, we begin to hear the ominous buzz of irrational feelings. Unsuspected resentments break into the open, insults begin to fly, and with them blows. The Vesuvius of passion erupts yet again, demolishing the tidy solutions and sensible arrangements so painfully cobbled together just moments before. And under cover of the smoke and thunder created by this volcano, Amanda and Elyot once again slip away from the clutches of the bourgeois universe.
For Noel Coward, then, life is a kind of giddy chase, with the winners eluding the deadly embrace of respectability. Fortunately, explosive nature, more powerful than any social norms, is always there to assist the fugitives. Like our feelings, which ebb and flow, our relations with the social world are also variable, creating a sort of cyclical drama: the world is always catching up with its gay escapees, but if they are determined enough to flout the moralists, they are always breaking free again.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why did the playwright set the action amid such glamour and luxury?
2. What is the significance of the title?
3. Why are Sybil and Victor so interested in their spouses’ first marriages?
4. What does Elyot do for a living? Victor? Amanda? Sybil?
5. What is the significance of the answers to the previous questions?
6. What will happen to Amanda and Elyot after they flee from the flat in Paris?
7. Should we feel that Amanda and Elyot are behaving badly, or immorally, when they run off together at the end of Act One?
8. If Sybil and Victor had met each other before meeting Elyot and Amanda, is it possible they would have fallen in love, married, and been happy together?
9. What is irony? How does it work? Why do people engage in it?
10. Who is the most sympathetic character in the play? The least sympathetic? Why?