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Private Lives – Footnotes

May 24, 2023 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Noël Coward’s Private Lives include observations on what kind of love is on show in the play, on Sybil and Amanda as different kinds of women, and on the verbal precision of Coward’s language.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

What kind of love?
As Oliver and I agreed during our conversation in the podcast, the play does not present a very optimistic portrait of love or marriage. Oliver writes in his biography that Coward considered sexual love to be a destructive force, and it certainly seems to be here with Amanda and Elyot. They themselves talk about the combustible chemistry that there is between them: “we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

It is an obvious fact that uncontained sexual desire is potentially destructive, most commonly of course in propelling adultery that imperils marriages. Paradoxically we also assume sex to be an essential element of a successful partnership, and we champion romantic love as a prerequisite for marriage. Coward would almost certainly acknowledge the paradox.

Amanda and Elyot apparently feel too strongly to maintain a stable relationship. Their “overbearing love” is inevitably accompanied in Amanda’s words by “selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, (and) petty jealousy.” Having learned from bitter experience the destructive nature of this kind of love the first time around with Amanda, he says to Sybil that “love is no use unless it’s wise, and kind, and undramatic. Something steady and sweet, to smooth out your nerves when you’re tired. Something tremendously cosy – and unflurried by scenes and jealousies. That’s what I want, what I’ve always wanted really. Oh my dear, I do hope it’s not going to be dull for you.”  We, and I’m sure he, knows that it won’t be dull for Sybil, but for him. His determination that he loves Sybil “more wisely” is matched by Amanda’s claim that she will love Victor “more calmly”. Since when is love wise or calm?

It is difficult at times to resist falling for the kind of love that Amanda and Elyot feel. Elyot is unable to resist it when he first sees Amanda again on the terrace of the hotel: “you’re growing lovelier and lovelier every second as I look at you. You don’t hold any mystery for me, darling, do you mind? There isn’t a particle of you that I don’t know, remember, and want.”  He knows her deeply; it is genuinely moving, until you recall that he is saying this on the first night of his honeymoon to his other wife! So much for love that is “smooth” and “steady” and safe.

Coward himself said that he “was no good at love”. His characters certainly seem to be made in his own image.


Laura Carmichael as Sybil
and Stephen Mangan as Elyot
Private Lives
Donmar Theatre – April 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner

Stephen Mangan as Elyot
and Rachael Stirling as Amanda
Private Lives
Donmar Theatre – April 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner

Laura Carmichael as Sybil
Private Lives
Donmar Theatre April 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner

What kind of woman?
The contrast in the kinds of love on display in the play is personified in the opposing characters of Sybil and Amanda. Elyot describes Sybil as a “completely feminine little creature” – ‘little’ seldom being a complimentary attribute – and by feminine he means “everything in its place”. Sibyl is in fact proud herself of her “talent for organization”. These are not qualities to stir the blood.

Amanda is the opposite of deliberate and organized. She is impulsive, which she herself admits, saying to Victor: “I know I’m unreliable”. After all she runs aways with Elyot on the spur of the moment. In fact as Oliver suggested in the podcast, Coward may be playing with the stereotypical definitions of gender in his characterisation of Amanda. Sybil is happy to be “feminine”, saying that she hates ““these half-masculine women who go banging about”, by which it is highly probable that she means women like Amanda. Amanda is a powerful, even proto-liberated, kind of woman. Sybil as the conventional wife seems downright insipid next to her, and we expect that Amanda could run rings around Victor. She and Elyot have more in common than either the two men or the two women. It has been suggested that the characterisation of Amanda, and the play’s frequent references to conventional gender behaviour, are encoded references to homosexuality, although it is unnecessary to apply such interpretations to appreciate Coward’s portrayal of different kinds of women.


Verbal precision
Although we may no longer recognise the almost ridiculously self-conscious style of some of the dialogue in the play, it is impossible to resist the verbal precision of the language, particularly in the quick repartee between the couples. There is a recording of the fantastically clipped voices of Coward and Gertie Lawrence playing Elyot and Amanda on YouTube. Their diction is extraordinary, the rhythmic brilliance in their dialogue is almost musical.

In the tradition of epigrammatic playwrights, there are numerous quotable lines, including the incomparably concise music of “Don’t quibble, Sibyl”.  Or another favourite, when Elyot says that he and Sibyl met at a house party in Norfolk, Amanda’s wonderful, oblique retort is “Very flat, Norfolk”.

And one of the most enduring, when the orchestra plays their song, Amanda remarks, “Strange how potent cheap music is.” How deliciously true, as Coward might say.

Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives

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