Noel Coward’s Outdated Defiance

Noel Coward's "Design for Living" - now in revival by the Shakespeare Theatre Company - shocked audiences when it premiered on Broadway in 1933. It's not hard to see why.

The play, about a polyandrous relationship between two men and a woman, makes no apologies for its liberationist view of sex and relationships and could hardly be more direct in its sympathetic presentation of gay attachment. "Design for Living" was considered so risque that Coward had to wait until 1939 before staging a production in London for fear of offending British censors.

Seen today, the play shocks, but for an altogether different reason: Its message is so outdated that it's bewildering why any theater would put it on except for its curatorial interest as a period artifact.

The story begins in a dilapidated Paris garret shared by Otto, a painter, and his lover Gilda, a sprightly, if aimless young interior designer who proudly expresses her view that marriage, at least for her, is "repellent." She wishes she could believe "in God, the Daily Mailand Mother India" but instead leads a life of carefree bohemianism and free love. Gilda, you see, isn't just in love with Otto. She's also in love with Leo, a wandering playwright who has just returned to Paris. This isn't a typical love triangle, however, in that Leo also is in love with Otto, and Otto is in love with them both. Together, they are waging a "private offensive against the moral code," in the words of a 1933 Time magazine cover story about Coward. The upholder of this code is Ernest Friedman, a stately and punctilious art dealer who faults Gilda for leading a "dreadfully untidy" life. (His first name isn't incidental.)

The trio's fragile harmony is upset by the unexpected and early return of Leo, who shares "an unpremeditated roll in the hay" with Gilda. Otto becomes distraught and furious when he discovers this infidelity, and the betrayers express what appears to be sincere guilt about "cheating" on him. Otto storms off, while Gilda follows Leo to London, where he soon becomes a very successful playwright and the toast of the town. (The play is loosely autobiographical; Coward had a similar, though nonsexual, relationship with the husband-and-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and the three performed together in the play's Broadway debut).

What makes "Design for Living" even more defiant of prewar social mores of its time is that the characters do not view their domestic arrangements as anything of which to be ashamed; to the contrary, it is society's expectations that they deem immoral. "I shouldn't feel cozy married!" Gilda tells Leo when he half-seriously proposes that they elope, if only to make gliding along the London society circuit less awkward. "It would upset my moral principles." Leo, for his part, confesses that there's "no use making any of us toe the line for long" when confronted with the prospect of matrimony.

This all made for very interesting stuff in the 1930s and could accurately be said to characterize a certain gay sensibility of the era. Decades before a concept like same-sex marriage was in the consciousness of gays, it was understandable that gay artists would mock the sort of conventional social arrangements that were closed off to them (unless, of course, they sublimated their nature). Indeed, those rare gays who sought to "couple" were mocked for "playing at" traditional heterosexual life, not just by straights but by their fellow "inverts."

Much of the "Design" protagonists' dialogue can be read as inchoate yet by now dated arguments for tolerance of homosexuality; Otto defends the threesome as immoral "only when measured up against other people's standards" and speaks of seeking "our own solutions for our own peculiar moral problems." In a line that the latter-day gay rights movement could borrow without alteration from Coward's script, Otto admonishes Gilda for worrying about societal disapproval by stating that their lives are "none of their business, we aren't doing any harm to anybody else."

The three lead characters were curiosities in the 1930s, so rare was the openly bisexual or gay person, never mind the proudly polyamorous. Today, however, they just come across as self-obsessed, vain and cruel.

"Design for Living" premiered in an era when traditional ideas about sex and the role of women in society were being challenged, and the play's notoriety almost surely had something to do with the audience's vicarious envy of the characters' ability to break free of oppressive conventions. In the ensuing 70-plus years, however, America has witnessed the wages of free love, and we've decided they're not pretty. The play's controversy is obsolete; there really is no serious constituency these days arguing for the virtue of non-monogamous relationships. And as much as gays have been cultural iconoclasts, it's difficult to imagine a leading gay playwright of Coward's artistic stature today endorsing the sort of message presented in "Design for Living."

Indeed, I don't think I'm speaking out of turn in my presumption that "Design for Living" would stick in the craw of most gays today. Its unsubtle conflation of polyandry and homosexuality as "lifestyles" equally deserving of social approval is the very sort of "slippery slope" argument proffered by religious conservatives to which gay marriage proponents so strenuously object.

The play is not as antiquated as art deco, swing dancing and other artifacts of the 1930s. It even might have served as a socially relevant statement in the 1960s, during the American cultural revolution, and as late as the 1970s or early 1980s, the age of gay liberation, when activists argued that frequent (and anonymous) sex with multiple partners was more than just a civil right; it was a fundamental part of being gay. AIDS made hash of that viewpoint, as did the general ideological maturation of a community that, while still fighting for equal rights, has earned a societal tolerance that neither Coward nor any gay person of his time ever could have imagined.

I suspect that today's more enlightened understanding of homosexuality as something wholly natural to the human experience and unthreatening to society had something to do with the audience's confused response to the play's fundamental moral darkness. This reaction was most apparent during the final scene, when Gilda must decide between her two young lovers and Ernest, whom she has married and with whom she has decamped to New York. In a sputtering and pathetic spectacle, Ernest condemns the play's putative heroes and their uninhibited ways, yelling that he "could never understand this disgusting three-sided erotic hotchpotch." Red in the face, he farcically trips on a stack of recently acquired paintings as he stomps furiously out of the room.

Until this point in the production, it isn't entirely clear which side in this fundamental dispute Coward will endorse. But by the end of the play, his ambition is obvious: a rejection of monogamy as a societal ideal in favor of whatever floats one's individual boat. As Ernest storms off the stage spewing invective like machine-gun fire, Leo, Otto and Gilda lie erotically curled over one another on the couch in a fit of hysterics, and we're meant to laugh with them in this victory of independence and bohemianism over bourgeois constrictions. But the audience at the performance I attended viewed this triumph with bewildered silence, and I have no reason to believe its reaction was in any way unique.

In times like these, with commentators of all political stripes bemoaning the divorce rate and speaking of out-of-wedlock birth rates with alarm, and when gays are fighting for the right to marry and join the nation's armed forces, as opposed to pursuing lives of sexual abandon, it is the studiously old-fashioned Ernest with whom we naturally sympathize, not the egotistical and emotionally frivolous Bright Young Things, no matter how glamorous and sophisticated they may seem. Here, an inverted adaptation of Marx's observation about the repetition of history makes sense: What's intended as farce winds up as tragedy.

6 Comments for “Noel Coward’s Outdated Defiance”

  1. posted by Bobby on

    What nonsense, why should I want to see a play like that? Porn has more artistic value than such ridiculous sentimentality. A woman in love with two men with one of those being in love with the woman and the man and then the woman must choose between the two? How ridiculous.

    This play doesn’t advance gay rights but it sets them back because it portrays gay men as bisexuals that can fornicate with anything that moves.

    I always knew that Broadway was out of touch with the rest of America. There are so many important topics that oculd be covered but instead they decide to revive this 1930s garbage. Seriously, I’d rather watch Cabaret, anything with Mae West, Gone with the Wind, even Ms. Saigon is better than such a putrescent filthy play.

  2. posted by Catherine on

    I seem to recall watching this play perform at my University, back in the days of long ago. It was OK. Their is a entire genre of visual and literary art — decadence — that came out of the 19th century.

    It was some of the earliest mentions, let alone supports for, of homosexuality or bisexuality. So, it has some historical and cultural relevance, and may play well at college parties.

    Part of the problem — at least for men — is that they are generally taught to sleep around. Settling down and marriage are mocked, even among straight men, as submitting to chains and letting the, ‘little woman’ cut off your manhood.

    Much of this has clearly carried on over to gay and bisexual men. A man who sleeps around is called, “stud” while when a woman does it she is called, “slut”.

    Maybe its just me — being a little woman and all of that jazz — but I cannot but help see sexism as an underlining problem in gay marriage as it applies to the gay and straight community.

  3. posted by Clay on

    Bobby decries “1930s garbage,” but apparently doesn’t know that Cabaret, Mae West and Gone With The Wind were all rooted in the 1930s. But of course there’s no waterboarding in Noel Coward so Cheney can’t tell Bobby it’s OK.

    Respectfully, James, it seems silly to me to project our values and lifestyles backwards onto an artistic work from another era in order to find fault with that work. Shakespeare and Euripides are products of obsolete era too. So what? Not everything has to be about contemporary politics.

  4. posted by hazemyth on

    “America has witnessed the wages of free love, and we’ve decided they’re not pretty. The play’s controversy is obsolete; there really is no serious constituency these days arguing for the virtue of non-monogamous relationships.”

    I’m not sure what’s meant by ‘serious’. Perhaps ‘sizable’ is meant, in which case there never was such a constituency. Perhaps ‘vocal’ is meant. In any event, there was no such constituency when the play was released, and yet the play was controversial then, so the final statement isn’t really apposite. Further, ‘free love’ has always been a minority view, and that needn’t be explained as an empirical response to supposed ‘wages’ of the 60’s. Yet I think the reviewer has left a fair share of ‘America’ out of his estimation.

    I take umbrage at the insinuation that a committed polyamorists are, by definition, any more or less “egotistical” or “frivolous” in their feeling than monogamists. Love is pretty generally both selfish and generous by turns — and any relationship deserves it’s fair share of frivolity. A third person needn’t change this. It seems clear that the reviewer does indeed “naturally sympathize” with Ernest’s disgust — so naturally that he does not reflect upon it. I don’t know whether he “could never understand” polyamory but he certainly hasn’t tried.

    All of which suggests that the play is still controversial, at last to the reviewer. For someone who claims not to be scandalized, he declares his blase with excessive force.

  5. posted by Bobby on

    “Bobby decries “1930s garbage,” but apparently doesn’t know that Cabaret, Mae West and Gone With The Wind were all rooted in the 1930s. But of course there’s no waterboarding in Noel Coward so Cheney can’t tell Bobby it’s OK.”

    —I was referring to ONE PLAY from the 1930s. Mae West’s films were comedies, Gone with the Wind is a drama (or melodrama) according to some, but Noel Coward’s play advocates things I find very disagreeable. Tell me, have you read Lolita? I haven’t, why would I want to read a book about an old man who falls in love with a teenage girl? It’s disgusting. Noel Coward’s play sounds disgusting and it shouldn’t be revived. Seriously, why is it that gay art often focuses on negative things? We have all those horrible films from Gus Van Sant where gays are either prostitutes or high school killers, we have “F-gg-ts” by Larry Kramer which portrays our comrades as a bunch of sex maniacs, and we have Brokeback Mountain where the cowboys are already married and one of them has sex in a public bathroom.

    I don’t mind horror in fun breeder movies like Saw, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Candyman, and other fine pro-vagina horror films. But when it comes to gay art, why can’t our gay creators do something nicer than the filth they generally deliver?

  6. posted by richard Parent on

    I don’t know which is worse: the prissy twit who wrote the review or the commenters who agree with him — There is no proof that nature in general aspires towards monogamy or that people do either — The audience reaction towards the play’s end only shows that not everyone is ready to be a “bohemian” or to face the truth squarely about life’s possibilities of freedom, and that people are still largely bound by their upbringing indoctrination — Coward knew that relationship permutations are endless, especially when it comes to humans, and that anything can happen and often, suprisingly, does — For two movies that currently make Coward’s points, see Coward’s “Easy virtue” and Woody Allen’s “Whatever works…”, both hilarious and psychologically true —

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