Friday, December 16, 2016

Discontented Bohemians: the darkness of "Design for Living"

Happy birthday, Noël Coward! "The Master" was born 117 years ago today. In his honor, here are some thoughts on his play Design for Living, which I read for the first time last month.

Alfred Lunt, Noël Coward, and Lynn Fontanne in the 1930s world premiere of Design for Living. SCANDALOUS.
I had heard that Design for Living was a scandalous-in-its-time comedy about bisexual polyamory, so I expected it to be a naughty and frothy romp. But I found it a much sadder, angrier play than I anticipated. The characters’ unconventional sexual mores don’t seem to make them happy; they think free love will liberate them but it mostly seems to lead to discontentment and anguish.

The two men in the play’s poly-triad – painter Otto and playwright Leo – are not very distinctly characterized, but the woman, Gilda, is an enormously powerful role. Gilda is full of a frustrated, neurotic, self-loathing energy. She’s a liberated woman by 1930s standards, but she still can’t seem to imagine herself without a man, and she is keenly conscious that the world sees her as a mere dilettante (she is an interior decorator) while lauding Otto and Leo as “real” artists. The driving force of the plot is Gilda’s dissatisfaction and inability to be happy with what she has.

I wasn’t expecting it, but this play reminded me a lot of Jules and Jim, another story in which the close relationship between two bohemian men is upended by the arrival of an alluring, unstable woman. Granted, Design for Living ends more happily than Jules and Jim – in the last act, Leo, Otto, and Gilda’s free-spirited ways are contrasted with the stuffiness of conventional society, and the play finally starts to feel like a comedy. But Acts One and Two, despite the glamorous pajamas-and-cocktails trappings, are a surprisingly dark story about, in Noël Coward’s own words, “glib, over-articulate and amoral creatures […] [who] are like moths in a pool of light, unable to tolerate the lonely outer darkness, and equally unable to share the light without colliding constantly and bruising one another’s wings.”

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