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Noël Coward’s play Design for Living was produced for Broadway in 1933, starring Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne.
But it started life back in 1921.
Coward was on his first impoverished visit to America. He arrived in New York with a few manuscripts he hoped to sell—that he had to sell, because he didn’t have enough money for his return fare.
Two of the things he liked most about New York were Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who were living together in close proximity in a West Side apartment, but not yet the Lunts.
Over dinners of delicatessen dill pickles and potato salad—all they could afford—the three planned their futures.
Alfred and Lynn would become big stars, and then they would act exclusively together.
Noël, of course, would become an equally big star.
Then they would act together in a play Noël would write specially for them. And, as he put it, “The universe would have a new galaxy.”
Which it did.
On a meandering trip through South America, Noël received a cable from the Lunts.
OUR CONTRACT WITH THE THEATRE GUILD UP STOP WHAT ABOUT IT
On the tramp steamer home, he set to and wrote Design for Living.
It was a simple story.
Gilda loves Otto. Otto loves Gilda. Leo loves Gilda. Gilda loves Leo. Leo loves Otto. Otto loves Leo.
Today, a simple episode in a daytime soap. But in 1933?
A not-so-simple ménage à trois. Won’t you change partners and dance?
Alfred would play Otto, Lynn would be Gilda, and Noël Leo.
The play was put on at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, opening on January 24, 1933, and ran for 135 performances. It would not be staged in London until 1939, with a totally different cast—Rex Harrison, Diana Wynyard, and Anton Walbrook.
Like many of Coward’s best plays, it’s subtly layered. What the characters say isn’t necessarily what they’re trying to convey, and precisely what the relationships are is open to interpretation.
In recent years, this has caused certain young directors to try to “out” characters, on the grounds that it was only the strict censorship of the times that prevented “darling Noël” from writing what he really wanted to write. Conveniently ignoring darling Noël’s own clearly articulated credo that “suggestion is always more interesting than statement.”
On the more positive side, some recent productions have thrown light, so to speak, on the dark side of the play.
Otto, Leo, and Gilda are fascinating, witty sophisticates. But they’re also careless killers. They can’t live with one another, but they can’t live without one another, and anyone else who gets in their way will be thoughtlessly brushed aside. Elyot and Amanda do precisely the same in Private Lives. At the end of either play, do we really believe the principals will go on to live happily ever after? Or will the dance inevitably begin again?
Barry Day is a Noël Coward scholar and the author of Coward on Film: The Cinema of Noël Coward.