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Seen today, the play shocks, but for an altogether different reason: Its message is so outdated that it’s bewildering why any theater would put it on except for its curatorial interest as a period artifact.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