"Private Lives" by Noel Coward (Act One)

Plot Summary and Character Study Guide

Private Lives
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Private Lives is a play written by Noel Coward, first performed in 1930 on the London stage, starring Adrianne Allen and Laurence Olivier as the supporting characters, Gertrude Lawrence as the female lead (Amanda) and Coward (yes, the playwright himself) in the lead male role (Elyot). This witty comedy explores what happens when ex-spouses encounter one another while on their second honeymoon. During Act One, as the synopsis of the script will indicate, we learn that Amanda and Elyot are not suitably matched with their fellow newlyweds. Instead, despite their natural inclination to be petty and argue with each other, they fall suddenly and madly back in love. But will it last?

The Setting of "Private Lives"

Act One of Noel Coward's play takes place in a French hotel overlooking a harbor (with an expensive yacht within view of the characters). The two hotel rooms are side-by-side, each with their own balcony.

Elyot and Sybil

British couple celebrating their honeymoon. It is Elyot's second marriage. She wonders how she compares to Amanda, Elyot's first wife. (From five years ago.) He explains that doesn't hate his ex-wife, but he does feel sorry for her.

Sybil asks if he could ever love Amanda again. He explains that love should be "cozy" and not filled with drama and jealousy and rage. She also states that she looks for masculinity within her husband: "I like a man to be a man."

He speculates that his new, feminine wife has designs to shape his character into some masculine ideal. She objects, but he comments that her plans might be subconscious. After ending the conversation about his ex-wife, he suggests that they go down to the casino.

Amanda and Victor

After Sybil and Elyot exit, another honeymooning couple appears in the next room. The newlyweds are Victor and Amanda (That's right -- Elyot's ex-wife.) Victor strikes up a conversation similar to he previous couple. He is curious about Amanda's ex-husband. She reveals that she and Elyot physically fought each other on many occasions:

VICTOR: He struck you once, didn't he?

AMANDA: Oh more than once.

VICTOR: Where?

AMANDA: Several places.

VICTOR: What a cad!

AMANDA: I struck him too. Once I broke four gramophone records over his head. It was very satisfying.

As they discuss her first marriage and their honeymoon plans, we learn a few contrasts about each character. For example, Sybil hates sunburned women because it seems unladylike. On the other hand, Amanda is anxious to get a sunburn, despite her husband's distaste. We also learn that both Amanda and Elyot are found of gambling, not just at the casino, but taking risks in life.

In the middle of their conversation, Victor realizes that he does not really know his new bride very well. He is shocked when she says that she is not a "normal" person.

AMANDA: I think very few people are completely normal really deep down in their private lives it all depends on a combination of circumstances.

After a romantic kiss, Victor and Amanda exit to prepare for their evening together.

Elyot sits alone on his balcony. Amanda does the same. They do not notice each other until begins singing along to music. Amanda notices him first, and although they are surprised to see each other, they attempt to remain calm. Amanda excuses herself and goes inside.

Elyot tries to explain to Sybil that they must leave at once, but he does not reveal the reason. When she refuses to allow them to leave, Sybil bursts into tears as Elyot rages about her stubbornness. In the next room, Amanda is in a similar argument with her husband. However, when Victor remains obstinate she reverts to the truth. But Victor believes that she has only imagined her ex-husband. Victor storms off, headed for the bar. Sybil leaves in hysterics, headed for the downstairs dining room.

Elyot and Amanda recall their early days together, reminiscing over the pleasant times and walking through the character flaws that led to their downfall.

ELYOT: We're not in love all over again and you know it.

She asks about Elyot's travels throughout the world. In the middle of that conversation, Elyot confesses that he loves her. He wants her back again. They kiss. He proposes that they escape immediately, but she thinks that they should be honest with their new spouses. He convinces her otherwise and together they leave the hotel room.

Victor Meets Sybil

Sybil and Victor both enter their respective balconies looking for their missing spouses. Victor chats with her, inviting her for a drink. They look off into a distance, noticing the yacht down in the harbor. Act One ends wondering if Elyot and Amanda's whirlwind reconciliation will last, and whether or not the jilted spouses Victor and Sybil will find comfort in one another's company.

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Bradford, Wade. ""Private Lives" by Noel Coward (Act One)." ThoughtCo, Sep. 4, 2021, thoughtco.com/private-act-one-overview-2713515. Bradford, Wade. (2021, September 4). "Private Lives" by Noel Coward (Act One). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/private-act-one-overview-2713515 Bradford, Wade. ""Private Lives" by Noel Coward (Act One)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/private-act-one-overview-2713515 (accessed October 25, 2021).