Today we went to an enjoyable production of Private Lives (Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor as the leads) at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester.
The social context has changed greatly since Coward wrote his crowd-pleaser; back then divorce was a risqué topic in itself, and this has obviously lost its shock value. On the other hand, the proportion of today’s audience who are themselves divorced is much higher, making it near the knuckle viewing in a quite different way.
Like most good stuff, it is full of ambiguity. You can read this as a play with a ‘happy’ ending if you choose: Elyot and Amanda are back together, scrapping lustily (in both senses of the word) and if, as the characters themselves scandalously remark, they avoid re-marriage, they may make it work. But the text suggests that stability in any relationship at all is untenable. Both Elyot and Amanda contend with their new partners from the off. Even Sybil and Victor no sooner form an alliance as other halves than they fall to fighting.
So Coward asks you to make your choice: solitude or war. Because you can only be ‘nice’ to strangers.