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This article is about the play. For the film adaptation, see Private Lives.

Private Lives is a 1930 comedy of manners by Noël Coward. It focuses on a divorced couple who discover that they are honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel.

After touring the British provinces, the play opened the new Phoenix Theatremarker in London in 1930, starring Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Adrianne Allen and Laurence Olivier. A Broadwaymarker production followed in 1931, and the play has been revived in the West Endmarker and six times on Broadway.


Coward was in the midst of an extensive Asian tour when he contracted influenza in Shanghai. He spent the better part of his two-week convalescence period sketching out the play's three acts and then completed the actual writing of the piece in only four days. He immediately cabled Gertrude Lawrence in New York Citymarker to request she keep autumn 1930 free to appear in the play. After spending a few more weeks revising it, he typed the final draft in the Peninsula Hotelmarker in Kowloonmarker and sent copies to Lawrence and theatre producer John C. Wilson with instructions to cable him with their reactions.

Coward received no fewer than thirty telegrams from Lawrence, who was indecisive about what to do regarding her previous commitment to André Charlot. The playwright finally responded that he planned to cast the play with another actress. By the time he returned to London, he found Lawrence not only had cleared her schedule but was ensconced in Edward Molyneux's villa in Cap-d'Ailmarker in southeastern France memorizing the script. Coward joined her and the two began rehearsing the scenes they shared. At the end of July they returned to London where Coward began to direct the production. Coward played the part of Elyot Chase himself, Adrianne Allen was his bride Sybil, Lawrence played Amanda Prynne, and Laurence Olivier was her new husband Victor. Coward considered Sybil and Victor to be minor characters, who are present only to enable Elyot and Amanda to launch into lengthy dialogues, one of which comprised the entire second act.

Rehearsals were still under way when the Lord Chamberlain took exception to the second act love scene, labeling it too risqué in light of the fact the characters were divorced and married to others. Coward went to St. James's Palacemarker to plead his case by acting out the play himself and assuring the censor that with artful direction the scene would be presented in a dignified and unobjectionable manner. Coward repeats one of his signature theatrical devices at the end of the play, where the main characters tiptoe out as the curtain falls – a device that he also used in Present Laughter, Hay Fever and Blithe Spirit.

The play contains one of Coward's most popular songs, "Some Day I'll Find You". The Noël Coward Society's website, drawing on performing statistics from the publishers and the Performing Rights Society, ranks it among Coward's ten most performed songs.


Act 1:Following a brief courtship, Elyot and Sybil are honeymooning in a hotel in Deauville, although her curiosity about his first marriage is not helping his romantic mood. In the adjoining suite, Amanda and Victor are starting their new life together, although he can't stop thinking of the cruelty Amanda's ex-husband displayed towards her. Elyot and Amanda, following a volatile three-year-long marriage, have been divorced for the past five years, but they now discover that they are sharing a terrace while on their honeymoons with their new and younger spouses. Elyot and Amanda separately beg their new mates to leave the hotel with them immediately, but both new spouses refuse to cooperate and each storms off to dine alone. Realizing they still love each other and regret having divorced, Elyot and Amanda abandon their mates and run off together to her apartment in Paris.

Act 2:Before long it becomes clear that while Elyot and Amanda cannot live without each other, nor can they live with each other. They argue violently and try to outwit each other, just as they had done during their stormy marriage. (They seem to be trapped in a repeating cycle of love and hate as their private passions and jealousies consume them.) At the height of their biggest fight, Sybil and Victor walk in.

Act 3:Next morning, Amanda and Elyot try to calm things down and recover the trust of their present spouses. But when Sybil and Victor fight with each other, each defending their own spouse, Amanda and Elyot realise Sybil and Victor are as suited to each other as they are, forgive one another and sneak out, leaving the younger two together.


Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the original production of Private Lives
Produced by C. B. Cochran, the play premiered on 18 August 1930 at the King's Theatremarker in Edinburghmarker. After successfully touring Liverpoolmarker, Birminghammarker, Manchestermarker and Southseamarker for five weeks, the production opened the new Phoenix Theatremarker in London, where it received mixed reviews. Allardyce Nicoll called it "amusing, no doubt, yet hardly moving farther below the surface than a paper boat in a bathtub and, like the paper boat, ever in imminent danger of becoming a shapeless, sodden mass." A week after the play opened, Heinemann published the text. The Times called it "unreadable," while its Literary Supplement called the plot "so slight as to be non-existent."

The first Broadwaymarker production opened at the Times Square Theatre on 27 January 1931 with Coward, Lawrence, and Olivier reprising their roles and Jill Esmond, who had married Olivier a few months earlier, replacing Adrianne Allen as Sybil. Walter Winchell described the production as "something to go quite silly over." The New York critics were enthusiastic about the play and Coward's performance. A few weeks before Coward and Lawrence were scheduled to be replaced by Otto Kruger and Madge Kennedy, Lawrence collapsed with a combined attack of laryngitis and nervous exhaustion. Rather than appear opposite her understudy, Coward closed the production for two weeks to allow her to recuperate. She returned and the two continued in their roles until May 1931. The production ran a total of 256 performances and placed the play in the public consciousness - a fictional production is a key plot point in the 1944 farce See How They Run.

Over the years, the play has been revived on Broadway six times. In 1948, Tallulah Bankhead starred as Amanda, with Donald Cook as Elyot, Barbara Baxley as Sybil, and William Langford as Victor, in a production directed by Martin Manulis at the Plymouth Theatre, where it ran for 248 performances. A 1969 production, directed by Stephen Porter and starring Brian Bedford as Elyot, Tammy Grimes as Amanda, David Glover as Victor, and Suzanne Grossman as Sybil, opened at the Billy Rose Theatre and then moved to the Broadhurst Theatre to complete its run of 198 performances. John Gielgud directed a 1975 production starring Maggie Smith as Amanda and John Standing as Elyot at the 46th Street Theatremarker, where it ran for 92 performances. Elizabeth Taylor as Amanda and Richard Burton as Elyot were the headliners in a highly-anticipated 1983 production directed by Milton Katselas, which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre following a run at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Artsmarker; co-starring John Cullum as Victor and Kathryn Walker as Sybil, it ran for 63 performances. Arvin Brown directed Joan Collins as Amanda and Simon Jones as Elyot in a short-lived 1992 production that closed after 11 previews and 37 performances at the Broadhurst Theatre. The last Broadway revival, directed by Howard Davies, starred Alan Rickman as Elyot and Lindsay Duncan as Amanda, ran for 127 performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatremarker in 2002. This was a transfer of a West Endmarker production that had been staged at the Albery Theatremarker.

A May 1968 off-Broadway production directed by Charles Nelson Reilly starred Elaine Stritch as Amanda. It ran for 9 performances at the Theatre de Lys.

A 1930s HMV recording of Coward and Lawrence performing scenes from the play still survives and is available on CD. The play was referenced heavily in the 1945 British farce See How They Run.

A 1962 revival of the play at the Hampstead Theatremarker (opened in 1959) was its first commercial success, was attended by Coward himself and transferred to the West Endmarker. This was commemorated during the theatre's 50th anniversary season with another production of the play from January to February 2009, featuring Jasper Britton as Elyot and Claire Price as Amanda..

In 1991 Gemma Craven, Marc Sinden, Tony Anholt and Tracey Childs toured a very successful production around the UK for 13 months.

Awards and nominations



In Popular Culture

The play is one of several relied on by the protagonist in The Actor's Nightmare, a surrealist one-act play by Christopher Durang.

Film adaptation

Hanns Kräly and Richard Schayer wrote the screenplay for a 1931 film adaptation directed by Sidney Franklin and starring Norma Shearer as Amanda and Robert Montgomery as Elyot.


  1. Morley, pp. 185-86.
  2. Morley, p. 189.
  3. Morley, pp. 193-95.
  4. Morley, p. 196.
  5. "Appendix 3 (The Relative Popularity of Coward's Works)", Noël Coward Music Index, accessed 9 March 2009
  6. Morley, pp. 197-98.
  7. Morley, p. 199.
  8. Morley, p. 202.
  9. "Private Lives", Globe Theatre Study Guide, 2004, accessed 17 March 2009
  10. Morley, pp. 203-05.


  • Coward, Noël. 1930. Private Lives: An Intimate Comedy in Three Acts. London: Methuen, 2000. ISBN 0413744906.
  • Morley, Sheridan. 1969. A Talent to Amuse: A Biography of Noël Coward. Rev. ed. London : Pavilion, 1986. ISBN 1851450645.

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