"Designing for the future as it is now"
The student newspaper of York University reviews a classic play from a modern poly viewpoint:
In 1933, Noel Coward wrote a play called Design For Living, which could have been written in 2006 in all but one way.
The play, which is now playing at the 2006 Shaw Festival... is about what is now termed polyamory relationships based on unconcealed non-monogamy, ongoing relationships with multiple partners. As people in polyamorous situations have always known, and now often discuss openly, it takes a certain kind of skilled balancing to pull off the relationship in a way that is fair and happy for everyone involved.
...Design For Living is the fictional story of one such delicately choreographed arrangement. It follows the love triangle between Gilda (Nicole Underhay), Leo (David Jansen) and Otto (Graeme Somerville). Coward's play is the story of the trio's respective emotional ups and downs and evolution as a group in London and then in New York.
...Somerville and Jansen play the tense, drunken gay love scene with a subtle sensitivity. Both the actors and the director know that times have changed; playwrights no longer have to represent homosexuality as the fruit of alcohol and youthful naivété in order to justify it. Nonetheless, Design For Living is very politically incorrect in its way of representing homosexuality as pathetic vice, and this production does not censor the homophobia. [Ed. note: Noel Coward himself was homosexual.]
Design For Living, a play from the 1930s, is probably more modern, truthful and sophisticated in its representation of polyamory than any other play on the subject, [but] is a relic from a time when gay people needed an excuse to be gay. This is a fascinating play one that should be celebrated for its startlingly close prediction of the social climate we live in today.
Read the whole article (Oct. 4, 2006).
P.S. Here's another description of the play (which actually premiered in 1932). Its immediate success led to a 1933 movie adaptation with the same name starring Gary Cooper, now on DVD. (At the time a New York Times reviewer sniffed that the movie was a "slaughter of the Coward play.")
Update December 2011: “Design for Living” (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933) is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Carlos J. Segura gives it a major review from a poly viewpoint on Cinespect:
Polyamory, or some dalliance with it, has been used, to one degree or another, in some films; in some to great success, while in others to not so great success. Often in said films polyamory involves some form of disrobement, to the delight and provocation of audiences. Titles that come to mind include “The Dreamers,” (which in turn takes some loose inspiration for its three-way from “Band of Outsiders”) “Henry and June,” “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Love Songs,” the only one of these titles I have not seen, but considering how prominent polyamory is in the film according to plot descriptions, it felt fair to mention.
The writer describes the inadequacies and fallings-short of the poly themes in those movies. Then:
How refreshing, surprising and almost radical, by today’s standards, that “Design for Living,” a film more chaste than any of the aforementioned titles, at least in the skin and words department, turns out to be the most revolutionary. And it was made in 1933.
Let’s better understand the sleight-of-hand Mr. Ernst Lubitsch pulls by his using the written word and brilliant, metaphorical images, packaged in the form of a rom-com, by understanding what distinguishes and makes this film the most daring depiction of polyamory I have seen thus far....
...The first half of “Design for Living” hinges on this tension of will-it or won’t-it work out. That is, will the agreed-upon arrangement function? Referred to as a “gentleman’s agreement” by the characters, it involves Gary Cooper, Frederic March and Miriam Hopkins cohabiting in a dump in Paris, where they will inspire, incite, and create at the behest and encouragement of Ms. Hopkins, their Mother Hen and spiritual patron of the arts. On a train ride, the characters meet in a near-silent and knock-out meet-cute....
They meet, they gaze, they talk, they rapport, attraction is established, as is a mutual love of the arts (Cooper is a struggling painter and March a struggling playwright). They agree, subtly, on no couplings. Soon jealously escalates between the two men for Hopkins’s affection. Before you can say “pick one,” Hopkins makes it clear that she wants both, comparing them oddly and funnily enough to hats to make her point; and the cincher: she acknowledges that her predicament is one thought to be unique to men, and yet she pursues her desires without qualm. A hardcore feminist if ever there was one....
...Yes, 2011 was a year that saw “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached,” films in which women were allowed to engage in, um, intimate action that likens them to men. But I have read what happens in each film at the end (got through half of one) and again, business as usual. Try to imagine “Design for Living” made today by a major studio and you will appreciate the outrageous, progressive and, it must be said again, revolutionary nature – revolutionary for its commitment to true bohemianism and alternative sexuality – of this dazzling (thanks to a sparkling transfer by Criterion) pre-code classic.
Read the review (Dec. 18, 2011).