Design for Living? I don’t think it will work.

It should be easy, you know.  The actual facts are so simple.  I love you.  You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto.  Otto loves you.  Otto loves me.’

Oh My God!   Or as Mrs ‘Odge might say,  ‘Well, ‘eres a pretty pickle.’     

So why isn’t it easy?    Why shouldn’t people be free to love whom they like when they like?  Why do people get hurt?   Why do they feel guilty?  Why does it always turn bad?

Gilda is one of those delightful women, beautiful, intelligent, impulsive; a loving and free spirit with a real zest for life.  Otto and Leo are two sensitive and sensuous young men, who are both enjoying the  exhilaration of success.   Otto is a painter;  Leo an up and coming playwright.   They are young, and in love.   Gilda first chooses Otto and they live in a romantic garret in Paris.  Then Leo returns after a successful run in New York and she abandons Otto to live with Leo in London.  Then a year or so later, Otto returns and after a steamy night, she leaves them both and the next we know she has married the older, safer and rather tedious Ernest and become established as a New York socialite and art dealer.  Meanwhile, Otto and Leo get drunk, realise how much they love each other and go off round the world on a sequence of slow boats.  Two years later, they turn up in Ernest and Gilda’s apartment in New York, whereupon Gilda decides to leave Ernest and live with Otto and Leo in a ménage a trois.  

It is all so wonderfully romantic and amusing – so Noel Coward!   But is this so much a design for living as a strategy for loving?   And will it ever work?   One feels that it’s alright for Gilda.  She has the attentions of two handsome, successful young men who both adore her, but how will she cope with their love for each other?   It may be so exciting for the moment, but what will she do when they both get a bit fed up with her attention seeking and want a bit of basic male bonding?   Go off to Ernest again?   And can you imagine all three of them in bed together; the competitiveness, the jealousies?    Which of the men will go first and where?  How will she hold them together?  How will she satisfy two enormous egos?   For this to work, it would mean them all being terribly responsible and level headed.  When has Gilda ever been level headed?    

It’s not so much that it’s morally wrong.   It is, of course, but morality is a social construct;  there to protect us, not just an edict to be ignored.   Any one of us can love more than one person deeply,  but it is impossible to maintain an intimate relationship with two people for very long without resorting to a whole complicated web of secrecy and deception.  

When people fall in love, they expose the most vulnerable aspects of themselves.  It’s a courageous act of absolute trust and it risks nothing less than devastation of the personality through destruction of meaning.   Gilda and Leo and Otto may think they may have acquired sufficient experience and wisdom to maintain a stable triangle, but it takes enough time for any of us to sort out a relationship with one other person; how much more effort would it take to sort out a three-way intimacy?  And how long would it last without resorting to the rot of deception.    And finally, would it be worth it?  Some of the recent literature to come out of the middle east, illustrates the complex  jealousies of polygamy.  I can’t see polyandry being any better.    

Still, it’s wonderful entertainment and any good art; it makes you think. 

Design for Living by Noel Coward is currently playing at The Old Vic.  Lisa Dillon is delicious and delightful as Gilda (and that dress!),  though it was clear who was in charge.  The actors who played Otto and Leo were less credible.  And one had to feel some sympathy for Ernest, though his marriage to Gilda seemed less a meeting of minds and souls than a business arrangement, a mutual exploitation.  It was originally banned from performance on the London Stage.