Eve Tushnet’s review of the Shakespeare Theatre production of Noel Coward’s Design for Living is up at the American Spectator.
The play’s us-vs.-them shtik always had something unpleasant about it, as in the servant-problem humor in which working-class characters exist solely as comic outsiders. But when Gilda’s lovers return, to find that her fear-born marriage has made her hardened and cynical, they casually swoop in to rescue her from the clutches of a husband who loves her deeply. Ernest has decisively become one of “them.” And he accepts this role, ranting about the degeneracy of the trio, as they cruelly delineate his helplessness in the face of their determined eros. In the final moment of the play, Ernest stomps off like Malvolio, pompous and utterly humiliated, as the three lovers intertwine on the couch and laugh their pretty heads off.
The laughter as cruelty interpretation weakens the play in one way: it becomes less challenging to the audience if the characters who articulate the consequences of the liberal eros lo volt! mindset are personally unsympathetic. The director may have intended to draw the audience into complicity with the lovers’ selfishness — and in fact, I was surprised at how long it took for the audience to stop laughing at Ernest, to lose their edgy sympathy for the lovers — but the ultimate effect was simply to make the lovers’ erotic demands seem further from our own.
Emphasis mine. I’d love to see a brief history of American culture which took as its turning points the moments at which the works of notable satirists and shock artists were played straight and accepted without irony.