A major theme in Circle Theatre’s current production of Michael Hollinger’s “Opus” – to be reviewed next week – is how romance can fuel, frustrate, and fuck up artistic creativity. In a much lighter and more frivolous key, Noel Coward’s 1932 play “Design for Living” covered similar territory: It might be the ultimate comic cautionary tale for any artist who would dare to fall in love with the person who inspires them.
Hollywood rom-com pioneer Ernst Lubitsch created a pre-Code masterpiece with his drastically scaled down 1933 movie version of Coward’s play starring Gary Cooper as the painter, Fredric March as the playwright, and tiny comedic tornado Miriam Hopkins as the commercial artist they adore. And share.
In Coward’s original script, the painter and the playwright are male lovers who heedlessly invite the female commercial artist into their lives as a muse. In the movie, Hopkins is a merciless task master who, as a self-proclaimed “mother of the arts,” tames the egos of platonic roommates Cooper and March and helps launch their careers. “No sex” is the central part of their three-way “gentleman’s agreement,” but Hopkins eventually beds them both, declaring “I, alas, am no gentleman.”
“Design for Living” is available on Netflix, and it still crackles with sharp Coward-ly banter, gorgeous comic energy from the players, and saucy hints of bisexuality and ménage a trois mischief. But then, that’s how it goes with those crazy “artistic types.”