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See also: Blithe Spirit (1945 film), Blithe Spirit (1956 film).
Blithe Spirit
Blithe Spirit.jpg
Margaret Rutherford (Madame Arcati), Kay Hammond (Elvira) and Fay Compton (Ruth)
Written by Noël Coward
Characters Charles Condomine
Ruth Condomine, second wife
Elvira Condomine, first wife and ghostly presence
Madame Arcati, medium
Edith, maid
Date premiered 1941
Place premiered London
Original language English
Genre Play, comedy, farce
Setting Kent, England in the late 1930s
IBDB profile

Blithe Spirit is a comic play written by Noel Coward which takes its title from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "To a Skylark" ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert"). The play concerns socialite and novelist Charles Condomine, who invites the eccentric medium and clairvoyant, Madame Arcati to his house to conduct a séance, hoping to gather material for his next book. The scheme backfires when he is haunted by the ghost of his annoying and temperamental first wife, Elvira, following the séance. Elvira makes continual attempts to disrupt Charles's marriage to his second wife, Ruth, who cannot see or hear the ghost.

The play was first seen on the West End in London in 1941 and set a new long-run record for non-musical British plays of 1,997 performances. It also did well on Broadway later that year, running for 657 performances. Coward adapted the play for film in 1945, starring Rex Harrison, and directed a musical adaptation, High Spirits, on Broadway in 1964. It was also adapted for television in the 1950s and 1960s and for radio. The play enjoyed several West End and Broadway revivals in the 1970s and 1980s and was revived again in London in 2004. It returned to Broadway in February 2009.

Contents

Background

The title of the play is taken from Shelley's poem "To a Skylark".[1] After his London office and apartment had been destroyed in the Blitz, Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941 during a holiday that he took with actress Joyce Carey to Portmeirion on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. He wrote it straight through from beginning to end whilst staying at the Fountain 2 (Upper Fountain) suite at Portmeirion and only two lines of dialogue were removed before its first production in London.[2]. In his autobiography Coward claimed he wrote the play in five days.

Coward felt that, during the height of World War II, before Russia and the U.S. joined forces with the Allies, British audiences would want an escapist comedy.[1] The play provoked a small outcry at the time of its first performances, as it was seen to be possibly making fun of death at the height of the war;[3] however, such objections were quickly forgotten, and the play went on to set British box-office records. The subject was timely for many, because people who wished to contact their loved ones that had died in the war were turning to spiritualism. The play's run of 1,997 consecutive performances set a record for non-musical plays in the West End that was not surpassed until Boeing Boeing in the 1970s.

Coward repeats one of his signature theatrical devices at the end of the play, where the central character tiptoes out as the curtain falls – a device that he also used in Present Laughter, Private Lives and Hay Fever.

Productions

The play was first produced at the Manchester Opera House in June 1941, and then premiered in the West End at the Piccadilly Theatre on July 21, 1941, and transferred to the St. James's Theatre and then the Duchess Theatre for a total of 1,997 performances.[4][5] It was directed by Coward, and the principal cast members were Kay Hammond as Elvira, Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati, Cecil Parker as Charles and Fay Compton as Ruth.[6] During the run, Beryl Measor took over as Madame Arcati and Irene Browne took over the role of Ruth.[5]

The Broadway premiere took place on November 5, 1941 at the Morosco Theatre in a production staged by John C. Wilson and designed by Stewart Chaney. In the cast were Leonora Corbett as Elvira, Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati, Clifton Webb as Charles, Peggy Wood as Ruth and Jacqueline Clarke as Edith. The play transferred to the Booth Theatre on May 18, 1942 and it ran for a total of 657 performances.

Coward himself starred as Charles in a wartime touring company, beginning in September 1942, with Joyce Carey as Ruth, Judy Campbell as Elvira and Molly Johnson as Madame Arcati.[7] Dennis Price covered for Coward when the latter was taken ill.[8]

In July 1970, the play was revived in the West End at the Globe Theatre, starring Amanda Reiss as Elvira, Beryl Reid as Madame Arcati, Patrick Cargill as Charles and Phyllis Calvert as Ruth and ran until January 1971.[9] It was then revived by the National Theatre in 1976, in a production directed by Harold Pinter, starring Maria Aitken as Elvira, Elizabeth Spriggs as Madame Arcati, Rowena Cooper as Ruth and Richard Johnson as Charles.[10] Another London revival played in 1986 at the Vaudeville Theatre, starring Joanna Lumley as Elvira, Marcia Warren as Madame Arcati, Simon Cadell as Charles and Jane Asher as Ruth.[11]

Blithe Spirit was revived on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre on March 31, 1987 in a production directed by Brian Murray, designed by Finlay James and with costume design by Theoni V. Aldredge. It starred Richard Chamberlain as Charles, Blythe Danner as Elvira, Judith Ivey as Ruth and Geraldine Page, who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress, as Madame Arcati. It ran for 104 performances. Page died of a heart attack during the play's run.[12]

In 2002 the play was given a short production at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York, with Twiggy as Elvira, Dana Ivey as Madame Arcati, Patricia Kalember as Ruth, and Daniel Gerroll, who also directed, as Charles.[13]

The piece was back in the West End at the Savoy Theatre in 2004, in a production directed by Thea Sharrock, starring Amanda Drew as Elvira, Penelope Keith (succeeded by Stephanie Cole) as Madame Arcati, Aden Gillett as Charles and Joanna Riding as Ruth.[14]

A Broadway revival began previews on February 26, 2009 at the Shubert Theatre with an official opening on March 15, 2009.[15] Michael Blakemore directs, with the cast starring Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, Christine Ebersole as Elvira, Rupert Everett as Charles, Jayne Atkinson as Ruth and Simon Jones as Dr. Bradman.[16] The New York Times found the revival somewhat uneven, calling the opening performance "bumpy", but praised Lansbury as Madame Arcati.[17] Lansbury won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress, and Martin Pakledinaz was nominated for the Tony for Best Costume Design.[18] The play won the Drama League Award for Distinguished Revival of a Play.[19]

Synopsis

Charles Condomine, a successful novelist, wishes to learn about the occult for a novel he is writing, and he arranges for an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance at his house. At the séance, she inadvertently summons Charles's first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. Madame Arcati leaves after the séance, unaware that she has summoned Elvira. Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, and his second wife, Ruth, does not believe that Elvira exists until a floating vase is handed to her out of thin air. The ghostly Elvira makes continued, and increasingly desperate, efforts to disrupt Charles's current marriage. She finally sabotages his car in the hope of killing him so that he will join her in the spirit world, but it is Ruth rather than Charles who drives off and is killed.

Ruth's ghost immediately comes back for revenge on Elvira, and though Charles cannot at first see Ruth, he can see that Elvira is being chased and tormented, and his house is in uproar. He calls Madame Arcati back to exorcise both of the spirits, but instead of banishing them, she materialises Ruth. With both his dead wives now fully visible, and neither of them in the best of tempers, Charles, together with Madame Arcati, goes through séance after séance and spell after spell to try to exorcise them, and at last Madame Arcati succeeds. Charles is left seemingly in peace, but Madame Arcati, hinting that the ghosts may still be around unseen, warns him that he should go far away as soon as possible. Charles leaves at once, and the unseen ghosts throw things and destroy the room as soon as he has gone. (In the David Lean film version, the ghosts thwart Charles's attempt to escape, and his car is again sabotaged; he crashes and joins them as a ghost, with Elvira at one arm and Ruth at the other.)

Adaptations

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Musical

The play was adapted into a musical, High Spirits, in 1964, with book, music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray. It had a Broadway run of more than 300 performances, starring Tammy Grimes as Elvira, Edward Woodward as Charles and Beatrice Lillie in an expanded role as Madame Arcati. It also had a brief West End run. Noel Coward directed the Broadway production. The show received eight Tony Award nominations but did not win any. Among the other major musical nominees that same year (1964) were Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! and most of the major Tony wins went to the latter.

Film, television and radio

Blithe Spirit was also made into a successful film in 1945, adapted by Coward himself and directed by David Lean. The cast included Kay Hammond as Elvira, Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati, Rex Harrison as Charles and Constance Cummings as Ruth.

On American television Coward himself starred in a 1956 production with Lauren Bacall as Elvira, Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati and Claudette Colbert as Ruth. On UK radio and television, notable portrayals of Madame Arcati have been given by Hattie Jacques (ITV 1964, directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, Joanna Dunham as Elvira, Griffith Jones as Charles and Helen Cherry as Ruth) and Peggy Mount (BBC radio 1983, with Anna Massey as Elvira, Paul Eddington as Charles and Julia McKenzie as Ruth.[20]

Another TV-production was presented in 1966 on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, with Rosemary Harris as Elvira, Dirk Bogarde as Charles, Rachel Roberts as Ruth, and Ruth Gordon as Madame Arcati.

In December 2008, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a new adaptation of the play for radio, by Bert Coules, with Roger Allam as Charles, Maggie Steed as Madame Arcati, Zoe Waites as Elvira and Hermione Gulliford as Ruth.

Notes

  1. ^ a b "Blithe Spirit", Bench Theatre, 2006, accessed 20 October 2009
  2. ^ "A look at the history behind Noel Coward's play Blithe Spirit", bbc.co.uk, date unk
  3. ^ Hoare, p. 321
  4. ^ Day, p. 83
  5. ^ a b The Times, 29 June 1942, p. 6; and 8 October 1942, p. 6
  6. ^ The Times, 3 July 1941, p. 2
  7. ^ The Times, 21 September 1942, p. 8
  8. ^ The Times, 5 August 1943, p. 6
  9. ^ The Times, 23 July 1970; and 14 January 1971, p. 10
  10. ^ The Times, 25 June 1976, p. 11
  11. ^ The Guardian, 1 February 1986, p. 12
  12. ^ The Guardian, 15 June 1987, p. 10
  13. ^ Simonson, Robert. "Twiggy, Ivey, Gerroll to Haunt Bay Street's Blithe Spirit July 16-Aug. 4", playbill.com, 16 July 2002
  14. ^ "Blithe Spirit" listing, thisistheatre.com
  15. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Simon Jones Joins Cast of Blithe Spirit; Revival to Play the Shubert", playbill.com, 4 November 2008
  16. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Atkinson Joins Starry Cast of Broadway's Blithe Spirit Revival", playbill.com, 17 November 2008
  17. ^ Brantley, Ben. "The Medium as the Messenger", The New York Times, March 16, 2009
  18. ^ "Who's Nominated?" TonyAwards.com, accessed May 11, 2009
  19. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Billy, Carnage, Hair, Blithe and Rush Win Drama League Awards", playbill.com, May 15, 2009
  20. ^ The Times, 27 December 1983, p. 17

References

  • Day, Barry. Coward on Film:The Cinema of Noël Coward (2005), Scarecrow Press, ISBN 0810853582
  • Hoare, Philip. Noel Coward: A Biography (1998), University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226345122
  • Vermilye, Jerry. The Great British Films, pp. 79-81, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 080650661X
  • Notes on the history, BBC

External links


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