By Lynnette L. Horner
“I will ever be grateful for the almost psychic gift than enabled me to write Blithe Spirit in five days during one of the darkest years of the war” (Noël Coward, quoted at Methuen, “Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward,” http://www.methuen.co.uk/blithespirit.html (accessed 8 April 2004). Written and produced in the thick of World War II in 1941, one might ask the question, what was there about that time and place that would inspire the creation of one of the most popular and long-running comedies; “an improbable farce in three acts”? What chord did it strike in audiences that were for the second time living through the dreariness of black outs, air raids, rationing, and the heartbreaking casualty lists caused by war fought on home soil?
A look back to the author’s beginnings may give us some insight. Noël Coward was born in December 1899, and thus, was in the interesting position of growing up with a new century. Born to middle class parents of no small musical talent, Coward was weaned on amateur and professional theatrical productions. His father, a piano salesman, was very good at musical improvisation, and Coward followed in his father’s footsteps. Nurtured in this atmosphere, he was in constant demand to perform, first, on his home turf and then in amateur productions. An avid observer of people, Coward developed the talent of picking up the eccentric nuances in people that made interesting characters who translated well to the stage and screen. And whereas some of his contemporaries dramatized the deep and hard aspects of life evolving through the industrial age, he chose to orbit in social circles that were the epitome of glamour, many times frivolous with a tinge of cynicism. In large measure, Coward’s life, experience, and career mirrored the birth of a century and the growing pains of a generation.
At the tender age of ten, Coward convinced his mother to answer an advertisement announcing the audition for young boys to be part of a prestigious children’s theatrical group. Of the hundreds of letters submitted, there was something in Noël’s mother’s letter that piqued interest, and Noël was invited to audition. His natural charm and stage presence was apparent and his young feet were firmly planted on his life’s course as he joined his new theatre family. During this time, he made friends with a young Gertrude Lawrence who became a lifetime co-star and dear friend. He also befriended another young actress, Esme Wynne, who later became a successful novelist and inspired Noël to add writing to his list of talents.
As a young eighteen-year-old, drunk with his success on the stage and full of high, youthful ambitions, Noël had not felt much impact from World War I. But, in 1918, he was called up and, although found physically unfit for active service, was assigned to serve nine months in the Artists Rifles. He was miserable with this interruption in his career. By the time he entered the war, England was well past the glamour of patriotism and was tired of the rationing, black outs, and general misery the war brought to their shores.
In some measure, it was a response of escapism from the weariness of war that inspired the spectacle productions that were spun sugar, superficial and with a dash of cynicism that characterized the 1920s era. Coward was in the thick of it and whether he simply mirrored social mores of the time, or as some criticized, created them, his plays during the twenties were considered sometimes immoral and shocking. They were wildly popular. A commentary of the opening night of The Vortex on his twenty-sixth birthday acknowledges the “which came first” argument of whether art imitates life or vice verse.
“Noël’s first nights had already attained fever-pitch of excitement they were never to lose. Celebrities predominated: film and stage stars, usually one or two members of the Royal family, and socialites galore with their concomitant Rolls Royces, furs and jewels. They were beginning to talk a language of their own: St. John Ervine had already complained at having to sit next to a litter of them with their ‘too divine’ and ‘simply marvelous darlings’. Whether the bright young things were trying to copy Noël’s characters, who Mrs. Patrick Campbell said ‘talked like typewriting’, or whether Noël was holding up the mirror to the socialites is not easy to decide, but one may suspect that it was the former” (Cole Lesley, Graham Payn, and Sheridan Morely, Noël Coward and His Friends [New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1979], 58).
Fast forward through the thirties during which time, Coward continued acting, producing, writing, and singing on both sides of the Atlantic. To America he brought his signature brand of sophisticated comedy. The United States repaid the favor by infusing his work with pacing and energy, not common before in British theatre.
Coward’s maturity is also apparent in his political interest and involvement in the historical events leading to World War II. In stark contrast from his eighteen-year-old annoyance at World War I interrupting his otherwise idyllic lifestyle, Coward was a passionate vocal opponent of the policy of appeasement that led to World War II. His desire was to take an active, significant role during the war, and for a short time worked for British propaganda in Paris. He had hoped this would lead to an official war job working with the Navy. Because of Coward’s high profile persona, Winston Churchill was opposed to it. It was decided the greatest part he could play would be to entertain the troops and spent many of the war years spanning the globe, to Africa, Europe, and India (Lesley, 132 133).
In 1941, Britain was again war weary and the toll of death and loss touched every level of society. The spiritualist movement (the belief that the dead can communicate with the living through a medium) had crossed the Atlantic from America and had had four decades to line up its believers and debunkers. Coward, ever in tune with societal undercurrents, spun a tale in Blithe Spirit that is an escape from the horror of war, yet deals with its most terrible cost, death, with a light hand. He deftly wove this with a poke at cynicism and the subliminal suggestion of “be careful what you ask for.”
Noël Coward’s public responded and, “Blithe Spirit remained the longest running comedy in British theatre for three decades” (Methuen). The irresistible combination of urbane humor, intriguing characters, and enough surprise to keep things interesting still delights as Blithe Spirit continues to delight today’s audiences as it did half a century ago.