By Susan E. Gunter
In his autobiography, Future Indefinite, Noel Coward says that he completed Blithe Spirit in six days: “When the right note is struck and the structure of a play is carefully built in advance, it is both wise and profitable to start at the beginning and write through to the end in as short a time as possible.” Coward had indeed struck the right note. Blithe Spirit opened on July 2, 1941, in the Piccadilly Theatre in London and became an instant and overwhelming success. The play ran for a record-setting four and one-half years (1,997 performances). Perhaps the play represented Coward’s gift to a war-weary nation. On opening night the audience walked across planks laid over the debris from a recent air raid to enter the fanciful ghost-ridden world that Coward had created, a world he himself said was “on a plane just above reality.”
Blithe Spirit opens with a mature, sophisticated married couple, Charles and Ruth Condomine, who live rational and orderly lives in the English countryside near Kent. Writer Charles, who is beginning a new novel called The Unseen (one of the play’s many small ironies), has asked medium Madame Arcati to come to their home and conduct a séance as part of his “research” for the book. Madame Arcati, a delightful character who goes everywhere on her bicycle and has most recently written a children’s book featuring a moss beetle as hero, challenges all of the Condomines’ rational assumptions concerning reality in a drawing room comedy of the highest order.
Madame Arcati, using as her control a child named Daphne, proceeds in her séance to call up the ghost (“protoplasmic manifestation”) of Charles’s first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. As the gramophone plays the tune, “Always,” the table bangs about, Madame Arcati screams and falls from her stool, and Charles hears a ghostly voice.
Elvira, whose flamboyant and irreverent personality contrasts markedly with Ruth’s sensible, efficient nature, can be seen and heard by Charles but no one else. Much of the play’s subsequent wry humor turns on the device of double meanings: Charles’s remarks to the ghostly Elvira are heard and misunderstood by Ruth, providing in effect a dramatic and exaggerated illustration of how married couples often fail to communicate to one another. Ruth, at first skeptical of Elvira’s “reality,” seeks formulaic explanations for Charles’s odd behavior, attributing his strange remarks to too much alcohol or a nervous breakdown.
Elvira’s blithe attitude counterpoints Ruth’s stolidness, and even Madame Arcati, who when called back to the house later refuses to try to recall Elvira because she has just eaten pigeon pie and cucumber sandwiches for lunch, tells Ruth that, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Mrs. Condomine.”
As Elvira’s “blithe spirit” turns bad, however, the audience must be willing to suspend disbelief and accept the play’s ghostly conventions. Elvira upsets the balance that Charles and Ruth have created in their relationship, making them realize that their rules of conduct do not apply in the larger context of the unexplainable mysteries of life and death, as Coward’s farcical plotting and witty dialogue combine to produce a technically skillful play that has entertained audiences for over four decades.