Blithe Spirit (play)
Blithe Spirit is a comic play written by Noël Coward which takes its title from Shelley's poem "To a Skylark" ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert"). The play concerns the 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, after 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 in the West End of London in 1941, creating 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 and 2011. It returned to Broadway in February 2009.
The title of the play is taken from Shelley's poem "To a Skylark". After his London office and flat had been destroyed in the Blitz, Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941 during a holiday that he took with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmeirion on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. In his autobiography, Coward said that he wrote the play in five days.
During World War II, before Russia and the U.S. joined forces with the Allies, Britain was suffering severe casualties and facing German bombing attacks at home. Coward felt that British audiences would want to view an escapist comedy such as Blithe Spirit. 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; however, such objections were quickly forgotten, and the play went on to set British box-office records. The subject was timely for many, because some who wished to contact their loved ones who 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 1957, by The Mousetrap.
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.
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.)
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 2 July 1941 and transferred to the St. James's Theatre and then the Duchess Theatre for a total of 1,997 performances. 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. During the run, Beryl Measor took over as Madame Arcati and Irene Browne took over the role of Ruth. Sets and costumes were designed by Gladys Calthrop.
The Broadway premiere took place on 5 November 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 and Peggy Wood as Ruth. The play transferred to the Booth Theatre on 18 May 1942; it ran for a total of 657 performances. Coward starred as Charles in a wartime UK touring company, beginning in September 1942, with Joyce Carey as Ruth, Judy Campbell as Elvira and Molly Johnson as Madame Arcati. Dennis Price covered for Coward when the latter was taken ill.
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. 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. 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.
Blithe Spirit was revived on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre on 31 March 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 run; Patricia Conolly succeeded her in the role.
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. 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.
A Broadway revival played in 2009 at the Shubert Theatre. Michael Blakemore directed, 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. The New York Times found the revival somewhat uneven, calling the opening performance "bumpy", but praised Lansbury as Madame Arcati. Lansbury won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress, and Martin Pakledinaz was nominated for the Tony for Best Costume Design. The play won the Drama League Award for Distinguished Revival of a Play. Thea Sharrock directed a revival of her production of the play at the Apollo Theatre, London; it ran from March to June 2011, with a cast including Alison Steadman as Madame Arcati, Robert Bathurst as Charles, Hermione Norris as Ruth and Ruthie Henshall as Elvira.
Angela Lansbury has been cast to again play Madame Arcati in a West End production, directed by Michael Blakemore, at the Gielgud Theatre from 18 March 2014 (following previews from 1 March) scheduled for a limited 15-week run. Charles Edwards is expected to play Charles, with Janie Dee as Ruth and Jemima Rooper as Elvira.
Roles and original cast
The original West End cast was as follows:
- Charles Condomine – Cecil Parker
- Ruth Condomine, his second wife – Fay Compton
- Elvira Condomine, his first wife and ghostly presence – Kay Hammond
- Madame Arcati, a medium – Margaret Rutherford
- Doctor George Bradman, a friend – Martin Lewis
- Mrs. Bradman, his wife – Moya Nugent
- Edith, a maid – Ruth Reeves
When the play transferred from the Piccadilly Theatre to the St. James's Theatre in 1942, Coward took over the role of Charles for a time.
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 375 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. Noël Coward directed both productions. 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 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.
Coward directed a 1956 American TV production, where he also starred as Charles, with Lauren Bacall as Elvira, Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati and Claudette Colbert as Ruth. 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.
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). 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.
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- Blithe Spirit at ThatTheatreSite Provides character listing, reviews of several productions, and current upcoming auditions.
- Blithe Spirit Provides links to reviews of the 2009 Broadway revival
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