A Fascination with Life After Death: 75 Years of Blithe Spirit
After the Blitz left his office and apartment destroyed, iconic English playwright, Noël Coward, escaped to Wales, and in a six-day writing frenzy churned out his farcical ode to the afterlife, Blithe Spirit. A dark comedy about ghosts and the great beyond, Blithe Spirit may have seemed a tad controversial, if not downright irreverent at a time when the thought of death loomed every present in the mounting casualties of World War II. But Coward, who enjoyed the status of celebrity, and the rank as one of the highest paid writers of the time, could afford to take that chance.
Blithe Spirit premiered on July 2, 1941 at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, and would run in the West End for a record-breaking 1,997 performances (a record not broken until Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in 1957). The ghostly comedy was then welcomed to the New York stage on November 5, 1941, with Blithe Spirit’s Broadway premiere at the Morosco Theatre. Broadway’s haunting would last for 657 performances, before the play spirited back across the pond to be done by touring companies as part of ongoing war efforts in the UK and the Far East. Coward directed one of the wartime tours himself, and as he had previously done for a time in the West End run, acted in the part of his protagonist, Charles Condomine.
Noël would often play his leading men, and excelled at the roles, as they were often imbued with his own sharp wit and charismatic personality. Blithe Spirit’s Mr. Condomine certainly needs his creator’s effervescent charm when he is visited by the ghost of his deceased wife, Elvira, much to the displeasure of his currently living wife, Ruth. The calling-back of an ex-wife long-gone is an unwitting creation of the well-meaning medium, Madame Arcati. The mayhem resulting from her opening a Pandora’s box of jealousies and deceits, is driven by the biting wit, barbed banter, and lover’s manipulations, that are the beloved trademark of Coward’s humor. As with many of Coward’s plays, Blithe Spirit exposes the darkness brewing underneath the seeming perfection painted on monogamy, marriage, and the English upper classes. Madame Arcati herself endures as one of the most favored characters in Coward’s canon. Her role is a coveted one, and her portrayal is often the most loved and remembered . From Geraldine Page’s Tony nominated performance, to a more recent depiction by the enchanting Angela Lansbury, many who choose to don the rows of beads and colorful scarves instantly become the favorite of their production.
These characters and their story have survived the test of time by being renewed into a multitude of media forms. A 1945 film adaptation was made, several television shows in both the USA and Britain were created, radio broadcasts of the stage play were recorded, and a musical entitled High Spirits premiered in 1964. Theatre legends such as John Gielgud and Harold Pinter have directed their own versions, and Broadway and the West End have played host to several revivals, including the most recent 2009 Broadway production directed by Michael Blakemore.
Blithe Spirit remains popular perhaps out of our fascination with life-after death. Perhaps out of the enjoyment we find in well-plotted farce. Perhaps its the the intelligent dialogue or our enduring love for English witticisms. Perhaps it is all of these things. But most certainly it remains popular because of its author’s timeless and distinct voice giving us insight into flawed human interactions and the shortcomings of our relationships. All without taking itself too seriously, of course. Happy 75th Broadway Anniversary to you, Blithe Spirit, may you continue to haunt our theaters and hearts for many years to come.