Ectoplasm in a Time of War
Program notes by Bob Hetherington
Much of the fun of Blithe Spirit is in watching Charles Condomine, a seemingly happily wedded novelist with an easy charm, become thoroughly unhinged by a visit from the beyond that imperils his existence. The genius of Noël Coward is to make us sympathize with him and laugh at his misery as the dramatist playfully mocks the vow “till death do us part.”
In his autobiography, Future Indefinite, Coward revealed that he completed Blithe Spirit in less than one week: “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.” He would later add that in rehearsal it required only two lines of revision. “I will ever be grateful for the almost psychic gift that enabled me to write Blithe Spirit in five days during one of the darkest years of the war,” he recalled. In 1941, the German Blitzkrieg regularly assaulted London with arsenals of bombs: buildings collapsed, and lives were lost in an unimaginable nightmare. So what kind of play is a forty-year-old Englishman inspired to create during such a time?
After enduring frightening days dominated by blackouts, food rationing and the ever-growing lists of fatalities, his opening-night audience walked across planks laid over the debris from a recent air raid to enter the theatre and into a world of séances and ghosts that he had conjured. Gently thumbing his nose at the Grim Reaper, he had written a play that was a gift to a nation under siege. Blithe Spirit opened on July 2, 1941, in the Piccadilly Theatre in London, and became an instant and overwhelming success, running four-and-a-half years – a record unbroken until the 1970s. Just four months later it crossed the Atlantic to Broadway and went on to become a highly successful film by David Lean, a live American television broadcast and a charming Broadway musical for Tammy Grimes and Beatrice Lillie called High Spirits. It remains a resounding success that continues to haunt British and American stages.
Success came easily and early to Coward. And remarkably, it came in a dizzying array of disciplines. World War I would intrude on his teenage ambitions to focus on an already prominent career in the theatre, when he was called up before the Army Medical Board in 1918. Although deemed physically unfit for active service (owing to a slight tubercular condition), he was assigned to serve in the Artists Rifles for nine months. He hated the Army, and his mother remembered that he spent “more time in hospital than he did in training. . . . I am afraid he was more trouble than he was worth in the Army and did not help the War along very much.”
By his twenty-fifth birthday and the opening of The Vortex, Coward had unarguably arrived as an artist and celebrity. His biographer Cole Lesley writes: “Everything about himself that he had unswervingly believed would come true came true in a single night.” The crowds had proclaimed him a star, and though still a young man, he had already proven himself as a playwright, an actor and director. Lesley continues: “[novelist] Stella Gibbons is right, he was the twenties embodied, writing and speaking for his generation with wit, penetration and a brave use of sentiment of which he was never afraid,” and describes his first nights as something that “had already attained a fever-pitch of excitement they were never to lose.”
But the eighteen-year-old who felt frustrated at the delayed launch of his starry career by the First World War would grow at age forty into a staunch opponent of the policy of appeasement that led the world into the next one. Volunteering at the outbreak of the second war, Coward worked in the British propaganda office in Paris for a time (at Winston Churchill’s suggestion) and also with the Secret Service. During the war, he devoted much of his creativity to heartfelt propaganda, in particular the highly successful film In Which We Serve, where he portrayed the captain of a torpedoed British ship. Had the Germans succeeded in crossing the Channel, Coward himself would have been arrested and executed because of his wartime contributions. Afterwards, when this came to light, he would write: “If anyone had told me at that time I was high up on the Nazi blacklist, I should have laughed. . . . I remember [novelist] Rebecca West, who was one of the many who shared the honour with me, sent me a telegram that read: ‘My dear – the people we should have been seen dead with.’ ”
The daily hardships and mounting losses from the war impacted every aspect of British life by 1941, and much-needed escape took many forms. Like jazz, the spiritualist movement had its start in America but would soon spread to Europe, and was enjoying a great revival between the wars. The belief that the dead were eager to communicate with the living had already helped Ouija board sales surge since the 1920s. Hollywood films such as Topper and Here Comes Mr. Jordan made returning ghosts a popular subject for comedy. Coward correctly surmised that a comedy about death would resonate among audiences who were, in real life, carrying on in a city under constant threat of attack. Without spoiling his clever ending, one can say that the forces of death are finally tamed in Blithe Spirit in a resolution that warmed the hearts of wartime theatregoers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Coward is a master observer of the twentieth-century social scene – its foibles, its absurdities and most of all its language. He emphasizes the comedy-of-manners interest in surface over substance, dialogue over action. This is especially true of Blithe Spirit, where substance literally is insubstantial and the focus is on brilliant verbal sparring between this world and the next.
The play carries to extremes situations introduced in his earlier comedies and continues Coward’s fascination with the disruptive force of sexual passion. Often in his plays, normal characters collide with eccentric ones on the battlefield of domestic relations. In Hay Fever four normal guests arrive for a weekend with the bohemian Blisses and leave unnoticed the next morning. Private Lives pits the conventional world of Sibyl and Victor against the evolving morality of Amanda and Elyot. Design for Living ends with three eccentrics laughing at themselves as they collapse into a ménage à trois. In Blithe Spirit, what begins as an evening’s fun turns deadly serious for the Condomines, with the playwright slyly proposing there is nothing particularly wrong with a husband loving two wives at the same time.
Noël Coward once described himself as “an enormously talented man, and there’s no use pretending that I’m not.” The playwright John Osborne, the angry young man of a later literary era, labelled Coward’s self-invention his great contribution to the twentieth century. This ignores the gigantic shadow undeniably cast by Coward’s dazzling talents across the theatrical landscape of the last century, which New Yorker critic John Lahr would honour as “a style that became a way of being for a lot of people.” Lahr continued: “English cultural history between the world wars is, in some extremely large part, Noël Coward. He put himself into the narrative the English tell themselves about their struggles, their suffering, their triumphs.” Near the end of his life, Coward was interviewed on ABC-TV:
Dick Cavett: You’re, you . .. what is the word when one has such terrific, prolific qualities?
Noël Coward: Talent.
If you listen closely, you can probably hear him with Ruth and Elvira having a good laugh somewhere in the beyond.
Bob Hetherington is a professor of theatre and dance at the University of Memphis, Tennessee. He has received two Guthrie Awards for contributions to productions at Stratford and is a frequent Stratford essayist.