The Barb That Makes It Stick
Director’s notes by Brian Bedford
Noël Coward subtitled Blithe Spirit “An Improbable Farce in Three Acts.” Improbable it certainly is, with its portrayal of a marriage thrown into comic confusion by the appearance on the scene of what we might describe as the ultimate “other woman” – coming as she does from the Other Side, the afterlife. But is it really a farce? Although I think it is (and a superb one), the word doesn’t quite do it justice.
Farce, like many artistic genres, is hard to define, but one of its characteristics is that it really only has a life on stage. If you were to place the action of, say, a Georges Feydeau farce into a novel, it wouldn’t be nearly as funny: the reader would have too much opportunity to reflect on how ridiculous it all is. It’s no coincidence that one of the greatest farces of all time, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, actually takes place in a theatre, both on stage and behind the scenes. Farce is driven by a sustained and often frantic kind of energy that you seldom see in real life, and Blithe Spirit certainly demands high energy from its performers.
But energetic as it is, Blithe Spirit isn’t the kind of farce that depends on dashing in and out of bedrooms and slamming doors; there’s more to it than that. There are moments of physical comedy, to be sure, but the true essence of Coward’s humour, like that of Oscar Wilde and Richard Brinsley Sheridan before him, is the brilliance of his dialogue. Feydeau’s farces are about people behaving in funny ways. With Coward, it’s what the characters say – and how they say it – that prompts our laughter.
“The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick,” says Lady Sneerwell in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. It’s a very British notion of humour: the deadly wit, the ability to say something terrible in a way that’s funny. Contrary to what many people assume, Coward’s humour can be quite rough: his characters do get hurt and angry. He seemed to specialize in people having rows, and the rows in Blithe Spirit – the breakfast scene between Ruth and Charles the morning after Elvira’s arrival and the third-act fight between Charles and Elvira over their past affairs – are among the best in the dramatic canon.
Perhaps the key to all forms of farce is the element of the unexpected, whether it’s someone’s trousers falling down or the ethereal manifestation of a house guest from beyond the grave. In Blithe Spirit, as in all Noël Coward’s uniquely witty comedies, this element is built into the dialogue itself – dialogue that not only unfolds the plot and reveals the often remarkably real emotional lives of the characters but also delivers to us, in line after line, some delightful little gift-wrapped surprise.
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