Imagine London during World War II. Germany’s Blitzkrieg assaults the city with an arsenal of bombs. Buildings collapse. Lives are lost. People flee to the English countryside.
Now imagine a 40 year old playwright living in England during this time. He spends five days writing a play (in between his covert operations as a member of Britain’s Secret Service). What might that play be about? War? Survival? Politics? Pride? Despair?
No. The playwright is Noel Coward. And the play he created during England’s battle-scarred year of 1941 is Blithe Spirit, a delightfully satirical comedy about ghosts.
The Basic Plot
Charles Condomine is a successful novelist. Ruth is his charming, strong-willed wife. In order to conduct research for Charles’ latest book, they invite a medium to their home to perform a séance, expecting that the eccentric psychic, Madame Arcati, will be a humorous shyster. Well, she is humorous – in fact, her boisterous character practically steals the show! However, her ability to connect with the dead is genuine.
After prancing about the room reciting nursery rhymes, Madame Arcati summons a ghost from Charles’ past: Elvira – his first wife. Charles can see her, but no one else can. Elvira is flirtatious and catty. She enjoys insulting Charles’ second wife.
At first Ruth thinks her husband has gone insane. Then, after watching a vase float across the room (thanks to Elvira), Ruth accepts the strange truth. What follows is a darkly funny competition between two women, one dead, one living. They battle for the possession of their husband. But as the haunting and the hollering continue, Charles begins to wonder if he wants to be with either woman at all.
Ghosts on Stage - “You Mean You Can’t See Her?!”
Spirit characters have been part of theater since its Greek beginnings. In Shakespeare’s time, ghosts were prominent in his tragedies. Hamlet can see his father’s doomed specter, but Queen Gertrude sees nothing. She thinks her son has gone coo-coo. It’s a fun theatrical concept, perhaps now over-used in plays, television, and movies. After all, how many sappy sitcoms feature a protagonist that talks to a ghost which no one else can see?
Despite this, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit still feels fresh. Coward’s play goes beyond the comic mix-ups inherent in most supernatural comedies. The play explains love and marriage more than it explores the afterlife.
Torn Between Two Lovers?
Charles is caught in a farcical trap. He had been married to Elvira for five years. Although they both had extra-marital affairs, he claims to have loved her. And of course, he explains to his living wife, Ruth is currently the love of his life. However, when Elvira’s ghost returns to the earthly world, things get complicated.
At first Charles is shocked by Elvira’s appearance. But then the experience becomes pleasant and soothing, much like their old life together. Charles’ suggests that it would be “fun” to have Elvira’s ghost stay with them.
But that “fun” turns into a deadly duel, made all the more cunning by Coward’s surgically incisive wit. Ultimately, Coward suggests that a husband can be in love with two people at the same time. However, once the women find out about each other, disastrous results are sure to follow!
Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit playfully mocks the traditions of love and marriage. It also thumbs its nose at the Grim Reaper. What a perfect defense mechanism against the harsh realities England faced during World War II. West End audiences embraced this darkly amusing comedy. Blithe Spirit became a resounding success that continues to haunt the British and American stage.