Blithe Spirit is a comic play by Noël Coward, described by the author as "an improbable farce in three acts". 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 wilful 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 in 1941 and ran for 1,997 performances, a new record for a non-musical play in London. It also did well on Broadway later that year, running for 657 performances. The play was adapted for the cinema in 1945; a second film version followed in 2020. Coward directed a musical adaptation, High Spirits, seen on Broadway and in the West End in 1964. Radio and television presentations of the play have been broadcast in Britain and the US from 1944 onwards. It continues to be revived in the West End, on Broadway and elsewhere.
The title of the play is taken from Shelley's poem "To a Skylark", ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert"). For some time before 1941 Coward had been thinking of a comedy about ghosts. His first thoughts centred on an old house in Paris, haunted by spectres from different centuries, with the comedy arising from their conflicting attitudes, but he could not get the plot to work in his mind. He knew that in wartime Britain, with death a constant presence, there would be some objection to a comedy about ghosts, but his firm view was that as the story would be thoroughly heartless, "you can't sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story."
After his London office and flat had been destroyed in the Blitz, Coward took a short holiday with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmeirion on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. She was writing a play about Keats, and he was still thinking about his ghostly light comedy. He later recounted:
We sat on the beach with our backs against the sea wall and discussed my idea exclusively for several hours. Keats, I regret to say, was not referred to. By lunchtime the title had emerged together with the names of the characters, and a rough, very rough, outline of the plot. At seven-thirty the next morning I sat, with the usual nervous palpitations, at my typewriter. ... I fixed the paper into the machine and started. Blithe Spirit. A Light Comedy in Three Acts. For six days I worked from eight to one each morning and from two to seven each afternoon. On Friday evening, May ninth, the play was finished and, disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.
Charles Condomine is a successful novelist. At the start of the play, while dressing for dinner, he and his second wife, Ruth, discuss his first wife, Elvira, who died young, seven years earlier. He comments, "I remember her physical attractiveness, which was tremendous, and her spiritual integrity, which was nil". Among the Condomines' dinner guests is an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, whom Charles has invited in the hope of learning about the occult for a story he is writing. He has arranged for her to conduct a séance after dinner. During the séance she plays a recording of Irving Berlin's song "Always" on the gramophone, inadvertently attracting the ghost of Elvira. The medium leaves, unaware of what she has done. Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, and 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. Charles accuses her of being "feckless and irresponsible and morally unstable". 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 the spirits, but instead of banishing them she unintentionally 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. It is not until Madame Arcati works out that the housemaid, Edith, is psychic and had unwittingly been the conduit through which Elvira was summoned that she succeeds in dematerialising both ghosts. 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. 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 bids his vanished wives farewell and leaves at once; the unseen ghosts throw things and wreck the room as soon as he has gone.
Blithe Spirit was first produced at the Manchester Opera House on 16 June 1941, and then premiered in the West End on 2 July. During the long London run − 1,997 performances − it played at three theatres. It opened at the Piccadilly Theatre, transferred to the St James's Theatre on 23 March 1942 and then to the Duchess Theatre on 6 October 1942, closing on 9 March 1946. It was directed by Coward; sets and costumes were designed by Gladys Calthrop. The run set a record for non-musical plays in the West End that was not surpassed until September 1957 by The Mousetrap.
There were several changes of cast during the run; all but two of the roles were played by different performers at one time or another. Only Martin Lewis and Moya Nugent stayed from the first night to the last. Irene Browne played two different characters during the run. After playing the steely Ruth from 1942 to 1944 she appeared for six months in 1945 as the ebullient Madame Arcati. As well as changes in the regular principals, other actors − including Coward − appeared for short spells of two or more weeks to allow the regulars to take a holiday.
While the play continued its London run several tours were organised. A company under the management of Ronald Squire began a British tour in February 1942. The cast included Squire (Charles), Browne (Ruth), Ursula Jeans (Elvira), and Agnes Lauchlan (Madame Arcati). A company headed by Coward presented the piece along with Present Laughter and This Happy Breed under the collective title of Play Parade, in a 25-week tour from September 1942. Coward played Charles; Joyce Carey, Ruth; Judy Campbell, Elvira; and Beryl Measor, Madame Arcati. Another tour went out in 1943, headed by John Wentworth as Charles and Mona Washbourne as Madame Arcati.
From February 1944 an ENSA company toured the Middle East and continental Europe with Blithe Spirit. Emlyn Williams played Charles; Jessie Evans and Elliot Mason shared the role of Madame Arcati, Adrianne Allen played Ruth; and Lueen MacGrath, Elvira. From October 1945 to February 1946 another ENSA company played Blithe Spirit (and Hamlet) in India and Burma for the armed forces. John Gielgud played Charles; Irene Browne, Madame Arcati; Marian Spencer, Ruth; and Hazel Terry, Elvira.
In July 1970 the play was revived in the West End at the Globe Theatre, starring Patrick Cargill as Charles, Phyllis Calvert as Ruth, Amanda Reiss as Elvira and Beryl Reid as Madame Arcati; it ran until January 1971. It was revived by the National Theatre in 1976 in a production directed by Harold Pinter, starring Richard Johnson as Charles, Rowena Cooper as Ruth, Maria Aitken as Elvira and Elizabeth Spriggs as Madame Arcati. Another London revival played in 1986 at the Vaudeville Theatre, starring Simon Cadell as Charles, Jane Asher as Ruth, Joanna Lumley as Elvira and Marcia Warren as Madame Arcati.
The piece was back in the West End at the Savoy Theatre in 2004, in a production directed by Thea Sharrock, starring Aden Gillett as Charles, Joanna Riding as Ruth, Amanda Drew as Elvira and Penelope Keith (succeeded by Stephanie Cole) as Madame Arcati. Matt Wolf wrote in Variety, "Sharrock and her company land every laugh in a play that induces an indecent amount of pleasure while never letting us forget the extent to which Blithe Spirit comes marinated in pain."
Sharrock directed a revival of her production of the play, which started as a UK tour and then moved to the Apollo Theatre, London. It ran there from March to June 2011, with a cast including Robert Bathurst as Charles, Hermione Norris as Ruth, Ruthie Henshall as Elvira and Alison Steadman as Madame Arcati.
A West End production, directed by Michael Blakemore, opened at the Gielgud Theatre in March 2014, with Charles Edwards as Charles, Janie Dee as Ruth, Jemima Rooper as Elvira and Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, and Jones as Dr Bradman as in Blakemore's 2009 Broadway production. It ran until June.
A revival at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2019 was followed by a UK tour and a West End run at the Duke of York's Theatre that opened in March 2020. After 12 performances, it was interrupted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The production starred Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati and Richard Eyre directed. Geoffrey Streatfeild and Lisa Dillon played Charles and Ruth Condomine, Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson were Dr and Mrs Bradman, Emma Naomi played Elvira and Rose Wardlaw was Edith. Design was by Anthony Ward, lighting by Howard Harrison, sound by John Leonard and illusions by Paul Kieve.
The Eyre production returned to the West End for a limited run from September to November 2021 at the Harold Pinter Theatre with the same cast and crew, except that Madeleine Mantock played Elvira.
|Globe||National Theatre||Vaudeville||Savoy||Apollo||Gielgud||Harold Pinter|
|Charles||Patrick Cargill||Richard Johnson||Simon Cadell||Aden Gillett||Robert Bathurst||Charles Edwards||Geoffrey Streatfeild|
|Ruth||Phyllis Calvert||Rowena Cooper||Jane Asher||Joanna Riding||Hermione Norris||Janie Dee||Lisa Dillon|
|Elvira||Amanda Reiss||Maria Aitken||Joanna Lumley||Amanda Drew||Ruthie Henshall||Jemima Rooper||Emma Naomi|
|Madame Arcati||Beryl Reid||Elizabeth Spriggs||Marcia Warren||Penelope Keith||Alison Steadman||Angela Lansbury||Jennifer Saunders|
|Dr Bradman||John Hart Dyke||Geoffrey Chater||Roger Hume||Derek Hutchinson||Bo Poraj||Simon Jones||Simon Coates|
|Mrs Bradman||Daphne Newton||Joan Hickson||Eira Griffiths||Barbara Kirby||Charlotte Thornton||Sandra Shipley||Lucy Robinson|
|Edith||Sylvia Brayshay||Susan Williamson||Lynette McMarrough||Michelle Terry||Jodie Taibi||Susan Louise O'Connor||Rose Wardlaw|
The Broadway premiere was on 5 November 1941 at the Morosco Theatre, presented by Coward's American producer, John C. Wilson, with designs by Stewart Chaney. The play transferred to the Booth Theatre on 18 May 1942; it ran for a total of 657 performances. After closing at the Booth on 5 June 1943, a return engagement played 32 performances from 6 September to 2 October 1943 at the Morosco. Haila Stoddard took over as Elvira. While the first Broadway production was still running, Wilson mounted another in Chicago. It opened on 17 February 1942 at the Selwyn Theater.
Blithe Spirit was revived on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre on 31 March 1987 in a production directed by Brian Murray. It starred Richard Chamberlain as Charles, Judith Ivey as Ruth, Blythe Danner as Elvira and Geraldine Page as Madame Arcati. It ran for 104 performances. Page, who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress, died of a heart attack during the run; Patricia Conolly succeeded her in the role.
A Broadway revival played in 2009 at the Shubert Theatre. Blakemore directed, with Rupert Everett as Charles, Jayne Atkinson as Ruth, Christine Ebersole as Elvira, Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati and Simon Jones as Dr Bradman. The New York Times found the revival somewhat uneven, calling the opening performance "bumpy", but praised Lansbury's performance.[n 6]
A revival, directed by Blakemore with most of the West End cast (including Lansbury at age 89) except Charlotte Parry as Ruth, toured North America from December 2014 to March 2015, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington D.C.
|Morosco||Selwyn||Neil Simon||Shubert||On tour|
|Charles||Clifton Webb||Dennis King||Richard Chamberlain||Rupert Everett||Charles Edwards|
|Ruth||Peggy Wood||Carol Goodner||Judith Ivey||Jayne Atkinson||Charlotte Perry|
|Elvira||Leonora Corbett||Annabella||Blythe Danner||Christine Ebersole||Jemima Rooper|
|Madame Arcati||Mildred Natwick||Estelle Winwood||Geraldine Page||Angela Lansbury||Angela Lansbury|
|Dr Bradman||Philip Tonge||Lowell Gilmore||William LeMassena||Simon Jones||Simon Jones|
|Mrs Bradman||Phyllis Joyce||Valerie Cossart||Patricia Conolly||Deborah Rush||Sandra Shipley|
|Edith||Doreen Long||Belle Gardner||Nicola Cavendish||Susan Louise O'Connor||Susan Louise O'Connor|
A production at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne in April 1945 starred Edwin Styles as Charles, Aileen Britton as Ruth, Bettina Welch as Elvira and Letty Craydon as Madame Arcati. In 2003 Roger Hodgman directed a production by the Melbourne Theatre Company, with Miriam Margolyes as Arcati. It later played the Sydney Opera House.
A French translation, Jeux d'esprits, was presented at the Théâtre de la Madeleine, Paris, in November 1946, directed by Pierre Dux, with Robert Murzeau as Charles, Renée Devillers as Suzanne (Ruth), Simone Renant as Elvire (Elvira) and Jeanne Fusier-Gir as Madame Arcati. In Le Figaro Jean-Jacques Gautier acknowledged Coward as a master of comic absurdity but found the piece "thin, thin, thin" – the champagne a little lacking in sparkle.
After the first performance in Manchester the reviewer in The Manchester Guardian thought the mixture of farce and impending tragedy "An odd mixture and not untouched by genius of a sort". After the London premiere, Ivor Brown commented in The Observer on the skill with which Coward had treated his potentially difficult subject; he ended his notice, "But here is a new play, a gay play, and one irresistibly propelled into our welcoming hearts by Miss Rutherford's Lady of the Trances, as rapt a servant of the séance as ever had spirits on tap." The London correspondent of The Guardian wrote, "London received Mr Noel Coward's ghoulish farce with loud, though not quite unanimous acclaim. There was a solitary boo – from an annoyed spiritualist, presumably." The Times considered the piece the equal not only of Coward's earlier success Hay Fever but of Wilde's classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. There were dissenting views. James Agate thought the play "common", and Graham Greene called it "a weary exhibition of bad taste".
When the piece had its first West End revival in 1970 the play was warmly though not rapturously praised by the critics, but by the time of the next major production, in 1976, Irving Wardle of The Times considered, "Stylistically, it is Coward's masterpiece: his most complete success in imposing his own view of things on the brute facts of existence," and Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote of Coward's influence on Harold Pinter. Coward's partner, Graham Payn, commented to Peter Hall that Coward would have loved the production (directed by Pinter) "because at last the play was centred on the marriage between Charles and Ruth; Elvira and ... Madame Arcati were incidentals".[n 7] After the Broadway revival in 1987 Newsweek commented that the play reminds us that Coward was the precursor of playwrights like Pinter and Joe Orton.
In 2004 Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote, "With Hay Fever and Private Lives, Blithe Spirit strikes me as being one of Coward's three indisputable comic masterpieces. [It is] the outrageous frivolity with which Coward treats mortality that makes the piece so bracing."
Blithe Spirit has twice been adapted for the cinema. A 1945 film was directed by David Lean, and starred two of the principals from the original stage production reprising their roles: Kay Hammond as Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati. Constance Cummings played Ruth, and Rex Harrison Charles. Coward was out of the country during the filming and was therefore obliged to leave the direction to Lean. The author was less than impressed with the result. He found Lean's direction static and said that the film "wasn't entirely bad but it was a great deal less good than it should have been".
A 2020 film adaptation was directed by Edward Hall, with Dan Stevens as Charles, Isla Fisher as Ruth, Leslie Mann as Elvira and Judi Dench as Madame Arcati. In The Guardian Peter Bradshaw gave the film one star out of a possible five: "a festival of mugging and farcical overacting". The New York Times also published an unenthusiastic review: "more screw-loose than screwball … a ludicrous adaptation of Noël Coward’s 1941 stage play, reimagines its source material as little more than a slip-and-fall farce".
American radio adaptations were transmitted in 1944 (NBC, with Ronald Colman, Loretta Young and Edna Best), 1947 (ABC, with Clifton Webb, Leonora Corbett and Mildred Natwick), and 1952 (NBC, with John Loder and Mildred Natwick).
BBC Radio's first adaptation was broadcast in 1954, with Michael Denison (Charles), Thelma Scott (Ruth), Dulcie Gray (Elvira) and Winifred Oughton (Madame Arcati). A second version with Denison and Gray was broadcast in 1972, with Gudrun Ure as Ruth and Sylvia Coleridge as Madame Arcati. A 1983 version featured Paul Eddington as Charles, Julia McKenzie as Ruth, Anna Massey as Elvira and Peggy Mount as Madame Arcati. A 2008 adaptation featured Roger Allam as Charles, Hermione Gulliford as Ruth, Zoe Waites as Elvira and Maggie Steed as Madame Arcati. In December 2014 an adaptation of the play featured cast members of The Archers in a supposed amateur production.
An American television adaptation was broadcast in 1946, with Philip Tonge as Charles, Carol Goodner as Ruth, Leonora Corbett as Elvira and Estelle Winwood as Madame Arcati. In Britain, BBC television broadcast a production in 1948, directed by George More O'Ferrall, with Frank Lawton as Charles, Marian Spencer as Ruth, Betty Ann Davies as Elvira and Beryl Measor reprising her stage role of Madame Arcati. On 14 January 1956 Coward directed a live American television adaptation for the Ford Star Jubilee series, in which he also starred as Charles, with Claudette Colbert as Ruth, Lauren Bacall as Elvira and Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. A British commercial television adaptation in 1964 was directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, with Griffith Jones as Charles, Helen Cherry as Ruth, Joanna Dunham as Elvira and Hattie Jacques as Madame Arcati. Another American television TV production was presented in 1966 on Hallmark Hall of Fame, with Dirk Bogarde as Charles, Rachel Roberts as Ruth, Rosemary Harris as Elvira and Ruth Gordon as Madame Arcati.
The play was adapted into the 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 Edward Woodward as Charles, Louise Troy as Ruth, Tammy Grimes as Elvira and Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati. It had a three-month West End run in 1964–1965, with Denis Quilley as Charles, Jan Walters as Ruth, Marti Stevens as Elvira and Cicely Courtneidge as Madame Arcati.
The play was novelised by Charles Osborne in 2004.