Blithe Spirit (play)

Blithe Spirit (play)

"Blithe Spirit" (1941) is a comic play written by Noel Coward which takes its title from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "To a Skylark". The action of the play centres on socialite Charles Condomine being haunted by the ghost of his first wife Elvira following a séance, and Elvira's continued (and increasingly desperate) efforts to disrupt Charles' current marriage. The play is notable for the comic character of Madame Arcati, the eccentric medium.

The play provoked a small outcry at the time of its first performances, as it was seen to be possibly making fun of death at the height of World War II; however, such objections were quickly forgotten and the play went on to set all manner of British box-office records. Its mark of 1,997 consecutive performances for non-musical plays in the West End was only eventually beaten by "Boeing Boeing" in the 1970s.

In his autobiography Coward claimed he wrote the play in five days during a holiday he took with actress Joyce Carey to Portmeirion on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. He wrote it straight through from beginning to end whilst staying at the Fountain 2 (Upper Fountain) suite at Portmeirion and only two lines of dialogue were removed before its first production in London.

London productions

At the first production (Savoy Theatre, London, 1941), directed by Coward himself, the main cast members were:

*Elvira: Kay Hammond
*Madame Arcati: Margaret Rutherford
*Charles: Cecil Parker
*Ruth: Fay Compton

The play is much revived by amateur companies but has had fewer West End productions than might be expected since the original record-breaking run. Modern West End revivals include:

Globe (now Gielgud) Theatre (1970)
*Elvira: Amanda Reiss
*Madame Arcati: Beryl Reid
*Charles: Patrick Cargill
*Ruth: Phyllis Calvert

National Theatre (1976)
*Director: Harold Pinter
*Elvira: Maria Aitken
*Madame Arcati: Elizabeth Spriggs
*Charles: Richard Johnson
*Ruth: Rowena Cooper

Vaudeville Theatre (1986)
*Director: Peter Farago
*Elvira: Joanna Lumley
*Madame Arcati: Marcia Warren
*Charles: Simon Cadell
*Ruth: Jane Asher

Savoy Theatre (2004)
*Director: Thea Sharrock
*Elvira: Amanda Drew
*Madame Arcati: Penelope Keith (later Stephanie Cole)
*Charles: Aden Gillett
*Ruth: Joanna Riding

Broadway productions

The Broadway premiere took place on November 5, 1941 at the Morosco Theatre in a production staged by John C. Wilson and designed by Stewart Chaney. In the cast were Leonora Corbett as Elvira, Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati, Clifton Webb as Charles, Peggy Wood as Ruth and Jacqueline Clarke as Edith. The play transferred to the Booth Theatre on May 18, 1942 and it ran for a total of 657 performances.

It was revived at the Neil Simon Theatre on March 31, 1987 in a production directed by Brian Murray, designed by Finlay James and with costume design by Theoni V. Aldredge. It starred Richard Chamberlain as Charles, Blythe Danner as Elvira, Judith Ivey as Ruth and Geraldine Page, who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress, as Madame Arcati. It ran for 104 performances. Page died of a heart attack during the play's run.

A Broadway revival has been announced to begin previews on February 26, 2009 at a Shubert Theatre to be announced. Announced thus far are Michael Blakemore as director, with Christine Ebersole as Elvira and Rupert Everett as Charles. [Gans, Andrew, and Jones, Kenneth. [ "Film Star Everett Will Join Ebersole in Blithe Spirit Revival",], Oct. 9, 2008]

Other U.S revivals

At the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor in 2002 the play was revived with Twiggy as Elvira, Dana Ivey as Madame Arcati, Patricia Kalember as Ruth, and Daniel Gerroll, who also directed, as Charles.

High Spirits (musical)

The play was adapted into a musical, "High Spirits", in 1964, which had a Broadway run of more than 300 performances, starring Tammy Grimes as Elvira and Beatrice Lillie in an expanded role as Madame Arcati. The role of Charles Condomine was played by Edward Woodward, with Ruth, Charles' second wife, portrayed by Louise Troy. Noel Coward directed this Broadway production, with book, music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray. The show received eight Tony Award nominations but did not win any. Other major musical nominees that same year (1964) were "Funny Girl" and "Hello, Dolly!" and most major Tony wins went to the latter, including to Carol Channing for her portrayal of Dolly, winning over both Miss Lillie and Barbra Streisand for "Funny Girl".


"Blithe Spirit" was also made into a successful film in 1945, adapted by Coward himself and directed by David Lean:

Elvira: Kay Hammond
Madame Arcati: Margaret Rutherford
Charles: Rex Harrison
Ruth: Constance Cummings

Television and radio

On American television Coward himself starred in a 1956 production with Lauren Bacall as Elvira, Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati and Claudette Colbert as Ruth. On UK radio and television, notable portrayals of Madame Arcati have been given by Hattie Jacques (ITV 1964, directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, Joanna Dunham as Elvira, Griffith Jones as Charles and Helen Cherry as Ruth) and Peggy Mount (BBC radio 1983, with Anna Massey as Elvira, Paul Eddington as Charles, Julia McKenzie as Ruth and Jacqueline Clarke as Edith.



* [ Notes on the history, BBC]


*The Great British Films, pp 79-81, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 080650661X

External links

* [ Internet Broadway Database listing]
* [ Blithe Spirit] at the Internet Movie Database
* [ British Film Institute]
* [ "Blithe Spirit" at ThatTheatreSite] Provides character listing, reviews of several productions, and current upcoming auditions.

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