Parlous times may evoke the tragic, as in the Guthrie’s recent, wrenching Watch on the Rhine, or, as currently bookended by Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, the darkly comic.
Both opened in London in 1941, as the Blitz rained devastation. In his memoir, Future Indefinite, Coward wrote that he left the Hungaria restaurant on April 16 as bombs began to fall, and taxied home.
“The sky above was…red with the reflected glow of fires…there was a lot of noise and gunfire and, every so often, a shattering explosion.”
He found his home in a shambles, the office ceiling lying on the floor. Two weeks later, he and actress Joyce Carey took the train up to Port Meirion in North Wales and settled in: she to write a play about Keats, and he to pen a “light comedy [that] had been rattling at the door of my mind.”
By lunchtime the next day, he had the title (from Shelly’s To a Skylark), the characters’ names, and a rough plot outline. Completed in six days, only typos were changed, and only two original lines were finally cut. As Coward stated, “It would be difficult, with that situation and those characters, to go far wrong.” And he was right. In the midst of chaos and death, Londoners flocked to a record 1,997 performances that outlasted the war.
Those characters are Charles and Ruth Condomine, their friends the Bradmans, and Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium (originally played by Margaret Rutherford), engaged to hold a séance for them. A presence appears, but only to Charles: it’s his first wife, Elvira, dead these seven years. I will reveal here only that she does not intend to leave, and that she has plans for Charles. Disruption ensues.
Gay, sophisticated, articulate, and keen-witted, Coward, later Sir Noël, knew everyone who was anyone—Olivier, Hepburn, Guinness, neighbors Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming among them. He was a prolific playwright (Private Lives, Design for Living), composer, raconteur, actor (Our Man in Havana), and memoirist.
Anticipating objections to Blithe Spirit, leaning heavily on death and ghosts while so many of his countrymen were perishing, Coward said of his characters, “You can’t sympathize with any of them. If there was a heart, it would be a sad story.”