Blithe Spirit is a comic play by Noël Coward. 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 annoying 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, creating a new long-run record for non-musical British plays of 1,997 performances. It also did well on Broadway later that year, running for 657 performances. Coward adapted the play for film in 1945, starring Rex Harrison, and directed a musical adaptation, High Spirits, on Broadway in 1964. It was also adapted for television in the 1950s and 1960s and for radio. The play enjoyed several West End and Broadway revivals in the 1970s and 1980s and was revived again in London in 2004, 2011 and 2014. It returned to Broadway in February 2009.
The title of the play is taken from Percy Bysshe 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. 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."
Charles Condomine, a successful novelist, wishes to learn about the occult for a novel he is writing, and he arranges for an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance at his house. At the séance, she inadvertently summons Charles's first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. Madame Arcati leaves after the séance, unaware that she has summoned Elvira. Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, and his second wife, Ruth, does not believe that Elvira exists until a floating vase is handed to her out of thin air. Elvira is louche and moody, in contrast to the more strait-laced Ruth. The ghostly Elvira makes continued, and increasingly desperate, efforts to disrupt Charles's current marriage. 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 of 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 leaves at once, and the unseen ghosts throw things and destroy the room as soon as he has gone.
Pic 2) with Joanna Lumley as Elvira.
Pics 3 & 5) with Simon Cadell as Charles
Pic 4) (L-R) with Rachel Herbert (as Mrs Bradman), Simon Cadell (Charles), Marcia Warren (as Madame Arcati) and Roger Hume (as Doctor Bradman).