Blithe Spirit: frivolity in dark times

Starting on Sept 7, 1940, London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights. Between then and May 1941, it was blitzed 71 times, with a loss of 28,556 lives and a million buildings. Noel Coward’s office and home were destroyed. The actor, playwright and songwriter, who had worked in Intelligence for the war effort, went to Snowdonia in Wales in the spring of 1941 and wrote the play Blithe Spirit in 5 days. It premiered in Manchester in June 1941 and in London’s west end in July. First nighters walked across boards from a recently destroyed bomb shelter to get in the theatre door.

It seems outrageous that such a frivolous play could have emerged from such darkness, but that was Noel Coward for you, the man who sang “Let’s not be beastly to the Germans”, as you can hear if you Google his name and Blitz.

Phillip Hoare records in his biography of Coward that there was some feeling that it was not on to “make fun of death at the height of war” (Wikipedia), but black humour can salve the soul. Evidently, the play’s spiritualism and its assumption that, not only, is there life after death but that it is accessible won out.

And the play is very funny. I saw it performed at the Stratford Festival at Stratford, Ontario last Saturday and can attest to that.

The humour lies in the fact that the blithe spirit, the ghost of Charles Condomine’s deceased first wife, accidentally materialized by an inept medium, is visible and audible only to him. When he talks to her telling, for example, to shut up and get lost, his second wife naturally assumes, since there is apparently no one else in the room, that he is talking to her. Eventually, wife #2 begins to believe Charles’s protests that he is seeing a ghost and it seems as though they are settling in for a rather peculiar menage a trois, but the ghost wife has other plans. When we trooped back to our seats after the second break, the action took a darker turn until it arrived at an explosive end as Charles tiptoed off stage.

Coward’s snappy dialogue was declaimed in a suitably stagey manner by Ben Carlson, Seanna McKenna and Sara Topham. (Full disclosure – Ben is the son of a friend and Sara is his daughter in law.) The supporting characters added to the fun and the set was a beautiful country drawing room, capable of its own tricksy humour.

Coward drew his title from Shelley’s “Ode to A Skylark”, which I was pleased to discover is still part of the furniture of my mind, having been memorized at some point for credit – at least the first stanza and of course, stashed away in a remote dusty attic of that mind.

Hail to thee, blithe spirit,
Bird thou never wert
That from heaven or near it,
Pourest thy full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Isn’t that just the way the world goes? Just when things feel grim as possible, some darned skylark or cardinal or robin or finch or red winged blackbird sets up a song that pulls us skyward.

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