BLITHE SPIRIT

 The following text and pictures come from an item in 'Theatre World' dated August 1941. 

 
 
Charles : Would you like a cocktail ?
Madame Arcati : If it's a dry Martini, yes-if it's a concoction, no. Experience has taught me to be very wary of concoctions.
Madame Arcati, the medium, arrives to conduct a seance in Charles Condoman's house. L.-R. : Dr. Bradman (Martin Lewis), Mrs. Bradman (Moya Nugent), Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford), Charles (Cecil Parker) and Ruth, his wife
(Fay Compton).

Noel Coward's brilliant new play has been an instantaneous success, hailed by the critics as the best comedy for many years. Presented at the Piccadilly Theatre by H. M. Tennent, Ltd., in association with John C. Wilson, Blithe Spirit has a splendid cast headed by Fay Compton, Kay Hammond, Cecil Parker and Margaret Rutherford. The author has called his play an 'improbable farce.' The bare story certainly suggests improbability, but Mr. Coward has so invested his characters with reality that this intriguing tale of seances and spirits all unwittingly called back to earth, is accepted with relish.

The author in no way attempts to dissect the controversial subject of life after death ; he merely uses the theme to provide himself with an entirely new and altogether amusing slant on the eternal triangle plot, and few indeed could fail to be vastly amused by the wit and lighthearted fun which is so abundantly present from the rise of the curtain.

The production is in every way flawless. The play is directed by the author with decor by G. E. Calthrop. The acting is excellent, and, barring any unexpected happenings, Blithe Spirit has obviously settled down in the West End for a success of pre-war dimensions.

THE STORY
The action of the play passes in the living-room of Charles Condoman's house in Kent. It is evening and the Condomans await the arrival of their guests for dinner. Charles Condoman is an author, and he has invited Madame Arcati, a medium living in the neighbourhood, to hold a seance after dinner, so that he can get some colour for his new book. Meantime, he and his wife indulge in a conversation from which we gather that Ruth is Charles's second wife; Elvira, the first Mrs. Condoman, having died some seven years ago. The second Mrs. Condoman is a lady of determined character, who tries to rule Charles in no uncertain way, and their talk turns eventually with some asperity to the subject of Elvira, who was, it appears, both young and attractive.
 


Madame Acati : Now then, are you ready empty your minds ? Charles Condoman and Ruth and Dr. and Mrs. Bradman arrange themselves around the table with hands touching, ready for the medium begin the seance.

Dr. and Mrs. Bradman arrive, considerably intrigued at the idea of the seance. The doctor is a practical man of medicine, and is, as we expect, entirely sceptical about the occult. His empty-headed wife, like Charles and Ruth, is looking forward to an evening's amusement.

Into this gathering bounces Madame Arcati, who has just cycled in a strange assortment of evening dress, beribboned hair and gauntlet gloves from her home some miles away. Her energy is collossal, and her volubility no less stupendous. She talks unceasingly without a hint of self-consciousness about her vast experience of the occult. The others are obviously somewhat overwhelmed, for Madame Arcati undoubtedly is a character.

In the second scene, after dinner, Madame Arcati prepares for her seance. The men are inclined to pass sceptical remarks, but Ruth, out of deference for her guest tries to restrain them. A table is selected, around which the medium arranges them with hands touching.
 
 
Mrs. Bradman : Oh dear, look at Madame Arcati!
During the seance Madame Arcati goes into trance and the others find her stretched out on the floor when the lights are put on again.

The two Mrs. Condomans. Ruth the second wife, cannot see the spirit of Elvira, who takes great delight in teasing her, as well as making many uncomplimentary remarks about her to Charles, knowing full well that Ruth cannot hear anything she says. (Right) Kay Hammond as Elvira.
 

She herself prances up and down the room, at the same time warning them of some of the unexpected things that might happen. She has told earlier that her control is a little girl, Daphne, at the moment rather troublesome, because, poor child, she has a cold in the head. So that when the medium starts the gramophone (Charles, in vain, beseeches her not to play Elvira's favourite tune Always), the lights are out and the table tappings begin, we are not surprised to find Dapline rather fretful. Not satisfied to give two raps for " no " and one for "yes" she frequently indulges in a series of loud and impatient thumps. As the result of all this it appears that someone on the other side wishes to communicate with Charles, but among recently deceased relations he can only think of a cousin in the Civil Service who would scarcely want to contact him. Madame Arcati decides to go into a trance in an effort to get better results, and presently in the darkness they hear a child's voice singing Little Tommy Tucker. " That would be Daphne,- says Dr. Bradman -" she ought to have had her adenoids out.---

Shortly after Madame Arcati falls with a crash and the table overturns, much to everyone's confusion. Then to
Charlie's amazement he hears a voice say: ---Leaveit where it is.--- "Who said that?---he cries. " Good evening, Charles," comes the reply. "Who are you?" "Elvira, of course, don't be so silly.--- Charles is shaken to the core, especially when he discovers that no one else has heard the voice. In an atmosphere of anti-climax the medium is brought round, and assured that nothing happened, though Ruth remarks that Charles tried to frighten them by saying he had heard a voice.

But while Charles is seeing the disappointed medium to the door, the shadowy figure of Elvira enters the room. Charles comes back and the Bradmans take their leave after agreeing that the eccentric Madame Arcati is completely out of her wits. Then at last Charles sees Elvira.
 

Charles : Anything interesting in The Times ? Ruth : Don't be silly, Charles.
Charles finds Ruth in a frigid mood at breakfast on the morning after Elvira has been materialised.
 

Charles (cheerfully) : Good morning, Edith. Ruth is amazed at Charles' apparent light-heartedness, and is convinced from his behaviour the night before that he must have been drinking. Ruth Reeves as Edith, the Maid.
 

Ruth : It's the facts that are difficult to explain -they're so fantastic.
Madame Arcati : Facts very often are. Take creative talent for instance, how do you account for that ? Look at Shakespeare and Michael Angeto . . .

Ruth, persuaded at last that the spirit of Elvira is really in the house, asks Madame Arcati to tea to enlist her aid in de-materialising the unwelcome guest. The medium is delighted when she hears about the amazing occurrence, but later she and Ruth come near to words when it appears that Madame Arcati doesn't know how to banish the trouble-making Elvira.

The shock is almost too much for him, nor can he persuade Ruth of his first wife's presence, for she can neither see or hear her. In this unhelpful atmosphere Charles carries on a one-sided conversation with the insolent and tantilising little spirit, who is obviously just the same thoughtless and pleasure-loving Elvira as of old. Finally Ruth goes off to bed in a rage.

The atmosphere at breakfast next morning is decidedly strained. .Ruth feels that Charles has behaved abominably. Charles on the other hand seems unusually cheerful; having survived the first shock, he seems to find Elvira's presence intriguing. And Elvira certainly makes her presence felt, taking every opportunity of uttering the most uncomplimentary remarks about Ruth. Charles at last in desperation persuades the wilful spirit to give some tangible evidence of her presence. Elvira unwillingly agrees, and proceeds to carry chairs and vases about the room, a demonstration that sends Ruth into hysterics. At last she is forced to accept the amazing truth that Elvira's spirit is actually in the house, and that Charles has neither been drinking unduly nor gone a little rnad.

In desperation Ruth sends for Madame Arcati. The medium is naturally exalted to hear of the astounding result of her seance, but Ruth doesn't see it like that.
 
 
When Edith comes to remove the tray she finds the gramophone playing in an empty room, and so removes the record. Meantime Elvira, unseen by the maid, walks over and restarts the gramophone, and frightens Edith out of her wits.
 

Charles : But why should she want to kill me ? I could understand her wanting to kill you, but why me? . . .
Ruth : If you were dead it would be her final triumph over me . . .
After the mysterious accident in which Charles injured his arm, Ruth tells him of her suspicion that Elvira is trying to kill him.

She makes it clear that she holds her responsible for the unhappiness resulting from Elvira's return (the mischievous spirit is obviously bent on causing discord between Charles and his second wife) and after some heated words, the medium departs saying there is nothing she can do to de-materialise the unwelcome guest.

Meantime Charles has devoted considerable time to Elvira, even taking her with him in his car to Folkestone. He is not a little annoyed that Ruth has consulted the medium. However, things begin to happen; both the maid and Charles rneet with mysterious accidents, and Ruth finds grease on the stairs to support her contention that Elvira is bent on killing Charles, so that he can join her on the astral plane. It would be her final triumph over Ruth, too. Charles doesn't believe this theory, but Ruth insists on going again to enlist Madame Arcati's help.

Elvira saunters in once again, but is horrified to hear of Ruth's departure in the car. Ruth was right after all, for Elvira had tampered with the car and it had been her intention to drive with Charles to Folkestone. just then the telephone rings and Charles is informed of the fatal accident to Ruth. Almost at once Elvira is attacked by some unseen presence. " Well, of all the filthy tricks," she cries, "stop it, Ruth, leave go!"

A sudden urge compels Madame Arcati to call on the bereaved Charles, now wearing a black arm-band round each sleeve.


Elvira . She's too good, you know-she ought to be in a circus.
The two ghost wives (Ruth has now joined Elvira) look on sceptically while Madame Arcati makes many abortive efforts to dematerialise them.
 
 
Madame Arcati: What has happened?
Charles: Nothing - nothing at all.
Madame Arcati, after trying in vain to de-materialise Elvira, comes out of a trance
 

Madame Arcati : Yes yes-again-again-
Elvira, who is of course invisible to Madame Areati, makes her presence felt by blowing into the medium's ear, a physical demonstration that enraptures the delighted Madame Arcati.
 

Madame Arcati has a clue to the mystery of Elvira's materialisation and her own inability to banish her, and straightway consults her crystal. Margaret Rutherford, as the eccentric medium, gives one of the most brilliant performances of her career.

Madame Arcati : Look at me, Edith, Cuckoo-Cuckoo-Cuckoo.
Having discovered that Edith the maid, who is a natural, has been the means of bringing the spirits back to earth, Madame Arcati proceeds to hypnotise her in order to accomplish the dematerialisation of Elvira and Ruth, now eager to depart.
 

Ruth : Don't think you are getting rid of us quite so easily, my dear-you may not be able to see us but we shall be here all right.
Ruth indulges in a parting shot when it becomes apparent that the medium has achieved her object at last with the help of the unconscious maid.
 

She has guessed the cause of Ruth's sudden end, and reproaches herself for allowing her temper to get the better of her. Now she is only too anxious to do her best to de-materialise Elvira, who also, by now, is only too anxious to depart. And so the medium organises more seances, with a generous use of pepper and salt, gramophone and garlic. Elvira is utterly bored and quite convinced that Madame Arcati is wasting her time.

As a matter of fact the totally unexpected result of all her labours is that the highly resentful spirit of Ruth comes bursting into the room, and matters are much worse than they were before.

But the medium perseveres until the exhausted Charles and his two ghost wives have almost given up hope. At last she has a sudden inspiration and, consulting her crystal, triumphantly announces there is a " natural " in the house; none other than Edith, the maid, who, it appears, has been the unconscious cause of bringing the spirits back to earth. Edith is brought out of her bed, and, with the aid of a little hypnotism is made to dematerialise the, by now, very much bored ghosts. Ruth endeavours to have the last word with Charles before they finally disappear, but at last he is alone in the room, enjoying the thought of his new freedom.

He addresses some remarks to his now invisible wives. " Goodbye for the moment, my dears,---he says, " I expect we are bound to meet again one day, but until we do, I am going to enjoy myself as I've never enjoyed myself before- . . . (here his remarks are interrupted by crashes in the room as a vase falls and clock strikes an angry sixteen) . . . " you can break up the house as much as you like I'm leaving it, anyhow. Think kindly of me and send out good thoughts " (the overmantle trembles) " nice work, Elvira persevere. Goodbye again parting is such sweet sorrow! "
And as the curtain falls the overmantle crashes and the curtain pole comes tumbling to the floor.
Review of Blithe Spirit from Theatre World - July 1941

An improbable farce in Three Acts, by Noel Coward. Cast includes: Ruth Reeves, Fay Compton, Cecil Parker, Martin Lewis, Moya Nugent, Margaret Rutherford, and Kay Hammond. The play directed by the author. Decor by G. E . Calthrop.

To Mr. Coward goes grateful thanks for providing the most intriguing hours spent in the theatre since the war began. Blithe Spirit is a delicious play, brilliantly written and produced. Let it be said, however, that in any other hands the slightly fantastic theme might have gone astray very decidedly, and probably onlythe genius of a Noel Coward could have tackled it with any hope of success. Every trick of stagecraft is used.with the right effect, the characterisation is perfect, and the dialogue pungentand witty in the best Coward tradition. Blithe Spirit is likely to take a high place among Mr. Coward's works for the theatre; at all events, the huge audiences at the Piccadilly bear witness to i ' ts popularity and unusual laughtermaking qualities.

We have grown so accustomed to our traditional farce, wherein trousers are always lost by somebody or other, the beautiful heroine always appears sooner or later in the sparsest of underwear and the far from beautiful hero in female get-up, that the term does not seem to fit this new play. Improbable it may be, but it has that sort of reasonable improbability that merely adds spice to the piece.
Charles Condoman is an author who, in order to get colour for his new book, arranges a seance at his home. He invites Madame Arcati, a well-known medium living nearby, to conduct proceedings, and, in addition to his wife Ruth, asks his friends, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman-all sceptics-to attend. The seance reveals that Madame
Arcati's control is a little girl, Daphric, still in the nursery rhyme stage and on this occasion afflicted by a cold in the head. There are, the usual dim lights, table tappings and amazing groans from the medium in trance; but the sitting brings no tangible result, except to Charles, who is amazed when he hears the voice of his first wife, Elvira. Elvira died some seven years ago, and was, we gather from a recent conversation between Charles and Ruth, young and attractive.
Imagine his amazement when, after the medium and guests have gone, the ghost of Elvira herself saunters into the room. Ruth cannot see or hear her, and the ensuing scenes, when the second wife, exasperated beyond endurance, is forced to listen to a one-sided conversation, a lot of which she naturally thinks at first is directed at her, are some of the funniest ever witnessed in a theatre. Elvira is a tantalising minx, a most irreverent spirit, who seems to enjoy the discord
she creates between Charles and Ruth. The latter, at first convinced that Charles is either drunk or a little mad, at length accepts the fantastic idea of Elvira's unseen presence and appeals to Madame Arcati to remove her whence she came. The medium, however, takes umbrage at Ruth's somewhat tactless remarks and refuses to do anything. It would be unfair to say how it comes about that Ruth also joins the spirit, world, and through Madame Arcati's bungling comes back to join Elvira and further overwhelm poor Charles. Sufficient to say that after much trial and error the irrepressible Madame Arcati finally banishes the two apparitions, by now only too eager themselves to go back to the other side. Charles, much relieved, faces his womanless existence with pleasure, notwithstanding a few parting "shots" from his now-quite-unscen deceased wives.

As to the cast, it is difficult, indeed, to single out any one performance from such a brilliant array. Perhaps Margaret Rutherford should be awarded the palm for her classic portrayal of Madame Arcati, the eccentric medium. Her high spirits and irrepressible absorption in the occult; her little tricks at the seance and well-meaning heavy-footed bungling are delicious. Kay Hammond's Elvira is a triumph, too. Her low, drawling voice is admirably suited to the part of the tantalising little spirit, and her appearance is sufficiently ethereal to add conviction, even if clever make-up and grey flowing gown had not been used to create the illusion most admirably.
Cecil Parker and Fay Compton play the married pair in true Coward vein, and splendid support is given by Martin Lewis and Moya Nugent as the Bradmans, and by Ruth Reeves as the maid. F.S.

 Copyright - The Noel Coward Society - May 2001