The second production of our 49th season will be
Noël Coward’s comic play Blithe Spirit.
The play was first seen in London’s West End in June, 1941.
Coward had written the show (legend has it) in just five
days. He wanted to give war torn London audiences a play
that would make them laugh and raise their spirits. Coward
himself played the leading role. The comic role of Madame
Arcati was played by Margaret Rutherford (who played the
role in the 1945 film version). Blithe Spirit opened on
Broadway in November, 1941. The leading role was played by
Clifton Webb. Madame Arcati was played by Mildred Natwick.
Coward chose his title from quotation in Percy Bysshe
“To a Skylark.”
“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird that never wert.”
Read about the original Broadway production HERE
Noël Coward also directed a musical version of the show
titled High Spirits on Broadway in 1964. It starred Edward
Woodward in the leading role and Beatrice Lillie as Madame
Arcati. The show received Tony Award nominations in
several categories including Actress – Musical (Lillie),
Actress – Musical Supporting (Louise Troy), Best Musical,
Composer & Lyricist (Hugh Martin & Timothy Gray), Author
(Hugh Martin & TImothy Gray), Director (Coward), Musical
Director-Conductor (Fred Werner), and Choreographer (Danny
Daniels). All but one of the awards went to Hello, Dolly!
(Louise Troy lost to Tessie O’Shea in The Girl Who Came
There have been many New York productions of
Blithe Spirit. It was most recently present on Broadway in
2009 starring Rupert Everett as Charles and Angela
Lansbury as Madame Arcati. Lansbury won a Tony Award as
Best Actress in a Play for her role.
It has been produced
on television here and in England and was presented many
times as a radio play by the BBC. The film version was
produced in England in 1945, and directed by David Lean. It
featured Rex Harrison in the leading role with Margaret
Rutherford reprising her stage role as Madame Arcati.
Blithe Spirit was one of two comedies presented by Putnam
County Playhouse in its first season in 1962.
The 2010 production will be directed by Jack Randall Earles.
(Do not read if you don’t want to know the whole 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. 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 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, and at last Madame Arcati succeeds.
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. Charles leaves at once,
and the unseen ghosts throw things and destroy the room as soon
as he has gone. (In the David Lean 1945 film version, the
ghosts thwart Charles’s attempt to escape, and his car is again
sabotaged; he crashes and joins them as a ghost, with Elvira at
one arm and Ruth at the other.)