For two years before he wrote Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward had been involved in “war work.” The British government, acutely aware of the fact that most of the public did not support the war, had recruited the literary establishment to the cause of building morale and disseminating propaganda. Coward had written the deeply sentimental and fervently patriotic This Happy Breed in 1939, which was first performed in 1942, and the unproduced Time Remembered. He had also undertaken a grueling schedule of personal appearances, which took him to Australia and New Zealand as well as continually back and forth across the Atlantic. When he got the chance for a holiday, he settled down to write a light comedy without any references to the war. Blithe Spirit is essentially a work of pure self-indulgence, written for the fun of it.
It may be that when writers are at their most self-indulgent and have no other intention than to please themselves they are most inclined to reveal something of themselves. On the surface, Blithe Spirit does not seem to differ much in style or substance from Coward’s previous comedy, Present Laughter (written before This Happy Breed in early 1939 but likewise not produced until 1942). There, Coward used a protagonist who is an actor and unrepentant egomaniac as well as a writer, which would have enabled some “autobiographical” elements. Given that Coward was as openly homosexual as it was possible to be in his day—that is to say, it was no secret in the theatrical community—it does not seem that the theme of second marriages, which are often haunted by the ghosts of the former spouse, can have been of much relevance to him. Therefore, if there is any personal significance in Blithe Spirit, it is buried beneath the surface of glittering artifice.
The artifice of Blithe Spirit works to greatest effect in the character of Madame Arcati, who is a wonderful grotesque. Although she is clearly drawn from stereotypical images of spiritualist mediums, her idiosyncratic deviations from that stereotype provide a constant stream of amusing lines. Her insistence on traveling by bicycle, her observations on how various foods affect her psychic powers, her reasons for preferring a child to the more conventional Red Indian as a spirit guide, and so on, fuel the undercurrent of polite absurdity that sustains the pace of the play.
Even when she is not actually on stage, the other characters’...
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