Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027

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.

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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’ remarks about Madame Arcati are essential to the flow of wit. When she is absent from the stage or from the conversation, the tempo is markedly different. Charles Condomine’s dialogues with Elvira sparkle, but the only really funny scene that does not involve Madame Arcati is the one in which Charles’s exchanges with Elvira are continually misinterpreted by Ruth, to whom Elvira is invisible and inaudible—a near-slapstick device that diverges sharply from Coward’s usual method of raising laughs.

The mischievous Elvira, whose amorality is intensified rather than redeemed by her personal charms, is the kind of female character Coward loved to create. Her disregard for convention—which certainly warrants the description of “blithe”—is indicated in a fashion so subtle as to be sketchy, but any admirer of Coward’s work would immediately recognize the precise tenor of her naughtiness. The same admirer might, however, have difficulty in recognizing Charles as another in the series of Cowardian alter egos who serve as his male protagonists. By comparison with Gary Essendine in Present Laughter, who is the epitome of the breezily appalling hams Coward loved to design and play, Charles is not merely restrained but positively ordinary. Ruth’s role is largely that of playing sober foil to the mercurial Elvira, but she, too, is forced to exercise that sobriety with an uncommon restraint.

The relative quietness of the two leading players is counterbalanced by the fact that they are enmeshed in a structured plot. Many of Coward’s characters had to be larger than life because they had to carry the plays forward by the sheer force of personality, but Blithe Spirit stands almost alone among Coward’s comedies in having an element of mystery and narrative suspense. This is probably the reason that it has proved to be the most popular of all his plays with audiences, although connoisseurs often prefer Private Lives (1930). Significantly, when the play was filmed in 1945 the plot was considered so weak as to require a modified climax; the director evidently felt that Charles’s casual farewell to his invisible spouses was disappointingly anticlimactic and added an extra “accident” to reunite the three of them beyond the grave. The fact that Coward felt that no such move was necessary or desirable in the play may provide the key to such personal significance as it has.

Coward spent his entire life performing in a calculatedly flamboyant manner that helped create the notion of “campness.” His declared justification for this was, of course, that he was not just a man of the theater and a genius but a homosexual who was only permitted to acknowledge the fact within certain circles and thus forced to conduct his social life as a performance; his calculated exaggeration of that performance was, to some extent, a commentary on the absurdity of his situation. Of all the parts he wrote for himself, Charles Condomine is the least prone to exaggerated performance (Coward’s “straight” parts were, of course, performances precisely because they pretended to set aside the kind of ostentation he employed in real life). The ending of Charles’s story qualifies as a uniquely happy ending because his release from the various social pressures put upon him by his successive wives offers him the promise, or at least the possibility, of being able to stop performing altogether.

Charles is the one character Coward wrote for himself who is allowed the hope of being himself in being by himself. It was the kind of notion that the relentlessly gregarious Coward could probably never have contemplated had he not been temporarily surfeited with unusually onerous social responsibilities, but given the circumstances in which he conceived and wrote Blithe Spirit it is certainly understandable.

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Critical Context