The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854

Blithe Spirit opens in the fashionable living room of the Condomines’ house in Kent. It is about eight o’clock on a summer evening. Charles Condomine, a novelist, and his wife, Ruth, have invited their friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman to join them for drinks and dinner with a local clairvoyant, Madame Arcati. Charles is planning a novel about a homicidal spiritualist and wants to observe the behavior of Madame Arcati during a seance after dinner. Before their guests arrive, Charles and Ruth discuss their maid, Edith, and their previous marriages (both were widowed in their mid-thirties). The fact is established that Charles, while he loves Ruth and is content, was also very attached to his first wife, Elvira.

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The Bradmans arrive, eager to be entertained but decidedly skeptical regarding anything spiritual or occult. All four feel sure that Madame Arcati will be a harmless fraud. Madame Arcati, an older woman dressed somewhat eccentrically, enters, having parked her bicycle outside. She is vigorous and articulate, not at all the dotty village spinster; she drinks dry martinis and is abreast of village gossip.

After dinner, the seance begins around a small table in the living room. Madame Arcati traces her history of supernatural revelations back to her childhood and tells about Daphne, her child contact from “the other side.” Before she begins, she starts playing the record “Always”; Charles objects but is overruled. Much to the surprise of the two couples, there are supernatural manifestations—the table trembles, Madame Arcati falls into a trance, and Charles hears the voice of Elvira. Frightened, he wakes Madame Arcati, and the party breaks up. As Charles shows the Bradmans out, in walks the ghost of Elvira, gray from head to foot. Only Charles can see and hear her, and he and Ruth immediately quarrel about her presence. Believing that Charles is drunk, Ruth goes off to bed in a huff. The cross-conversation between Charles and Ruth and Charles and Elvira is quite amusing. Finally, the curtain falls on Charles lying on the couch while Elvira, charming as ever, strokes his hair.

Act 2 opens at breakfast the next morning. Ruth is very cool to Charles and insists that he had had too much to drink the night before. When he insists that he had a hallucination, Ruth attributes it to indigestion. The bickering continues until Elvira enters, carrying roses. When Charles sees her, a comical miscommunication begins, with Ruth unable to see or hear Elvira and feeling certain that Charles’s unpleasant remarks are meant for her. Charles will not behave “normally,” and Ruth becomes convinced he is mad. She tries to soothe him and go for a doctor. Charles, frantic to be believed, enlists Elvira’s help. She cannot materialize for Ruth, but she does move a bowl of flowers around the room to prove her existence. The scene ends with Ruth in hysterics, not sure whether she is being deluded, is going insane, or is actually in the presence of a ghost.

Later, when she is alone, Ruth visits with Madame Arcati again—and is shocked and angered that Madame Arcati is not only pleased with Elvira’s appearance but also unable to dematerialize her. Madame Arcati advances the theory that perhaps Charles subconsciously wanted Elvira back. When Ruth is rude to her, the spiritualist leaves in a huff. Elvira and Charles enter, and Elvira seems delighted that she will be a permanent guest. Ruth swears to rid herself of Elvira.

Suspense builds when, several days later, both Edith and Charles have accidents—Edith because of axle grease rubbed on the stairs and Charles on a ladder that proves to have been sawed nearly in two. Ruth insists that Elvira is trying to kill Charles in order to have him for herself again, and Charles is convinced. Elvira enters, Ruth exits, and Elvira tries to coax Charles into going to the movies. When Charles points out that Ruth is gone in the car, Elvira becomes hysterical. “My God, the car!” shouts Charles as the telephone rings with the message that there has been a terrible accident. The act ends with Elvira frantically retreating from Ruth’s ghost, entering through the French doors.

In the final act, Charles is again with Madame Arcati. She is both fascinated with Elvira and very sorry about Ruth’s death. Charles and Elvira quarrel, and Madame Arcati goes into a trance to dematerialize Elvira. It works in reverse, though, and in walks the ghost of Ruth.

After trying all sorts of supernatural tricks, Madame Arcati is about to despair; the ghosts simply will not go away. Then she realizes that it was indeed not Charles who called up Elvira and Ruth. Madame Arcati gazes into her crystal ball and summons Edith, still bandaged from her fall. Edith, quite contrite, is hypnotized, and the ghosts vanish at last. Suggesting that Charles travel for a while, Madame Arcati exits.

Charles, now alone but not really alone, teases Ruth and Elvira about how much he will enjoy his freedom. Vases crash into the fireplace, pictures come crashing down, the mantel topples—and the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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Blithe Spirit is a much more hilarious play to watch than to read, for a variety of reasons. First are the stage tricks, such as the floating bowl of flowers and the crashing crockery and pictures in the final scene. The seance scenes that open and close the play have delightfully predictable devices: darkness, spooky sounds, tables moving, and mysterious rapping noises. The audience knows that seances are fraudulent, and yet cannot wait for eerie things to begin to happen.

Additionally, there are some nice visual touches. Elvira is an ordinary fashionable, sophisticated woman, made ghostly by being gray from head to toe. When Ruth dies, the effect doubles; now there are two gray matrons competing for attention. Edith’s white bandage is a good touch. It is the bandage, not Edith, that Madame Arcati sees in her crystal ball. As soon as Edith enters with that bandage on her head, the audience response is sudden recognition.

The principal difference between reading and seeing Blithe Spirit, however, is in the comedic effect of overlapping simultaneous dialogue. On the page, the reader can follow only one speaker per line; on stage, words are tennis balls being flung from person to person, tossed above heads and below belts. Here is an example from act 1, scene 2 when Elvira has appeared to Charles but Ruth cannot see or hear her.

CHARLES (patiently): Ruth, Elvira is here—she’sstanding a few yards away from you.RUTH (sarcastically): Yes, dear, I can see herdistinctly—under the piano with a horse.CHARLES: But, Ruth . . .RUTH: I am not going to stay here arguing anylonger . . .ELVIRA: Hurray!CHARLES: Shut up.RUTH (incensed): How dare you speak to me like that!CHARLES: Listen, Ruth—please listen—

In fact, most of the humor in Blithe Spirit turns on the question, who knows the most? The audience and the Condomines begin on the same level, educated and worldly and convinced that all this spiritual business is nonsense. Then the level of awareness shifts, with the audience and Charles joining Madame Arcati in knowing that ghosts exist, and Ruth’s skepticism now makes her the foolish one. Then there is another shift—Charles and Ruth know about Elvira and attempt to conceal their knowledge from the Bradmans. Toward the end, Charles, Ruth, Elvira, and the audience know even more than Madame Arcati about ghosts and their behavior. These changing levels of awareness keep the farce from falling flat after the first scene or two of miscommunication between the real world and the other side; nobody, especially the playgoer, can be quite sure of what he knows.

Places Discussed

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Living room

Living room. Central room in the Condomines’ house in Kent in which the entire action of the play takes place. The home is situated somewhere between the southeastern English towns of Folkestone and Hythe. The room is described as being attractive and comfortably furnished, though it is not clear whether this reflects the tastes of Charles Condomine’s first wife, Elvira, or his second, Ruth. Elvira implies that the room was designed by her and laments that it has been “spoiled” by Ruth, whose taste is “thoroughly artsy-craftsy.” Significantly, the room is the one in which Elvira died, but she seems not to be tied to it and is able to leave as she wishes.

By setting the play in one room, Noël Coward brings to the fore the claustrophobic nature of the relationship between Condomine and his current wife. Ruth is not convinced of her husband’s affection for her, and the gulf between her and her husband is emphasized by her being unable to see or hear Elvira, obliging her to address the empty air and frequently the wrong spot when she attempts to talk to the ghost, whereas Condomine can see and hear his first wife perfectly.

The living room becomes the focus first of the two wives’ resentment of each other, manifested in their constant rearrangement of vases of flowers. Later, after Ruth’s death as a result of Elvira’s tampering with her car, it becomes the focus of their joint resentment of Charles, once he realizes that he is free of both of them, at which point they begin to destroy the room.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

Fulton, A.R. Drama and Theatre Illustrated by Seven Modern Plays, 1946.

Gay, Frances. Noël Coward. London: Macmillan, 1987. A critical study of Coward’s work. Discusses Blithe Spirit as a farcical comedy with “a darker dimension.”

Greacen, Robert. The Art of Noël Coward, 1953, 1970.

Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1982. The fullest and most detailed critical study of Coward’s plays. Blithe Spirit is extensively discussed in the chapter “Ghosts in the Fun Machine.”

Lesley, Cole. The Life of Noël Coward. London: Cape, 1976. A useful memoir by Coward’s longtime secretary and companion.

Levin, Milton. Noël Coward, 1968.

Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. Theatrical Companion to Coward. New York: Mac-millan, 1957. A comprehensive and detailed reference work dealing with Coward’s plays.

Morley, Sheridan. A Talent to Amuse. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. A sensitive and wide-ranging critical and biographical study.

Oliver, Edith. Review in The New Yorker. LXIII (April 13, 1987), pp. 86-87.

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