Themes and Meanings

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Noël Coward subtitles Blithe Spirit “an improbable farce,” and it is, not only because it asks the audience to believe in the supernatural but also because its humor turns on the idea that the supernatural world has a pattern of manners much like ours.

Suspending disbelief comes easily to audiences of this play. The playgoer knows from the opening moments, when the Condomines and Bradmans are so sure that ghosts cannot appear, that almost certainly something will happen to prove them wrong. Madame Arcati is a trustworthy link between “here” and “the other side”; she is so much more down-to-earth, for all of her clairvoyance and bizarre dress, than the rather superficial and oversophisticated Condomines. She rides a bicycle, likes to eat, openly shows enthusiasm, and speaks in Girl Scout cliches. If such a woman believes in ghosts, it would be very hard for a self-respecting audience not to play along. This belief is central to the play’s humor—the butts of the jokes often are the foolish characters who refuse to believe in Elvira’s presence.

Elvira is not merely a believable ghost, she is a ghost who pouts, teases, whines, manipulates—in short, does exactly what she did when alive. Elvira has not mellowed at all in the afterlife, which she describes as an extended cocktail party where she played chess with Genghis Khan and watched Merlin do magic tricks. Her jealousy of Charles and Ruth drives her finally toward murder in order to win him back. Yet there is not much to be feared from death (even murder) in this play. After all, life on the other side seems to be just like life here, only gray.

Blithe Spirit is a farcical version of one of the staples of comedies of manners, the domestic disagreement. The play hinges on the triangle—husband and loving wife separated by jealous former wife (who happens to be dead). The playgoer wants them to triumph, to banish Elvira and return to bliss—or does he? After all, with her spontaneity and love of living, Elvira displays considerable charm. Once Coward starts manipulating audience sympathy, it is a short step to cheering for the ghosts of Ruth and Elvira as they try to beat Charles in the final act. Farce depends for its humor on improbable situations and often points up comic abnormality by contrasting an eccentric character with a normal one. By the end of Blithe Spirit, however, loyalties have been thoroughly upended, leaving the audience delightfully confused about what is normal or abnormal, real or unreal.

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