Noël Coward’s Ghostly Farce

In the spring of 1941, as Londoners endured the Blitz, playwright Noël Coward slipped away to Wales to draft a new script centered on death and the great beyond. “Title [is] Blithe Spirit,” he wrote in his diary. “Very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost. Feel it may be good.” Then, six days later, the play was finished.

Dubbed “An Improbable Play in Three Acts,” Blithe Spirit features novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, the stiff and rigid Ruth, as they prepare to host a seance to conducted by clairvoyant Madame Arcati. For him, it’s a lark, research for his novel The Unseen; however, the scheme backfires, and Charles’ first wife, the temperamental Elvira, is summoned. Now, Charles finds himself torn between two loves: a passionate dead wife and an unfeeling living one.

With its plot full of ghosts, seances, and mystics, Blithe Spirit is a witty take on an old theme, like Mel Brooks lovingly parodying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Young Frankenstein, only Coward’s target is high culture and the Gothic literature.   

Coward had been plotting a comedy about ghosts for some time, but could never quite work it out in his mind. The title of the play is taken from Percy Shelley‘s poem “To a Skylark” (“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert”), and is the descendent of a long line of British traditions, namely farce and Gothic literature.

The 18th century nourished two opposing trends: the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Proponents of the Enlightenment valued objectivity and reason, whereas the Romantics preferred passion and a desire to feel things.

In 1764, Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto and planted the seeds of Gothic literature. This short novel combined elements of terror and medievalism with Romantic ideals and set a precedent for a thrilling new genre.

Focused on the individual, Romantics asked,  “Why get lost in a crowd when you could shine alone?” Like a nightmarish demon brother, the kid sibling of Romanticism, taking all the good things about the genre and dipping them in shadow and sin, the Gothics combined life and death in one theatrical rendering.

The plot of Gothic novels typically involves people who become mixed up in a complex, paranormal scheme, often involving a desperate heroine, such as Anne Radcliffe’s classic Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).

Originating from the ornate architecture created by the Goths, medieval castles shrouded in mystery, these Gothics proved the past to be the ideal backdrop for a literary style concerning itself with superstition, horror, and the absurd.

Taking elements such as atmosphere, clergy, paranormal, melodrama, omens, and epic settings, Gothic literature twists them into a compelling, dark story.

Gothic novels established a new movement. Whereas today we are no longer surprised by a lurking butler, a shadowy figure in the night, or a coven of witches, Gothic authors paved the way for the macabre and mysterious.

Every plot held a new surprise; every novel, a new ending. These stories enthralled readers by enticing them to look behind the veil and wonder where those mournful wails hailed from, turning the atmosphere of the story into character.

Yet, the real beauty of the genre lies in the reflection it represents. Like a grimy, cracked mirror sitting on the wall of the House of Usher, this genre of fiction gives us a twisted look at reality.

Traditional romantic heroes morph into hellhounds, sometimes literally, but more often than not as trusted metaphors for order, decay, and rot. In essence, the Gothic is the birth of the antihero.

Why are these books so appealing? Why do these plays touch our soul? It’s because all the demons, all the crooked monks and monsters, are really extensions of ourselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde offers a literal protagonist-antagonist trapped in one body. In essence, a man is his own worst enemy. What happens when the monster that lurks inside of all of us is set free?

This idea would later be expounded by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, turning an innocent protagonist into a decidedly repulsive antagonist. To the outside world, Dorian is a handsome example of high culture. Yet Wilde’s dramatic imagery of a decaying portrait reflecting the inner workings of its hero exposes the weight of choice, guilt, and malevolence.

Much like Coward’s earlier successes Hay Fever and Private Lives, or Wilde‘s classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, Blithe Spirit is both a condemnation and a celebration of all things uniquely British.

Cantankerous novelist Charles Condomine is married, but haunted (literally) by the ghost of his late first wife, the clever and insistent Elvira, who is called up by the visiting medium Madame Arcati.

Director Carly Bodnar leads an all-star cast of Hedgerow favorites in Nöel Coward’s stylish supernatural comedy, Blithe Spirit, playing October 5 through 29. The cast includes Producing Artistic Director Jared Reed, board member Michael Fuchs, veteran Susan Wefel, and fan favorite Stacy Skinner.

The show also reunites the three cast members of the Barrymore Recommended production of On the Verge: Jennifer Summerfield,  Maryruth Stine, and playing the coveted role of Madame Arcati will be this year’s recipient of the Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award, Penelope Reed.

Is it our enjoyment of a well-plotted farce, or our obsession with life after death, that charges this intelligent and enduring Gothic play? Coward’s timeless and distinct voice, combined with superb direction and a killer cast,  give us insight into human interactions and relationships that make up all the fun in this one-of-a-kind production.

For more information call the box office, 610-565-4211, visit www.HedgerowTheatre.org, or email company@hedgerowtheatre.org. Hedgerow Theatre is located at 64 Rose Valley Road in Rose Valley (near Media). Adult ticket prices are $35, with a $3 discount for seniors. Tickets for those age 30 and under are $20. For groups of 10 or more, tickets are $18, please contact Art Hunter at ahunter@hedgerowtheatre.org. Prices include all fees and are subject to change. Shows are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.