Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward
As with many of his hit plays, Noël Coward wrote Blithe Sprit in a short, intense burst.
For six days I worked from eight to one each morning and from two to seven each afternoon. On Friday evening, May ninth, the play was finished and, disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.
Well done him for boasting. Only the genuinely high status are capable of being so refreshingly low status. Coward had wanted to write the play, the film, and the song of the war. Blithe Sprit was the play. And what a success it was. Before The Mousetrap took over in 1957, Blithe Sprit held the record for longest run for a non-musical play in the West End, with 1,997 performances. Coward sent Agatha Christie a telegram when she broke his record: ‘much as it pains me I really must congratulate you.’ He must have been upset. Blithe Sprit had made him an awful lot of money. (It was written to fill a gap and became one of his biggest earners.)
The original production, which opened in July 1941, starred Margaret Rutherford as Madam Arcati. She was fresh off her success playing Miss Prism in John Gielgud’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. She got rave reviews, which no doubt contributed to the play’s success. The role had been written for her, after all. With the image we have of her now, we might imagine her as the only person who could ever really play Madam Arcati.
Coward, however, wasn’t impressed with her. At all.
The great disappointment is Margaret Rutherford, whom the audience love, because the part is so good, but who is actually very, very bad indeed. She is indistinct, fussy and, beyond her personality, has no technical knowledge or resources at all. She merely fumbles and gasps and drops things and throws many of my best lines down the drain. She is despair to Fay, Cecil and Kay, and mortification to me because I thought she would be marvellous. I need hardly say she got a magnificent notice.
This lack of precision, of ‘technical knowledge’, is a classic Coward bugbear, who was a highly technical actor. As far as he was concerned, success in the theatre depended on precision, punctuality, and knowing exactly what you are doing. (He thought actors should wear lounge suits to rehearsals.) You can see an interview with Coward on YouTube talking about some of the techniques he learnt from his mentor Charles Hawtrey. ‘All acting is a question of control. The control of the actor, of himself, and through him of the audience.’ As you might imagine, he thought method acting was a lot of old hooey.
You can see this precision in action in this live television production of Blithe Spirit from 1956. Watch this little speech. So many actors, especially the ones with silly ideas about how to play Coward parts as smooth or posh or sophisticated or something, would play the closing line without the sharp shift of tone Coward gives it. He is pitch perfect. The whole production is worth watching. So many modern actors try and replace what they think was Coward’s accent, and little else. This version avoided the error so many modern American productions make of putting on godawful fake RP accents, as if prancing around in a smoking jacket sounding louche is all it takes to star in a Noël Coward play. In this version they just let Lauren Bacall and everyone else speak in their own drawling American voices. And it works. Despite the cuts to the script, it’s an excellent production.
This too did not come easily. There’s a marvellous letter about it, written from Coward to Cole Lesley (originally Coward’s valet, later his secretary, then his biographer) which details the ‘blazing rows’ he had with Claudette Colbert, the infection in his leg that meant he nearly missed the filming, and the fact that the studio was ‘a hive of incompetence.’ His problem with Colbert was that she refused to learn her lines (‘She said it “wasn’t her method”’) and made everyone stand in certain postures so that only her good side would be visible. This was, as Coward said, ‘not the way to please Father.’ (Letters, p. 604-5) She was also a pain in the mouth about her contract: ‘we really can’t afford to pay you more than ten without, to coin a phrase, which you will readily understand, fucking up our budget.’ (p. 603) You might begin to see that Noël didn’t always find it easy to work with leading ladies.
All of which goes to show that things don’t have to run smoothly if you are creating something excellent. Coward’s exacting standards are undoubtedly part of what made him such a good writer, actor, director, song writer, performer... He was often able to write plays so quickly because he thought them through so much before he started typing. Blithe Spirit was the result of a long standing desire to write a comedy about ghosts. He had previously been unable to make the plot work. In its final form, of course, it resembles Private Lives and uses the trick at the end which he relied on three or four times, including in Present Laughter. Sometimes a formula is the best approach, especially in comedy.
The effort matters. This play wasn’t inevitably going to succeed. On the first night in the West End, in 1941, the audience walked in over planks, laid down after a recent air raid, and many took offence at the light treatment of death. Graham Greene called it ‘a weary exhibition of bad taste’. There were aesthetic objections, too. John Gielgud thought it was ‘terribly over-written.’ Neither of them was a very good theatre critic, and they certainly called this one wrong. Blithe Spirit is one of the best plays of the twentieth century. Despite that, it’s amazingly easy to get it wrong, and so many productions are poor. If you were lucky, you will have seen Penelope Keith playing Madam Arcati at the Savoy Theatre in 2004/05. That was genius.
We no longer take spiritualism seriously, and there is a chance Coward’s plays will die out if they are seen as period pieces. But horoscopes are increasingly popular, and occult fraud will always need to be laughed at, like snobbery, which is one reason why Blithe Spirit is as good as The Importance of Being Earnest.
Interestingly, Margaret Rutherford took spiritualism seriously and disliked the play. ‘I regard this as a very serious play, almost a tragedy. I don’t see it as a comedy at all.’ Ironic that one of the play’s first stars was (inadvertently) the butt of the joke. Perhaps that was partly why her performance wasn’t good enough for the Master. She should have taken her acting technique, and his jokes, rather than the subject matter, more seriously. Sadly, at the end of her run, her anxieties about mocking something so many people did take seriously gave her a nervous breakdown. That ability for such a light play to have such a sorry impact is part of what keeps Coward’s work going. Comedy can be very much more cruel than tragedy, as Penelope Fitzgerald would say.
Margaret Rutherford, ODNB profile, Wikipedia
The Psychology of Spiritualism: Science and Seances, excellent piece of journalism outlining the ways in which psychic practice has been shown to be false
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