|Anna Eva Fay|
Violet was ambitious for her child and the Coward finances were precarious, so Noël's debut was welcome. But had she done the right thing in putting him on the stage so young? Violet decided to ask the opinion of Fay and those in the afterlife. The answer was unequivocal: "Keep him where he is! He is a great talent and will have a wonderful career!"
The prediction was spot on. Noël Coward went on to become one of the most successful playwrights, actors and entertainers of the 20th century.
One of his most enduring hits is Blithe Spirit, which has just returned to London in a production starring Angela Lansbury. In this "light comedy about death", as Coward put it, theatre and spiritualism meet head-on. Written in just five days, and premiering at the Piccadilly theatre in 1941 when a Britain at war seemed to be staring defeat in the face,
Blithe Spirit is a delicious comedy about a writer called Charles Condomine, who recently remarried after being widowed. His first wife, Elvira, comes back to haunt him and his new partner after a seance conducted by the eccentric medium Madame Arcati, played by Lansbury. "I shall be for ever grateful," said Coward, "for the almost psychic gift that enabled me to write Blithe Spirit during the darkest days of the war."
This made her a natural successor to the Fox Sisters, her fellow Americans and the founders of modern spiritualism, who in the mid-19th century were engaged to perform three times a day by the impresario PT Barnum.
The medium's task was to make visible what is invisible. Often they drew on music hall and popular theatre, using songs, ventriloquism, puppetry and comedy. There are clear parallels with later 20th-century performance art, with their use of their own bodies and their manifestations of ectoplasm.
It's a charge that could perhaps have been laid at the door of Madame Arcati, although her sincerity is never in doubt in Blithe Spirit in the play: she escapes lightly, cycling blithely away from the Condomine house and all the troubles she has unleashed. Duncan was not so lucky: she was the last person in England to be prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, receiving a nine-month prison sentence.
Despite this, many people in the audience believed what they saw and heard at Duncan's seances, according to theatre and social historian Simon Featherstone, although he says what they actually witnessed was "a theatrical process". He compares Duncan's act to "that of an old-fashioned variety artiste, designed to meet the needs of the audience". In a blitz-shattered London, Blithe Spirit was doing exactly the same in theatrical form, even if the novelist Graham Greene dismissed its "bad taste" in making light of death.
|The original 1941 production of Blithe Spirit.|
Simon Higlett, the designer of this new Blithe Spirit, has firm views on how to make ghosts walk. "The more technology involved, the worse the effect often is," he says. Every time I've worked on Blithe Spirit, there has been a conversation about whether you make Elvira look grey and ghostly. But in my experience, the less you do, the more effective it is." Although Higlett knows how to make rose bowls fly through the air, or books tumble from shelves, he says such trickery "fills me with dread, because modern audiences are always looking to see how it's done. In the past, people were happy not to know, to just wonder and believe."
When Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, the need to believe, particularly in an afterlife, was strong in a world that was being touched daily by death. The audience for early performances had to pick their way round a bomb crater to enter the theatre. Margaret Rutherford, who played Madame Arcati on stage and on screen, was herself a believer and initially refused the role because she saw the play as an attack on spiritualism. The producer Binkie Beaumont eventually persuaded her, but Rutherford always insisted that Blithe Spirit had to be taken seriously. "I regard this as a very serious play," she said, "almost a tragedy."
While Blithe Spirit is an outlandish comic fantasy, it has its origins in a bizarre true-life situation. In her book Kindred Spirits, Terry Castle traces Coward's friendship with the lesbian author Radclyffe Hall and her lover, Una Troubridge. The two women were involved in a ghostly menage a trois, having begun an affair while Hall was still in a relationship with the salon singer Muriel Batten. When the spurned singer died suddenly, the pair – out of a need for forgiveness, perhaps, or mere curiosity – tried to contact Batten via seances conducted by Gladys Osborne Leonard. This woman may have been the inspiration for Madame Arcati.
Hall never saw Blithe Spirit. She was already ailing on its premiere, and died in 1943. But had Hall managed to catch a performance, says Castle, "one hopes she would have been capable of seeing the love – as well as the joke".