By Sharon Ott
Noël Coward was born in 1899 and died in 1953. His brilliant theatrical career included all aspects of the craft; acting, composing, singing, directing and playwriting. He was born four years after the premiere of Oscar Wilde’s great comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (premiered in 1895), as well as four years after Wilde was charged with “gross indecency” for his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (also 1895). Like Wilde, Coward was a gay man, and also like Wilde, his great comic masterpieces about marriage, infidelity, and being romantically involved with the wrong person could often be seen as coded treatises on the life of elaborate social masks that both Wilde and Coward employed to live in a heterosexual world.
Coward took the Comedy of Manners style perfected by Wilde and moved it out of the stuffy, Victorian 19th century and into the 20th century. The rigid morality of the Victorian era becomes more relative in Coward’s universe. The critic Kenneth Tynan said that Coward “took the fat off English comic dialogue.” His writing dispenses with all the wonderful verbal curliques of Wilde, replacing it with a chic, staccato back and forth that presages Harold Pinter’s extremely economical verbal style. If Earnest has great fun with the conventions of Victorian society, but ultimately bows to them with the successful (and traditional) heterosexual alliances of Algernon and Cecily, John (Jack) Worthing and Gwendolyn, and even Miss Prism and Rev. Chausable, Coward blows the institution of marriage apart in Blithe Spirit, with even the house where both couples lived becoming victim to the vengeance of the ghosts of Ruth and Elvira. Wilde’s brilliantly constructed Comedy of Manners becomes Coward’s brilliantly constructed Comedy of Bad Manners.
It is interesting to note that Blithe Spirit was first performed in 1941 at the end of the London Blitz (1940-1941). It was the final play in what is now considered Coward’s great comic trilogy about marriage and infidelity which included Private Lives ( 1930) and Hay Fever (1925). These were dark times in London. It was a difficult time to produce a play that included death and ghosts, even if both were dealt with in brilliant comic fashion. However, Blithe Spirit set a record for the number of performances of a non-musical play in London’s West End when it premiered. Coward adapted the play for a film in 1945, turned it into a musical in 1964 and adapted it for television and radio in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The play has been successfully revived in both London and New York (and in theatres such as the Clarence Brown throughout the US) many times.
As we are in the midst of our own dark times, I would suggest that, just as it was in London in 1941, now is the perfect time for us to laugh out loud at both the destruction of Charles Condomine’s second marriage as well as any fond memories he might have had of his first wife. It is also time for us to acknowledge the brilliance of Noël Coward, who could imagine such wonderful characters as Madame Arcati and the supernaturally talented but physically challenged Edith. We hope you enjoy our production as much as we have enjoyed putting it all together for you!