British murder mysteries and ghost stories often take place at the country estates of the rich and famous. Blithe Spirit--combining ghosts and murder—is firmly in that tradition. “The scene is the living room of the Condomines’ house in Kent,” a rural county to the southeast of London, and a fashionable location for deluxe country living. The room, says the stage directions, “is light, attractive and comfortably furnished. . . . There is a wood fire burning because it is an English summer evening.”
All the accoutrements of the typical Noel Coward setting are present: we are in a room that is attractive, handsomely furnished, and provided with a fireplace and mantelpiece—an arena of affluent comfort, good taste, and civilized behavior. That aura of poise and security associated with the rich man’s country house is undoubtedly the reason why it is so often the location of choice for stories of mayhem and the uncanny. The contrast between the comfortable, orderly surroundings of upper-class life and the chaos and horror created by skulking killers and wandering spirits is what creates the deliciously disturbing atmosphere of the thriller.
Charles Condomine. Charles is a man who has been living a thoroughly conventional life and, judging by his last moments on stage, hating virtually every minute of it. He confesses to having been “hag-ridden all my life,” and rejoices that, “now I’m free.” As we observe his scenes with his two wives, we come to realize that both his marriages have been fundamentally unhappy, scarred on the one hand by Elvira’s infidelity, and on the other by resentment toward an “increasingly domineering” Ruth.
Behind Charles’s air of sophistication and poise there lurks a trapped animal longing for release. We see this in the recurrent rhythm of the scenes between him and his wives: what begins in sweetness and light ends in rancor and verbal abuse. Thus, toward the end of the play Elvira declares at the beginning of one such scene that, “I sat there, on the other side, just longing for you day after day.” But by the middle of the scene they have come to rhetorical blows:
CHARLES: I am pained to observe that seven years in the echoing vaults of eternity have in no way impaired your native vulgarity.
As the smoke of verbal battle thickens, the scene climaxes with Elvira literally retracting her opening declaration of love and longing, declaring that an afterlife with Charles would be nothing but “bickering and squabbling for ever and ever.” Charles, thoroughly “sick of these insults,” agrees that Elvira should go away, “the sooner the better.”
As Samuel Johnson observed, second marriages represent “the triumph of hope over experience.” Charles it seems is the perfect illustration of that aphorism. A two-time practitioner of domesticity and marriage, Charles plays—more or less—by the rules, despite feeling suffocated by them. But his encounter with the uncanny pushes him beyond the conventions he has been willing to observe. A mystery writer (his book about the “homicidal medium” is to be called The Unseen) who finds himself in the middle of a ghost story, he ends the play determined to break out of the fiction of his previous life. Now, with both wives safely immured in his country house, he rather leeringly announces that he’s going to “enjoy” himself as he has never enjoyed himself before. What exactly does that mean? The verb “enjoy,” innocent enough as an injunction from your waiter, has also a coarser, more sensual edge to it. Note that Charles doesn’t say he is going to be happy, or that he is going to “live as I’ve never lived before.” Rather, we detect a much more specifically carnal implication in his choice of words. Having been disappointed in his wives, he will seek out other pleasures, previously un-enjoyed. With women? Or, having twice been disappointed by the fair sex, will he look elsewhere entirely?
Ruth Condomine. Charles complains that Ruth has become “increasingly domineering.” We see something of this in her reaction to her husband’s bizarre behavior upon encountering the ghost of Elvira. Instead of taking seriously his claims of psychological disturbance, she accuses him of drunkenness, and proceeds to hector him persistently for his presumed misbehavior. Thus throughout much of the play she seems to be something of a nag, and self-righteous to boot.
Her final words reveal a great deal about her: she disappears nagging, scolding, and threatening. Not, as with Hamlet, “The rest is silence,” but rather, “The rest is more of the same.”
Her previous marriage to a much older man raises interesting questions about her character. Why would she have done such a thing? Did she feel an older man—grateful for her youth—would be easy to manipulate? Was she a fortune hunter? Or did she settle for such a mate because she doubted her own attractiveness and therefore felt uncertain that she could catch and hold someone her own age? Her obsession with Elvira’s looks seems to make the latter possibility credible. These questions—obliquely raised in the script—make a role such as this attractive to an actress who relishes the creative opportunity to fill in the blanks.
Elvira Condomine. Beautiful, pleasure-loving, impetuous, selfish, somewhat shallow—these are all traits that are imputed to Elvira in the course of the play. As Charles says of her:
I remember how fascinating she was, and how maddening. . . . I remember her gay charm when she had achieved her own way . . . and her extreme acidity when she didn’t. I remember her physical attractiveness, which was tremendous, and her spiritual integrity, which was nil.
The trait she displays most convincingly is selfishness. Her desire to take Charles away from Ruth and have exclusive possession of him for eternity leads her first to sabotage the stairs and the ladder, causing injury and pain, and ultimately to commit murder. These are the actions of a supremely self-involved creature.
But she is also beautiful and—when she chooses to be—charming. In fact, according to Charles, one of her “greatest charms” was that she—unlike the domineering Ruth—“never ruled anyone.” Her attempts to seduce Charles nearly do ensnare him, as we see when he tells Ruth that he is having fun being haunted and is beginning—that word again—to “enjoy” himself.
The circumstances of her death vividly capture the essence of her character. Suffering from pneumonia as a result of punting in the rain with Captain Bracegirdle, she “was convalescing . . . and one evening she started to laugh helplessly at one of the BBC musical programs and died of a heart attack.” Her flirtatiousness and infidelity land her in a sick bed, and her sense of the ridiculous (BBC musical programs being notably pompous) finishes her off in a spasm of derisive laughter.
Madame Arcati. The daughter of a medium, she had her first trance at age four, and her first “ectoplasmic manifestation” at five and a half. Invited to Charles’s house as a figure of fun, Madame Arcati turns out to be a person of formidable power and dignity. Thus, when Dr. Bradman derides her about her supposed spiritual “control,” and twits her about her age—“She must be a bit long in the tooth by now, I should think”—she has a ready and withering retort: “You should think, Dr. Bradman, but I fear you don’t; at least not profoundly.” And later, when a quarreling Ruth reveals that Madame Arcati was asked to dinner only “to get material for a mystery story,” she is magnificent in her umbrage:
. . . if you and your husband were foolish enough to tamper with the unseen for paltry motives and in a spirit of ribaldry, whatever has happened to you is your own fault, and, to coin a phrase, as far as I’m concerned you can stew in your own juice!
By the end of the play she has grown in the eyes of the Condomines from being a charlatan to being their only source of hope in escaping from their spiritual snarl.
She is also a most un-spiritual medium. No ethereal figure of ascetic otherworldliness, Madame Arcati relishes food and drink, wolfing down sandwiches and guzzling martinis throughout the play. Moreover, she is physically robust, thinking nothing of pedaling seven miles home on her bicycle after an exhausting night of trances and spells. Her parting words capture the range of her appetites, from the spiritualistic to the gustatory: “Well, goodbye, Mr. Condomine. It’s been fascinating—from first to last—fascinating. Do you mind if I take just one more sandwich to munch on my way home.”
Edith. For nine tenths of the play, Edith is nothing but a comic convenience, a maid with the funny habit of rushing about all the time. She is the quintessential “unseen” (to use the title of Charles’s book). Overlooked throughout most of the action, it is only at play’s end that we discover her crucial power—something of which she herself is unaware.
The Bradmans. Also comic conveniences, the Bradmans are there to thicken the atmosphere of bourgeois reality against which the appearance of ghosts stands out so strikingly. Mrs. Bradman is a chatterbox in the tradition of country gossips, curious about everything, impatient with her stolid husband, eager for new experiences and titillating information. Dr. Bradman is the solid citizen who stands in contrast to the labile characters of Charles and his wives. Rational, commonsensical, skeptical, he is an indispensable element in every ghost story.
As the play begins, the Condomines—Charles, a popular novelist, and Ruth, his second wife—are awaiting the arrival of company for dinner. The most eagerly anticipated of the guests is Madame Arcati, a well-known psychic who haspromised to conduct a séance later in the evening. (The American Heritage Dictionary defines a séance as, “A meeting of persons to receive spritualistic messages.” Often these messages are said to come from the dead.) Charles, who is working on a novel about a “homicidal medium,” has set up this occasion because he wants to collect material for his book by observing Madame Arcati at work. (A “medium” is a person who mediates, or goes between, the worlds of the living and the dead.) The other guests will be Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, invited to flesh out the company, and to provide a suitable audience for the rigmarole of communing with the dead. Both the Condomines and the Bradmans, being sophisticated modern people, are utter skeptics when it comes to the psychic’s trade, so the playwright has created an initial atmosphere of firm disbelief in the spirit world—always a necessary element in stories about the paranormal where rationalist prejudices are exposed as themselves shallow and misguided.
As Charles and Ruth await their guests, they fall to talking about Elvira, Charles’s first wife, who died at a tragically young age seven years earlier in the very room in which the action is occurring. Ruth, herself a widow, rues the fact that “not the wildest stretch of imagination could describe” the love between her and Charles as “the first fine careless rapture.” She also badgers Charles about Elvira’s good looks, persistently asking whether the first wife was more beautiful than she. In a burst of impatience over this comparison of spouses, Charles sardonically remarks, “I hope I haven’t been in any way a disappointment, dear. . . . After all, your first husband was a great deal older than you, wasn’t he? I shouldn’t like you to think that you’d missed out all along the line.” Stung by his sarcasm, Ruth retorts, “There are moments, Charles, when you go too far. . . . You’re awfully irritating when you’re determined to be witty at all costs, almost supercilious.”
Thus Coward lays the foundation for later developments by showing us that this marriage is already haunted by departed spouses and flavored by tension and dissatisfaction.
The Bradmans soon arrive bringing with them an air of sturdy, middle-class common sense, thus providing a bland backdrop for the colorful arrival of Madam Arcati, “a striking woman, dressed not too extravagantly but with a decided bias towards the barbaric.” This exotic figure, who might be “any age between forty-five and sixty-five” meets the expectations of her fellow guests who are anticipating a “real professional charlatan.” After warning her hosts that “I make it a rule never to eat red meat before I work,” Madame Arcati and the other guests go to dinner, ending the first scene.
Scene 2 takes up the action after dinner, as Madame Arcati prepares for the séance. She tells the company about Daphne, her “control” spirit, or contact, among the shades, a little girl who is currently in a bad humor because she is suffering from a cold. Arcati has the company sit at a table with their hands spread out on the surface, the right and left little fingertips of each person touching those of his neighbor. She then picks out an appropriate piece of recorded music to set the mood for the event, choosing—quite unexpectedly—a popular sentimental love song, Always. (“I’ll be loving you . . . always/With a love that’s true . . . always.”) On hearing this, Charles jumps up as if startled, and has to be ordered back to his seat by Ruth. Eventually Arcati contacts the spirit world, and the bizarre events usually associated with séances begin: the table shakes and bumps, and strange voices speak in the dark. The first such voice, speaking through Arcati, is Daphne. The medium promptly screams, and falls unconscious to the floor. Following this, there is another voice—heard only by Charles. It is, as we learn, the voice of his dead wife, Elvira.
Charles, deeply shaken, demands the séance be brought to a close. Madame Arcati returns to consciousness, and the guests depart, leaving Charles and Ruth alone—except for the ghost of Elvira. But it is only Charles who sees and hears this apparition, and the ensuing scene turns into spiritualistic farce as Charles expostulates with his late wife, while Ruth assumes he is talking to her (For example, Charles tells Elvira to “shut up,” and Ruth takes offense, etc.). The result is cross-purpose and misunderstanding, in the course of which Charles seems to insult his living wife in the course of chastising his dead one. Insulted and convinced that Charles’s bizarre behavior arises from exceeding drunkenness, Ruth goes off to bed in a huff, leaving him to the company of Elvira. Once alone together, they share memories of their former life, with Charles speculating, as the curtain falls on the scene, that he must be out of his mind.
Scene 3 begins the following morning. Charles, invigorated by the commonsense light of day, is feeling normal again, convinced that last night’s apparitions have been dispelled by the sun. Ruth, however, is sulking and peevish, still angry at her husband’s boorish behavior and presumed inebriation. When he jokes with the maid, she lashes out at him and he responds, in a typical Cowardian exchange:
RUTH: Now look here, Charles, in your younger days this display of roguish flippancy might have been alluring. In a middle-aged novelist it’s nauseating.
Here we see the characteristic tension of Coward’s plays: on the one hand, there are the hyper-articulate voices created by extensive education and good-breeding, the hallmarks of civilization; on the other are the toxic passions of anger and spite, the spillovers of the reptile brain. When the former become the vehicle for the latter, we get the volatile combination of high culture and low feeling that creates eruptions of witty venom.
This initial exchange escalates into a full-blown marital quarrel, with Charles accusing Ruth of jealousy over Elvira, and lack of feeling in dismissing his disquieting encounter with her ghost. In her turn, Ruth ridicules her husband as a man who has “always been dominated” by women. Just as their squabbling seems to be dying down, Elvira makes an unexpected appearance, and the previous evening’s confusions resume in full force.
Finally, in a desperate attempt to convince Ruth that his first wife is really in the room with them, he prevails on Elvira to carry a bowl of flowers from the piano to the mantelpiece. When Ruth observes the bowl crossing the room, seemingly by itself, and then a chair doing the same, she is furiously convinced that Charles is playing tricks on her. But her skepticism begins to waver as more inexplicable events occur, until, as a vase apparently hurls itself into the fireplace, she collapses in hysterics, bringing Act One to a close.
As Act Two begins, Ruth, now convinced of the reality of Elvira’s ghost, has summoned Madame Arcati to demand that she send the specter back to the spirit world. When Madame Arcati informs her that she is unable to carry off such an undertaking, an outraged Ruth insults her, an offended Arcati takes umbrage, and the meeting ends with the medium striding out of the house in a huff.
Charles then enters accompanied by Elvira, and we see another three-way scene in which only one character can communicate with the other two. When Charles suggests to Ruth that she should stop being upset and get some “fun” out of the unusual situation, she bursts into tears, vows to do whatever is necessary to exorcise her rival, and storms out. Once again alone together, Charles and Elvira fall into intimate conversation, and as the scene ends, we sense Charles’s renewed affection for his dead wife.
The second scene occurs “several days later.” Dr. Bradman, wife in tow, has returned to attend to Charles’s sprained arm, injured when he fell from a ladder which broke while he was climbing it. When the Bradmans leave, Ruth confronts Charles with her conviction that Elvira is trying to kill him so that he can rejoin her in the spirit world. She points to the fact that Edith, the maid, slipped and fell down the stairs because the top step was smeared with axle grease—obviously the work of Elvira stalking Charles. She also informs her husband that the ladder from which he fell did not break by accident, but that it had been sawed nearly in half before he climbed it—more of Elvira’s mischief.
Ruth has therefore determined to force Madame Arcati to do something—anything—to rid them of this dangerous interloper. She plans to drive to Arcati’s house, and bring her back, by force if necessary. Meanwhile, she exhorts Charles to say nothing to Elvira about her mission, ordering him to claim that she is visiting the vicar.
She leaves, and Elvira appears, urging Charles to drive her into town to see a movie—something she hasn’t done in the seven years since her death. When Charles tells her he can’t because Ruth has the car, Elvira grows agitated, eventually “howling like a banshee,” as Charles realizes that, “Ruth was right. You did want to kill me! You’ve done something to the car!” At that point Charles receives a phone call telling him that Ruth has died in an automobile accident, news no sooner announced than the door bursts open from the force of an invisible presence—obviously the now-dead Ruth. Elvira runs from the room under attack from her new companion in the spirit world as the curtain falls on the scene.
As the next scene begins, Madame Arcati is back, summoned to make a last-ditch effort to rid the house of the two ghosts who now haunt it. As Charles and Elvira squabble over their past indiscretions, she realizes that her return to earth has been a fiasco, and decides that she will happily cooperate in Madame Arcati’s efforts. As the medium struggles to bring about the transit, Ruth, now also visible to Charles and to us, enters the room, like Elvira entirely wrapped in unearthly grey. As she enters the others sense her presence and stand stunned by this latest development, which brings the scene to an end.
Several hours have passed as the final scene opens, everyone on stage suffering exhaustion from the night’s ceaseless spiritualist exertions, despite which the ghosts are still stuck in the world of the living. Madame Arcati finally realizes that it was not Charles who called the dead back to life, but rather it must have been “a psychic subject—in the house, who wished for them.” She performs a ritual to summon whomever may have been the agent, and Edith, the comic maid, answers the call. Harnessing Edith’s psychic powers, Madame Arcati hypnotizes her and channels her energies toward transporting the ghosts. As Ruth and Elvira taunt and hector Charles—Elvira gleefully confessing past infidelities, Ruth denouncing him for his “atrocious behavior”—their voices fade and their forms disappear, presumably returned to the other world.
But as Madame Arcati and Edith exit, Charles calls out to the “vanished” spirits, who respond to him by smashing up vases and throwing books off their shelves. Elvira and Ruth haven’t really left, they have merely been relegated to invisibility and, happily for Charles, imprisoned in this house, which they will henceforth haunt. Charles can escape them now simply by leaving. “Goodbye for the moment, my dears. . .,” he tells them as the curtain falls on the end of the play, “I’m going to enjoy myself as I’ve never enjoyed myself before.”
Do ghosts exist? The great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, has one of his characters say, “I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us. . .” Certainly we all haunt one another. Dead parents, relatives, and friends visit our dreams and hover over our waking lives with questions and reminders, while the departed heroes and villains of history still walk abroad, staring down at us from a Lincoln Memorial, or shrieking at us from Nuremburg—all of them taking up enormous psychic space in our personal and public lives.
Coward plays brilliantly with this fact in Blithe Spirit. What if a psychological truth—the way we are haunted by the dead—were presented as a tangible reality, a fact? What if Elvira ceased being merely a dangerous topic of conversation between Charles and Ruth and became instead a literal inhabitant of their house? What would we learn about the dynamics of married life?
The most famous ghost play in history is Hamlet, and there, as in Blithe Spirit, a phantom from a first marriage makes trouble for a second. Also, as in Blithe Spirit, the ghost is selectively visible—in Coward only to Charles, in Shakespeare only to the surviving son and a handful of his associates. And in both works the consequence of the ghost’s visit is the death of the second spouse—Ruth in Coward’s play and Claudius in Hamlet.
So is Charles some sort of latter day comical Prince of Denmark? In some ways. We should remember that Hamlet’s first soliloquy is a plea to be let loose from the “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” prison that life has become after his mother’s second marriage. Isn’t this, mutatis mutandis, what Charles is longing for? Escape from the flat and unprofitable life of a husband? Hamlet—with the prompting of the ghost—gets his wish by dying. Charles gets his by locking up his ghosts, and going off to enjoy himself as never before. Hamlet can rest easy only after his mother and uncle have been killed; Charles can paint the town only after his wives are dispatched. Is Coward, like Shakespeare, showing us a world where there’s no happiness as long as your family is alive? Can boys have fun only when dad, mom, and the missus are dead and buried? Which wouldn’t surprising, since parents and wives are the immemorial killjoys in the bachelor party of life.
We might also notice that in 1941, when Coward wrote the play, the most practical and socially-acceptable way for Charles to achieve the freedom to enjoy himself was to have his wives die. Divorce, though not impossible, was certainly less common and less easily accomplished that it is now, sixty years later. Thus, Blithe Spirit speaks for an era when the bonds of marriage were much more powerful than they are in 2001—reaching, in fact, beyond the grave.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.