Ask Philippa: BLITHE SPIRIT Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Blithe Spirit, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Blithe Spirit runs August 8–September 2, 2012.

Philippa Kelly

Photo of Philippa Kelly by Jay Yamada.

In 1941 Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, his gift to the war effort. By setting the play in the 1930s, Coward wanted to take London audiences out of the horrors of the blitz, death and privation, and back to a time of upper-middle class contentment. This is the setting for Blithe Spirit—Kent, near London, where Charles Condomine, a mystery writer, and his wife, Ruth, are getting ready to hold an after-dinner séance as research for Charles’ start on a new novel. They expect it to be a hoot, and, indeed, it is—but not in the way they imagine!

Are you going to see our production of Blithe Spirit? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s music, cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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22 Responses to Ask Philippa: BLITHE SPIRIT Edition

  1. Hennie says:

    Hi Philippa,

    So glad that you’re back!
    Wondering how old Noel Coward was when he wrote Blithe Spirit.

    Thanks,

    Hennie

  2. Lisa says:

    Philippa!
    I’m glad you are back! My friends and I wanted to ask you some questions about Spunk but your page had gone away. Can you tell me: Why did Wolfe call the show ‘spunk?’ And about Blithe Spirit, is there any connection to Shelley’s poem?

  3. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Hennie,
    He was 42 wen he wrote the play, and he wrote it in five days! Several of his plays were written very, very quickly. So looking forward to this show – it opens on wednesday next week!

  4. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Lisa,

    First, the spunk question. Well, one of Zora’s stories was called spunk – but not one of the three that Wolfe used in his adaptation. But there is much about the story that resonates in the Wolfe piece – e.g. voodoo, the idea of one’s actions coming back to haunt one. Wolfe wanted to choose three stories that would, in a sense, make a progression: and the director Patricia McGregor brought this out beautifully. The first story is what she called 1-dimensional – the idea of 1 particular couple and their struggles and difficulties in a particular town (Eatonville) and time (the 1920s) . The second story, ‘Story in Harlem Slang,’ moved the focus out to ‘two dimensions’ – into the sharp angles and lights of Harlem. And the third, ‘The gilded sixbits’, brought the focus into ‘three dimensions’ – it is a universal story of two people who could be anyone anywhere in the world, sitting on a bed and trying to work out how to restore trust. I think Wolfe thought ‘Spunk’ was a great title for his music theater piece.

    Your second question about Blithe Spirit – yes, there is a connection! And thank you for this question! ‘Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/Bird thou never wert…’ Like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skylark from which the poem draws its name, the ghost is invisible (well, almost). ‘What thou art we know not,’ Shelley wrote in the early 19th century, ‘What is most like thee?’ We could say the same of the ghost. (I can’t say anything mroe specific about the ghost issue because I don’t want to give the plot away!)

    Waking or asleep,
    Thou of death must deem
    Things more true and deep

    I think that echoes of Shelley’s poem alight on Blithe Spirit like the invisible touch of the skylark: as with the skylark, the ghosts remind us of this fragile mortal world, yet they ‘sing’ in a completely different note, one of merriment and mockery that was a contralto against the heavy baritone notes of death that permeated war-time London. What a release for the people of London to have Coward’s ghosts who make people laugh rather than weep! See you out at the grove, I hope. I think I am speaking the first 5 shows.

  5. Loren says:

    As always, I enjoy your commentary on the plays. Last night’s Preview was wonderful. A light and breezy tone throughout. As I strained to hear the actors, I realized that Noel Coward’s plays might be rather interesting to read, due to the use of subtle phasing. Which would you recommend to read? With Shakespeare, I often prefer to see it performed – give movement to the ideas. Last night, the cast was wonderful. I especailly appreciated the talents of Domenique Lozano as Madame Arcati. May I ask that you pass on a suggestion that for this type of play – where word phrasing is the play, that CalShakes consider using microphones. It was maddening to know that some sort of sophisticated reparte was going on with the actors, but to have difficulty hearing it on the back row. Anyway, would love your thoughts on another Noel Coward play for reading pleasure.

  6. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Lauren,

    Firstly, I think if you want a reading edition of Blithe, I’d go for the Bloomsbury paperback. You can get it on-line pretty cheaply (or you can borrow mine if you want to come out and see the show again – I could bring it out for you.) Secondly, in regard to other productions, I LOVED Mark’s production of Private Lives a few years ago – I love that play, and it is also very funny to read. I also love Hay Fever. I first saw Hay Fever starring Penelope Keith about 25 years ago. I was in England and my sister and I were just out of high school, working as waitresses, and would go to the cheapest seats of everything we could in London – you know, about 2 pounds a ticket way up in the balcony. That play blew my head off and I have been a Coward fan ever since. If I were you, I’d treat myself to the DVD Box SET Noel Coward collection -he is so perfect when brought to the stage – preferably to Mark’s stage, but, if you can’t get that, then to the DVD stage. Go to Amazon and they have well-priced used sets.

    Now, as for your other question about audibility – this is a huge debate in outdoor theatres at present. Do we go ahead and mike everyone (which has its own, not insurmountable, problems to do with movement, etc), but which also provokes aesthetic issues of giving way to 21st-century expectations of naturalism? BUT, on the other hand, we no longer live in the 16th century when actors were expected to yell. So it is a real issue. We are lucky enough to be working with the world’s premiere sound production company, Meyer Sound, headed by genius John Meyer. So in regard to this audibility issue, we can consult with (and in fact we are sponsored by) the best. It is just an issue of whether we ‘go all the way’ and mike everyone, or whether we hold out for the modus vivendi of outdoor theater, with its vernal landscape and cold air and blankets and hot chocolate and natural speaking voices. If you come back on a weeknight, I will make sure you not only get my copy of Blithe, but also that you are seated right up near the front.
    Philippa

  7. Doug Wilcoxen says:

    Hello Philippa,

    I enjoyed your commentary before the August 8 show. I wanted to ask if you could expand on your slightly cryptic note in the program: “My thanks to Annie Smart, set designer, for going to extraordinary lengths to help me to ascertain when and where we could declare Noel Coward’s mother dead.” -Doug

  8. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Doug,

    So glad you enjoyed the talk. I’ve just this minute finished writing a completely new one for tonight, so come on up on free grounds pass if you want to hear more about Coward!!!

    As for the programme note – it is a funny story. Annie Smart and I are friends and neighbors. She is a Coward expert, and I phoned her and said, ‘I can’t find when exactly Coward’s mother died. Some sources say he wrote the play as a response to her death, but I don’t believe it. I don’t think she was dead.’ About half an hour later the phone rang and Annie’s voice came on and said simply, ’1954′.

  9. Paul Renard says:

    Toward the end of your Aug 8 grove talk, you made mention of your like/fascination/phobia(?) with big sofas. Please elucidate.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the production, by the way–not a dull moment anywhere.

  10. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Paul,
    Well, it is a bit of a sad story about the sofa, since you ask. A few years ago I was at a party, and some friends of mine ran upstairs and said, ‘Philippa! Don’t go down there – there’s a really boring man you’ll be stuck with – on a sofa.’ I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, the poor man – I can sit with him – no one is too boring for me.’ So down I went and sure enough, he was sitting alone on the sofa. I sat with him and started asking him about his children and wife etc, and one question led to another. I thought I was doing rather well, and congratulated myself on my humanitarianism, etc etc, all the while asking more helpful questions. After about 20 minutes he said, ‘Well, I am going to get a drink.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll be here when you get back.’ He said, ‘I am not coming back.’ So you see, my dear Paul, I managed, with unadulterated ease, to single-handedly bore the most boring man at the party!!! This is my story about the sofa.

  11. Betty Brown says:

    Your asked me to comment because I had directed Blithe Spirit at Pittsburg Community Theatre in Pittsburg, California. I enjoyed the beautiful setting and costumes. I am hard of hearing and wear two hearing aids, so I had difficulty in hearing. I was looking forward to how the technical requirements would be handled in comparison with our production. Honestly, I felt our presentation of Elvira was much more spectacular. She entered through a life-sized portrait above the fireplace.

  12. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Betty,
    It was so lovely to have you introduced in the grove the other night as a Blithe Alumnus! (Actually, in its own way, Blithe Spirit CONTAINS its own alumni society, doesn’t it?!!) That’s a really interesting idea, to have her enter through a picture. I would have loved to see that. Thank you for writing in – and I am very intrigued by this image of what that entrance would’ve been like.

  13. Cindy says:

    Wonderful, wonderful production. Acting was phenomenal and enjoyable. Great dialogue. The actors were splendid. I truly enjoyed Anthony, Jessica and Dominque. I thought a standing ovation was appropriate. Thank you CalShakes!

  14. philippa kelly says:

    So great to get this feedback, Cindy – thank you for writing in!

  15. Don Koue says:

    Hi Philippa,

    Following up on your suggestion, and just back from seeing Blythe Spirit this afternoon (8/19), I want to say how good the cast was. The back story to the play is interesting, but the play stands well on its own. It is a great comedy with sparkling dialog, as contemporary as any 70 year old play could be. But to make it work it needs an excellent performance by the actors, and it got that today. Maybe they were just especially in sync today, but they were right on, right down to the actor with the fewest lines, Rebekah Brockman. I confess, I love this play, but that just makes me expect more of the cast, and they didn’t fail me.

    I also want to give a shout out for the tech crew for the work they did before and during the performance. My son, Scott Koue, has been in the tech crew, mostly as a sound designer, for many Bay Area theaters, from the Magic to Berkeley Rep, and I appreciate the demanding work that goes into making a play come off seamlessly on stage. The crew responsible for tonight’s performance did a great job.

    Bravos all around.

    Don

    • philippa kelly says:

      Don, what a lovely note. Thank you for posting it. By the way, yesterday I was doing the talkback and suddenly had a thought – imagine how many of the audience in 1941 were women! Quite audacious of Coward to write in this way about annoying wives who are, perhaps, still annoying when dead!

  16. Peter Loubal says:

    We enjoyed the the play (Sunday afternoon), and your talk, tremendously. Thanks!
    Here’s the list of “spooky” movies from that period I promised to send:
    Topper (1937)
    A Christmas Carol (1938)
    The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
    Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
    Hold That Ghost (1941)
    Cat People (1942)
    I Married a Witch (1942)
    Heaven Can Wait (1943)
    Curse of the Cat People (1944)
    The Enchanted Cottage (1944)
    A Guy Named Joe (1944)
    The Uninvited (1944)
    Blithe Spirit (1945, UK)
    Dead of Night (1945)
    The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
    Wonder Man (1945)
    A matter of Life and Death (1946) (“Stairway to Heaven” in the US), with David Niven
    Angel On My Shoulder (1946)
    It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
    The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
    Down to Earth (1947)
    The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

    • philippa kelly says:

      Peter, this is a marvelous list. And so helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time to provide it. And it was really nice to meet you yesterday. See you for Hamlet. BTW, I think you asked what my grove dates are for that play – they’re sept 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 29 (both mat and evening), and 30; 5 Oct, 7 Oct, 13 Oct, 14 Oct.

  17. Don Koue says:

    OMG, it’s Blithe, not Blythe. I’ve had it in my head wrong all these years, maybe because I’ve been through Blythe, the Athens of the west, down in the desert, too many times.

    Don

  18. Bob Finertie says:

    Good morning Philippa. During your comments about Blithe Spirit in the Grove Talk prior to the performance on Saturday evening, you mentioned something about the degree that one’s writing becomes ‘autobiographical’. In my experience I find that I can write evocatively only about events that have been part of what I have tasted, touched, felt, seen or known. When I attempt to write ‘about’ things outside of those parameters there is no connection with the audience. It becomes trivial because it lacks the authenticity of material that has gone through the forge of personal experience. As a case in point; I don’t believe Coward’s dialogues about the women in his life are ‘dreamed up’. They are too authentic and personal (and therefore laughable) for that. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject. Bob Finertie

  19. philippa kelly says:

    This is such an interesting comment Bob. Many people feel that there is a level of misogyny in Coward’s writing – as in this play, for instance, when Charles refers to having been hag-ridden all his life. Also, the outcome – which I can’t mention here because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t yet seen our show – but it could lend itself to the thought that Coward thinks a man is far better off on his own. And yet he also makes his women very spirited and independent-minded – whereas one might see Charles as far less ‘spunky’ than any of the female characters in this play. If one plays Charles as a rather bourgois sop – or even as a workaday (non-literary) writer – one can contrast him with these vivid, vibrant women who manage to out-manouever him even from the grave!

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