Blithe Spirit and the Spirits

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on the Spiritualist movement and the origin of the word “ghost.”

Melissa Smith as Mrs.Bradman, Anthony Fusco as Charles Condomine, Domenique Lozano as Madame Arcati, René Augesen as Ruth Condomine, and Kevin Rolston as Dr. Bradman; photo by Kevin Berne.

From left: Melissa Smith as Mrs.Bradman, Anthony Fusco (partially obscured) as Charles Condomine, Domenique Lozano as Madame Arcati, René Augesen as Ruth Condomine, and Kevin Rolston as Dr. Bradman; photo by Kevin Berne.

Where did Coward get his interest in Spiritualism? Most importantly (and this information is supplied by Cal Shakes’ own Robin Dolan), Coward had a housekeeper who was a Spiritualist. She would “find” items all over Coward’s house that had been left or moved by the spirits. And, perhaps apocryphally, Coward also owed his interest in Spiritualism to his mother, Violet, who is said to have consulted a medium in 1910. Violet was thrilled to be told by a medium that her son was going to have a “wonderful career.” And in a broader context, Spiritualism had crossed the Atlantic from America at the turn of the century. By the 1940s it was a voguish mark of pleasurable upper middle-class eccentricity. Hence in Blithe Spirit we see Charles Condamine organizing a séance, on the pretext of his upcoming novel, as a bit of informative fun. But, as we find out, “fun” in this play turns out to be an ambiguous concept…

While on the subject of ghosts, you may like to know the origin of the word. Originating from the words, “gast” and “geist” (breath, spirit), ghosts beckon from the afterlife, alluding to unfinished business left on earth. In the 16th century “gast” became semiotically entwined with “ghastly,” while our contemporary “ghosts” commonly inhabit not only the physical space of figures who slip unseen between walls and onto stages, but also the lexical space of the psychological.

Blithe Spirit, on our stage now through September 2, 2012.

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