Igniting a Spark

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly offers more contextual information on the writing of Blithe Spirit, on our stage now through September 2, 2012.

Noel Coward visits the orphanage

Coward visiting the Actors Orphanage, Chertsey, Surrey, where he was president, 1939. He arranged for all the children to be evacuated to New York the following year for the remainder of the war.

Despite its having nothing to do with war, Noël Coward very much saw Blithe Spirit as a war effort, designed to lift the spirits of the London public. By 1941, he had been intensely involved with the war effort for the whole of the previous two years (thus spending two entire years away from his typewriter). He had been excused from most of World War I on medical grounds, and had gladly pursued his professional and social ambitions, ending that war as London’s darling. But by the time of World War II he had grown up, and had a real sense of patriotism. He served for a brief time as a secret agent in Paris and entertained the allied troops in Europe, Africa, and the Far East, often covering his travel expenses himself; he also made trips to America, to try to persuade the Americans to join the war. Soon after staging Blithe Spirit, he would go on to write This Happy Breed, a play explicitly imbued with nationalist fervor.

By the time he sat down to write Blithe Spirit, Coward was in a whirl of creativity— he wrote it within five days! He set the play back in the 1930s, in Kent, where he himself had a house. During the war period Kent was actually deeply immersed in the war effort, with planes flying constantly overhead and inducing evacuations of women and children to safer parts of England. But in the ’30s, due to a massive renovation of England’s public rail system, Kent had been prized as an upper-middle-class urban idyll, pleasurably removed from the noise and bustle of London and yet easily accessible to it by rail for reasons of work, theater, and upmarket shopping.

After writing Blithe Spirit, Coward sat back and said “This is the best comedy I’ve ever written.” He changed only two lines of the initial draft before the play hit the boards on July 2, 1941. It opened to 1997 consecutive performances, breaking West End box office records.

Read the Blithe Spirit program and many more articles about our Main Stage productions at calshakes.org/articles.

 

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