Wednesday, February 15, 2012

BLITHE SPIRIT: The Playwright, the Play and HSU

Noel Coward is known for portraying and embodying the sophisticated British upper class, the glamorous stars of the international jet set, before there were jets. His actual roots were in that upper class, but only in distant memory. His ancestors’ fortunes had steadily declined, to the point that his mother was forced to run a boarding house.

The trying economic circumstances of his childhood were only one source of difficulty. His mother had pinned her hopes on her first born, a handsome, intelligent and very talented child, taken away by a childhood illness. Violet transferred her hopes to her second born, and their relationship became a constant in their lives.

Born in December 1899 (and named for Christmas), Noel Coward’s theatrical career spanned much of the 20th century. He was a successful child actor who added songwriting and playwriting to his repertoire, and starred in his own play on the London stage at the age of 20. His first big hit was in 1924 with the now-forgotten play The Vortex, but in dealing with sex and drug abuse, it was both scandalous and a popular sensation.
Frequest costar Gertrude Lawrence with Noel Coward

Of the plays he wrote in the 20s, the one that has lasted is Hay Fever, which was one of four of his shows running simultaneously in London’s fashionable theatre district, the West End, in 1925. He was also writing musical plays and revues (with his own songs) and historical extravaganzas as well as dramas and comedies—and frequently starring in them.

In the midst of many popular successes in the 1930s, he wrote two more of his classic plays, Private Lives (1930) and Design for Living (1932.) Present Laughter (1939) is also still revived. He starred in the London Private Lives, along with Gertrude Lawrence and the young Laurence Olivier. Design for Living premiered in New York because it was considered too risque to pass censorship in London. Coward starred with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Marlene Dietrich was a close friend

Coward’s stellar career continued through the 1950s and 60s. He was an international celebrity and maintained friendships with writers, show business stars and even the Queen Mother. He was a household name in America as well as the UK. He published a novel, short stories, and several volumes of memoirs. He made record albums, acted in movies (Around the World in 80 Days, Bunny Lake is Missing with Laurence Olivier) and performed his songs in a cabaret act, in Las Vegas and on television. . He directed several revivals of his best plays. He died in 1973.

Coward lived long enough to see his plays appreciated by a new generation--not only of playgoers but of playwrights, including John Osborne and Edward Albee.  In his introduction to a 1979 collection of three Coward plays, Albee wrote that they exhibit "the three qualities possessed by all plays that matter--literary excellence (by which I mean rhythm and sound), dramatic sure-footedness and pertinence."

Blithe Spirit and World War II

But among these amazing decades of accomplishments, perhaps his finest hour was the 1940s, during World War II. With the war in Europe already underway, the British government sent Noel Coward to America in 1940 to quietly learn what he could about American intentions. Such was his celebrity that he had a private conversation with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who told him of his efforts to guide the country towards helping Britain. Coward’s mission was so successful that he was sent back to America later in the year.
Milkman delivering during
the Blitz--the wartime spirit 

But in 1941 he was back in London, where his house was damaged by German bombs. His friend, actress Joyce Carey invited him to join her for a week in the Welsh resort of Portmeiron. During that week, he wrote Blithe Spirit.

It went into production immediately. “The play fulfilled part of the promise Noel had made to himself on his return,” writes Barry Day, editor of Coward’s letters. “To write the play, the film and the song that would help his fellow countrymen get through the war. Blithe Spirit was the play.”

Blithe Spirit would be on stage in London for the rest of the war (and longer.) Coward was especially proud that it never missed a scheduled performance, despite air raids, bombing, and V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks.

Later Coward would in fact write “the song” (“Up and Doing”) and “the film” (In Which We Serve, a movie about the British Navy.)

Blithe Spirit
Margaret Rutherford, Kay Hammond, and Fay Compton
in first London production 

The title Blithe Spirit (“blithe” is pronounced to rhyme with “writhe”) is from a line by Shelley which generations of mystified schoolchildren memorized: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!/Bird thou never wert.”

A comedy about ghosts during wartime, as bombs were falling on London, was not an obvious formula for success. American playwright Thorton Wilder thought Coward defeated the impression of ghoulishness simply with that title. With ‘spirit’ and ‘blithe,’ he wrote in a letter, Coward had taken the deathly seriousness away from ghost and shroud.

By some accounts, Blithe Spirit had a rocky first night, and some reviews accused it of being in bad taste. But there were something British about joking in the face of death. The play itself was a kind of fairy tale, set (in Coward’s words) “on a plane a little higher than reality.” Though the setting seemed roughly contemporary, there were no bombs or mention of war in it. It was a few hours of witty escape, and an excuse to laugh.
This photo from the original production adds Cecil Parker
and Martin Lewis

With nearly 2,000 consecutive performances, Blithe Spirit had the longest run of any British comedy to that time. Its Broadway production ran for two years. Coward himself toured the play throughout the UK during the war, and later he brought together filmmakers he’d worked with on In Which We Serve (including director David Lean) to form a film company to make the 1945 movie.

Coward would later direct a 1956 American television version (with Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Dirk Bogarde and Ruth Gordon) and he directed the successful 1964 musical version, High Spirits. Blithe Spirits remains one of Noel Coward's most performed plays.

Coward and the Occult

From Shakespeare to Dickens, British literature is replete with ghost stories.They were in some E. Nesbit children stories he loved.  But Noel Coward had personal experience with ghosts.   While playing a provincial town as a teenager, he was awakened one night by his bed shaking. He was told that he’d been put in a haunted room by mistake. It was then he started hearing about spiritualism, and even had an idea for a novel about a woman trying to be a psychic.
the 1945 film with Rex Harrison

Even before that, his mother had attended a performance at the London Coliseum by Miss Anna Fay, an American mind-reader, and had asked if her son Noel should continue on the stage. Miss Fay got “white as a ghost” and shouted, “He has great talent and will have a wonderful career!”

But his inspiration in 1941 may have been a lot closer. Just a few years before, strange things began to happen at his country home, called Goldenhurst. A number of his guests reported nights disturbed by uncanny sounds and sights. Coward heard local tales that a lad who had killed himself for love walked a path that intersected with the room being haunted. He believed these tales were true, and the house was haunted.  That Coward’s own father had died in the house a few years before apparently did not enter his calculations.

The inspiration for Madame Arcati, the medium in Blithe Spirit, was less otherworldly. He modeled Arcati after his eccentric friend, Clemence Dane, actress and playwright (A Bill of Divorcement.) Later he offered Dane the part of Arcati in the original production, but she declined.

Blithe Spirit at HSU

“Everybody likes a good ghost story,” said director Jyl Hewston, “and everybody likes a good comedy. And this play combines the two.”

That’s the simplest reason for producing Blithe Spirit at HSU. But as part of Humboldt State University, the Theatre, Film & Dance department has educational aims as well.

In choosing its upcoming season, the department had goals it wanted to address. “They wanted our students to have the experience of doing a classic play, a period play,” Hewston explained. “Design students need the experience of working with a large, box set, and this one has the additional opportunities of a lot of special effects—furniture that moves, things that fly off the mantle and break, and so on.

“So we’re doing this play in its period of the 1940s, with the costumes, makeup, research and performance style of that period. Plus it’s British, and the script screams out for British accents. It’s a huge challenge, which is just what an educational setting should provide.”

“We’re doing it in the Van Duzer, because it has the technical facilities for the set and the special effects. That presents another challenge to our actors. The actors will be miked, but playing to a large house requires more than just talking louder—it’s about projecting energy as well as your voice.”

“As a director, I’m also the advocate for the audience. So in addition to helping the cast interpret the script that’s from another time and place, I’m also watching what appeals to the cast about the script, to get an idea of what their peers might respond to. We want to connect with this generation. That’s also challenging, and exciting.”

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