Blithe Spirit (1941) is a comic play written by Noel Coward which takes its title from Shelley's poem To a Skylark. The action of the play centres around socialite Charles Condomine being haunted by the ghost of his first wife Elvira following a séance, and Elvira's continued (and increasingly desperate) efforts to disrupt Charles' current marriage. Aside from some excellent dialogue and comic scenes, the play is also notable for the splendid comic character of Madame Arcati, the eccentric medium.
The play did provoke a small outcry at the time of its first performances, as it was seen to be possibly making fun of death at the height of World War II; however, such objections were quickly forgotten and the play went on to set all manner of British box-office records. Its mark of 1,997 consecutive performances in the West End was only eventually beaten by Boeing Boeing in the 1970s.
At the first production (Savoy Theatre, 1941), directed by Coward himself, the main cast members were:
Elvira: Kay Hammond
It was also made into a successful film in 1945, adapted by Coward himself and directed by David Lean:
Elvira: Kay Hammond
The play is much revived by amateur companies but has had fewer West End productions than might be expected since the original record-breaking run. Modern revivals include:
Globe (now Gielgud) Theatre (1970)
National Theatre (1976)
Vaudeville Theatre (1986)
Savoy Theatre (2004)
Television and radio
On American television Coward himself starred in a 1956 production with Lauren Bacall as Elvira, Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati and Claudette Colbert as Ruth. On UK radio and television, notable portrayals of Madame Arcati have been given by Hattie Jacques (ITV 1964, directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, Joanna Dunham as Elvira, Griffith Jones as Charles and Helen Cherry as Ruth) and Peggy Mount (BBC radio 1983, with Anna Massey as Elvira, Paul Eddington as Charles, and Julia McKenzie as Ruth.