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Theatre / Blithe Spirit

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Blithe Spirit is an upper-class farce written by British playwright Noël Coward, who claimed to have written the entire play from beginning to end in five days. It premiered in the West End in July of 1941 and on Broadway later that year, becoming the biggest hit of Coward's career in both England and America.

Charles Condomine, an author/socialite, invites famed medium Madame Arcati over for dinner and a seance in hopes of gathering research for his latest book. Things go awry when the spirit of his deceased wife, the temperamental and seductive Elvira, is called back from the otherside. This intrusion proves to be somewhat upsetting to his current wife of five years, the rather stuffy Ruth. Hilarity Ensues.

The original cast included Cecil Parker as Charles, Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati, Kay Hammond as Elvira, and Fay Compton as Ruth.

The 1945 film adaptation was directed by David Lean and starred Rex Harrison as Charles, with Constance Cummings as Ruth and Rutherford and Hammond reprising their stage roles. Angela Lansbury played Madame Arcati in a Broadway revival and recreated her role in the West End in 2014. In 1964, the play was adapted into a Broadway musical, High Spirits; Coward co-directed the original production of it. A new film adaptation directed by Edward Hall and starring Dan Stevens and Judi Dench eventually apparated in January, 2021.

Not be confused with the trope Blithe Spirit, although you could, if you really wanted, make an argument for a character or two fitting that trope.

Tropes featured include:

  • Black Comedy: There's an awful lot of death in this farce.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: Charles asks if there's anyone Elvira can talk to from... beyond... that can help get her back, hinting at some bureacratic way of going about it. She can't really remember; after crossing back over everything from before is a little fuzzy. She also complains about having had to fill in lots of forms to return to the world of the living for a visit.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The maid spends most of the play as apparently a comic relief bit part before Madame Arcati figures out that she has a natural aptitude as a medium which is responsible for Elvira's reappearance and continued presence.
  • Dead to Begin With: Elvira.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Inverted. As one of the characters in the Love Triangle is Dead to Begin With, her plan to solve the triangle is to kill Charles so he can be in the afterlife with her. So it's more like... Death of Everyone But the Hypotenuse. And then Elvira accidentally causes the death of Ruth, the exact opposite of what she was aiming for.
  • Death Amnesia: Downplayed example; Elvira does remember some things about the afterlife, but claims that most of the details went vague when she was returned to the world of the living.
  • Death as Comedy: Elvira plots to kill Charles so that they can be together in the afterlife, and he appears to be more annoyed at the fact she was trying to kill him than her having caused Ruth's death.
  • Honesty Is the Best Policy: Spoken by Madame Arcati, when telling Ruth that she does not have the faintest idea how to get rid of Elvira.
    Ruth: Do you mean that you are unable to do anything about it?
    Madame Arcati: Well, honesty is the best policy.
  • I Am Very British: All except for Madame Arcati and Edith, the maid. Though portrayal varies from production to production, it's rather difficult to read the dialogue and not want to speak as poshly as possible. Also Justified, as, well, it's a Noel Coward play, and he wrote about the upper class.
  • Invisible to Normals: Elvira, since only Charles can see her.
  • I See Dead People: Only Charles (and the audience) can see or hear Elvira, which initially causes some confusion when he reacts to her in the presence of others. Later, the ghost of Ruth is initially only visible and audible to Elvira — even the audience can only see Elvira's reactions.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark".
    Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
    Bird thou never wert,
    That from Heaven, or near it,
    Pourest thy full heart
    In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
  • The Missus and the Ex: With the added twist of the ex being an ex-wife not only in the usual sense but also in the "this is an ex-parrot" sense.
  • Monochrome Apparition: Depends on the production, but a common way to distinguish Elvira from the living characters is monochrome costume and make-up. Later on, Ruth often gets the same treatment.
  • Multitasked Conversation: For the first few scenes after Elvira's return, misunderstandings abound as Ruth interprets everything Charles says to Elvira as addressed to her.
  • Murder by Mistake: Elvira sabotages the car, intending to kill Charles so he would join her in the afterlife. Ruth uses the car first...
  • Obliviously Superpowered: Edith, the Condomines' maid who acts as comic relief through most of the play, is revealed to be a true medium who unconsciously brought Elvira and later Ruth back as spirits.
  • Once for Yes, Twice for No: How Madame Arcati's familiar spirit communicates.
  • Say My Name: When Charles realises that Elvira has sabotaged the car and killed Ruth, he opens the front door and yell's Ruth's name.
  • Spooky Séance: A humorous but not unrealistic version. Arcati was created especially for Margaret Rutherford, but Coward hadn't realized that she was a Modern Spiritualist and concerned that the play would make fun of her religion. Initially Arcati was a fake who'd almost accidentally contacted dead people. Rutherford would have none of it and based her performance on real mediums. It's Charles, Elvira and Ruth who are taken lightly, not spirit communication. Arcati's healthy practices reflect recommendations for mediums in those daysnote . Even her hesitance to eat meat right before a session is Truth in Television.
  • Tactful Translation: Frequently required whenever Ruth or Madame Arcati attempts to converse with Elvira and asks Charles to convey her responses. He almost never repeats Elvira's words exactly, usually softening them at least a bit and sometimes reporting what he'd have preferred she'd said instead of what she actually did.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Charles, Elvira and Ruth all have serious character flaws that are exposed over the course of the play. As Coward pointed out, if any of them were sympathetic the situation would be too sad to be laughable.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: Elvira tampers with the brakes of Charles's car so he'll die and join her in the afterlife. But unfortunately for all, it is Ruth who drives the car and gets killed, turning her into a ghost too.