Blithe Spirit

Advertising poster for Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1945 movie version).

  • Play title: Blithe Spirit 
  • Author: Noël Coward 
  • Published: 1941 
  • Page count: 86 

Summary.

Madame Arcati is a medium who is invited one evening by the Condomines to their house in Kent. Mr. Charles Condomine is a novelist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural but simply wishes to use the evening’s events as subject material for a new book. Events take an unexpected turn when the supposed charlatan really does summon a presence from the other side. Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit, is a well-known work which is regularly performed on stage and has also been adapted for radio dramatizations as well as several films. The play is a farce told in three acts with four main characters, namely, the current Mr. and Mrs. Condomine, the former Mrs. Condomine, and the medium. Minor roles are held by the Condomines’ dinner guests, the housemaids, and Madame Arcati’s ‘control’ who is a dead child from the 19th century named Daphne. The song “Always” by Irving Berlin is referenced many times in the work and is played during a séance. Coward takes a cynical view of marriage for humorous effect and the song lyric, “I’ll be loving you always”, takes on a whole new interpretation. The comedy is light and the play entertaining.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

The playscript of Blithe Spirit is reasonably easy to source online. For example, it is available via the Open Library, and Scribd.

If you would prefer to view a performance then there is a recording on YouTube entitled “Blithe Spirit 1956 Live TV Theatre.” This stars Mr. Coward, however, the quality of the recording is inferior and it’s in black and white. An alternative is a radio dramatization available on YouTube – “Blithe Spirit – Noel Coward Comic Play – BBC Saturday Night Theatre.”

Why read/watch Blithe Spirit? 

Light humour

The main reason to read/watch Blithe Spirit is for its entertainment value. Coward’s script is full of witty lines and engaging characters. Proof of the quality of the play is that it continues to be staged some eighty years after it was first released.

An artist

Noel Coward presents us with not one but two artists in his play Blithe Spirit. Mr. Condomine and Madame Arcati are both published authors. Even though it is  a comedic play, Coward still manages to focus our attention on topics that concern all artists, like inspiration, fame, financial success, and imposters or fakes! While Madame Arcati is a caricature of the eccentric, old-lady psychic, she is nonetheless a formidable character in the play and quite an equal to Mr. Condomine due to their shared profession. The many facets of artistry are explored in this enduring play.

Marriage & eternal love

Eternal love is an important theme in Coward’s play. One senses Coward’s wry smile as he shows how marriage vows unblushingly predict an eternity for loving unions. Yet, the hazards of foretelling the future are stated by none other than Madame Arcati with her warning – “I disapprove of fortune tellers most strongly” (Coward 14) because she dismisses their predictions as “guesswork” (14). The playwright has some fun with the topic of marriage when he raises a former spouse from the dead to the background music of the song, “Always”. The former Mrs. Condomine, Elvira, was indeed the love of Charles’ life. The great divide between the living and the dead is dissolved with the help of Madame Arcati and suddenly Charles is faced with not just a memory, but the presence of his former wife. The materialization and subsequent dematerialization of spirits in the play mimic the incantations of the marriage rites and the divorce rites.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Madame Arcati, an artistic chameleon.

Introduction.

Blithe Spirit is a comedy written by Noel Coward and first staged in 1941. This play was an astounding, commercial success for the playwright and ran continuously in theatres for several years after its first release. In Noel Coward: A Biography, written by Philip Hoare, we learn that the playwright made an entry in his diary on the 22nd of April 1941, which reads as follows, “Spent morning with Lorn discussing financial troubles which are considerable. Also discussed play as possible solution. Title Blithe Spirit. Very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost. Feel it may be good” (491). This was clearly not art for art’s sake, but plain business acumen. Mr. Coward was a playwright but also an actor and composer and one may even add singer as he had several hit songs, for example “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” In short, he knew how to diversify and survive in the often intensely competitive world of showbusiness. However, few people would say that one of Coward’s most well-known characters, Madame Arcati, has anything in common with her creator – but she does. In his characterization of an eccentric, English medium, Coward shows us a survivor and more crucially, one who shares his own dual talents for performance and writing.

The actress Margaret Rutherford played the part of Madame Arcati in the original London production. Philip Hoare writes that Rutherford “perfected the dotty eccentricity of the character, a foil for the sophistication of her sceptical hosts” (491). However, the character proves to be much more than merely a figure of fun. Rutherford originally rejected the part on somewhat surprising grounds that reference Madame Arcati’s credibility. Hoare gives an account of the event in his book.

“Rutherford explained to Beaumont [a theatrical impresario] that she believed in spiritualism and did not want to be party to its mockery. Beaumont pointed out that the fun poked fun at fake mediums, not genuine ones, and that, as she was a fraud, mockery of Arcati was justified. Rutherford retorted, ‘Will you explain how she raises two ghosts if she is a fake?’ ‘By chance, Margaret dear. Even fake mediums can have a stroke of luck and this doesn’t stop them from being fakes, does it now?’” (Hoare 493).

Rutherford was eventually convinced to accept the part and she was a great success in the stage version and also starred in the later movie directed by David Lean. Yet, her point is valid in that one may choose how to interpret Madame Arcati, either bona fide medium or charlatan. The authenticity of spiritualists is a moot point so one may take either side. It seems clear that Coward, if the name Arcati is a hint, supposed his character to be a fake. Arcati is Italian for ‘arch’ which in English, apart from a curved structure, also means when someone is self-consciously teasing and being a rogue. Philip Hoare quotes Coward as having described his play as containing, “Disdaining archness and false modesty” (491). Even if Madame Arcati is an arch-scoundrel, the playwright instructed that the part always be performed in a sincere fashion, that is, played straight. Madame Arcati is an engaging figure and one deserving of our attention, even more so if her act is indeed a case of style over substance.

Another way of approaching the character of Madame Arcati is to look at Coward’s inspiration for this figure. In Hoare’s biography of Coward, he refers to the playwright’s friendship with a woman named Winifred Ashton, better known as Dane, whom Coward had known since the nineteen twenties. This woman is described as “striking in appearance, tall, with an aquiline profile, and large in girth, and had trained as an artist and as an actor” (Hoare 468). Hoare goes on to state the following:

“It was only a matter of time before Coward used his colourful friend in one of his dramas, and sure enough she provided the inspiration for Blithe Spirit’s Madame Arcati, the unworldly psychic riding her bicycle, described as ‘a striking woman, dressed not too extravagantly but with a decided bias towards the barbaric’ (Coward’s lesbians are often dressed ‘barbarically’)” (Hoare 469).

The link between the eccentric medium and a real life friend of the playwright may alter, ever so slightly, our perception of the play. It imbues the medium’s characterization with a sense of affection rather than ridicule which may otherwise be presumed. Also, the figure in the play is based on an artist, a bohemian, and someone whose company Coward found to be most stimulating. Noel Coward spent most of his life working and socializing with theatre people who are gregarious, colourful, and often demanding personalities. These were people who knew how to graft, to survive through slack times and rejoice in success. The theatre was also a space that tolerated certain levels of eccentricity/oddity that conventional society shunned and stigmatized. When Coward created, Madame Arcati (obviously a stage name) then he was bringing to life a figure who, with performance skills and bravado, would hold our attention in his work.

One may gain much more from a close reading of Coward’s Madame Arcati with the above points in mind. To recap, Coward and Arcati are essentially birds of a feather because like all artists and performers they present themselves before an often critical audience and yet they endure, survive, and often thrive. Arcati serves as an interesting commentary on issues like artistry, inspiration, theatricality, and fame. Furthermore, Arcati’s profession as a medium provides a prompt to consider the rich history of English mediums, beginning in the 19th century. Mediumship was considered by many to be little more than a branch of showbusiness but, crucially, it offered one of the few opportunities for women to gain fame and fortune. As a single, independent woman, Arcati holds an unusual position in the play and she offers an important counterbalance to the idea that marriage is a woman’s main option for security. With this in mind, one may eventually answer the riddle of the subplot in the play – why was Elvira summoned back to the Condomines’ house? Finally, one should not ignore Coward’s inspiration for Madame Arcati, and therefore acknowledge that the character has substance and is an affectionate rather than derogatory caricature.

The artist.

Charles Condomine and Madame Arcati are fellow artists. In fact, they share the exact same profession because they are both published authors. Charles recounts his first encounter with Madame Arcati, saying “’We originally met as colleagues at one of Mrs Wilmot’s Sunday evenings in Sandgate” (Coward 9). The parity between these individuals is a point that may too easily be overlooked or missed. As an audience, we are led by others’ disparaging views on Madame Arcati’s books. It is a simple case of artistic snobbery but upon investigation, one sees important differences between an inspired artist versus an artist who simply scavenges to complete a work.  Contrary to expectations, Madame Arcati is not the scavenger.

It appears that Charles Condomine has writer’s block or at least is producing quite anaemic work.  We learn that he is hoping to begin a “mystery story” (48) entitled “The Unseen” (3), and that the séance is wholly inspiration for this upcoming work. Previously, Charles wrote “The Light Goes Out?” (3) inspired by “suddenly seeing that haggard, raddled woman in the hotel at Biarritz” (3). It is not stated whether Charles always takes inspiration from real life figures, in these cases, older women who are a source of amusement or who have fallen on hard times. In any case, it appears like scavenging rather than true inspiration. Also, Charles has a predetermined idea which he hopes the séance will merely confirm, saying “I suspect the worst. A real professional charlatan. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyhow” (8). There is something decidedly stale about Charles’ artistic process, be it his rigid formula, his clichéd expectations of a medium to turn out a fraud, or his derogatory attitude to older women (first exhibited with his spiritualist aunt). Charles may have been a good writer in the past but that success now eludes him as confirmed by Elvira’s cutting remark to her husband, “Your books aren’t a quarter as good as they used to be, either” (68). However, none of this stops Charles from deriding Madame Arcati’s books as “Rather whimsical children’s stories about enchanted woods filled with highly conventional flora and fauna; and enthusiastic biographies of minor royalties, very sentimental, reverent and extremely, funny” (9). In contrast to Charles, Madame Arcati shows no signs of writer’s block and her standards are surprisingly high in some respects. For example, she has chosen to abandon her book on Princess Palliatani due to the subject’s death and has simply moved onto a different project which is a children’s book. Arcati confounds her critics by producing new works with little effort which shows a well of inspiration. She even makes light of her profession, possibly to Charles’ chagrin, telling him that “Anybody can write books, but it takes an artist to make a dry Martini that’s dry enough” (11). Madame Arcati is an artistic chameleon, moving from one project to another, one field to another, and succeeding by such diversification.

In the context of a farce, it is easy to be transported away from any form of analysis by Mr. Coward’s humorous playscript. Yet, Blithe Spirit is not only a comedy but also a prime example of metaliterature. Noel Coward is writing about a writer, Charles Condomine, who plans to write about Madame Arcati, who herself has recently been busy writing a “memoir of Princess Palliatani” (11). The play is an exploration of the writing process, and more specifically about the roles of inspiration and source material. It may be that the art of living is the key to being easily inspired. Madame Arcati is able to diversify as an artist because she leads a fulfilling life. She is a medium and also a prolific writer and the two are most definitely linked. Charles is a stifled writer, a man who grasps for inspiration on topics and yet ends up with only cliches. His personal life is just as stale, proven by his joy at finding freedom again at the play’s close. If Charles sees himself as a bulwark for artistic integrity, then Madame Arcati as a successful, productive, working artist defeats such pretensions.

Inspiration.

A fruitful interpretative approach to Coward’s play is to view spiritualism as a metaphor for the artistic muse. First, one must reiterate that artists, even those with excellent work ethics, cannot force their work to succeed. Inspiration is something that strikes and the artist lays himself or herself open to experiencing it. In quite a similar fashion, mediums enter a trance state so that contact can be made with the other side and contact is only successful when the medium is in an entirely passive, receptive condition. For example, on the night of the séance at the Condomines’, Madame Arcati enters a trance state and when she finally regains consciousness, she says, “Something happened all right, I can feel it” (23). Quite similar to an author who has been inspired to write a particular work, the ‘something happened’ is only later apparent via book sales, positive reviews, etc. There is an inherent mystery to creating something which is not just about the person who acts as the artistic conduit but also involves the future audience. This does not discount the fact that the medium/artist is always unique in producing a particular result.            

Alex Owen authored a book entitled The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, and it proves helpful to a discussion on Madame Arcati. Owen provides three possible explanations for the results which mediums sometimes succeed in presenting to their audiences. The 1st explanation is outright fraud, and the 3rd is the field of telepathy and telekinesis etc. but, the 2nd explanation rests on the idea that the medium has a motivation in their unconscious which is not apparent to their conscious mind. Owen writes the following:

“Unconscious production was usually characterized by states of altered consciousness during which the medium produced phenomena in a readily explicable way, but later would not be aware of what she had done” (Owen 2).

The production of phenomena by an artist is merely a way of saying that the artist succeeded in their field of artistry. It may be a spiritualist bringing a spirit back from the land of the dead or it may be a writer producing a successful, critically acclaimed work. The success is the visible result but it also comes from an individual who is motivated to produce such an effect even when they don’t fully understand the process.

Coward shows that Mr. Condomine not only tries to take inspiration from Madame Arcati as subject matter, but literally mimics her in his own strange behaviour. Charles the middle-class writer, soon begins to stare into space and converse with figures that no one else can see. The rather conservative chap with writer’s block adopts the pose of the eccentric, bohemian medium. Is this a quest for her secret? Charles may even suspect that he is successful because Elvira chides him, saying, “I think you might at least be a little more pleased to see me. After all, you conjured me up” (Coward 27). The power to conjure an effect is the crux of the matter. When Madame Arcati is tasked with putting the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, Charles is curious as to how, and asks, “what is the formula?” (71). The formula to undo the situation, similar to the rules of the séance, is a method to bring about a desired result. In this case, it is “a little verse” (71) which in plainer terms is just a combination of words. When Madame Arcati uses the verse to dematerialise Elvira, it has the unexpected result of materialising the ghost of Ruth! Earlier, when the living Ruth had enquired about exorcism, Madame Arcati had referred to “the old Bell and Book method” (47) but explained that it no longer worked. For a writer, the formula is always just a combination of words and the audience determine if it works now or is only fitting to a bygone era. The spiritualist’s formula is analogous to the formula on how to be a successful writer, something one will find endless advice on nowadays. Unexpected results in the field of writing can be explained by the chasm that sometimes separates authorial intent from readers’ interpretations.

Another striking similarity between a writer and a medium is the idea of a calling or vocation. Owen writes that it was not uncommon for female mediums to speak of “childhood intimations of spiritualist leanings which manifested themselves in prolonged daydreaming, visions, or rare flashes of clairvoyance” (42). Coward fittingly provides a most amusing line for Madame Arcati where she states – “I had my first trance when I was four years old and my first ectoplasmic manifestation when I was five and a half” (13). Additionally, just like a writer, a spiritualist must hone their craft until they have the necessary level of control over their work. Owen did extensive research on 19th century English mediums and explains how many of them mastered their gifts.

“Mediums must serve an apprenticeship which involved gaining control over the spirits and harnessing their power. It was this vital element of control that differentiated possession from derangement, and unsupervised novices dabbled with the spirit world at their peril” (Owen 44).

Madame Arcati has worked successfully as a medium for some time because as Charles says of her career as a medium, “Apparently she’s been a professional in London for years” (Coward 8). Her training in the art of writing seems no less professional, confirmed by her comment to Ruth about her writing schedule – “Every morning regular as clockwork, seven till one” (11). Inspiration alone is not sufficient if the artistic recipient does not have the requisite tools. Spiritualists and writers alike need to feel a calling to their tasks as well as going on to hone their crafts before maximum effect can be extracted from moments of ghostly visitation or artistic inspiration. The comic image of Charles copying Madame Arcati’s antics symbolises the lengths artists will go to in order to find the winning formula.

Theatricality.

A great deal of the humour of Blithe Spirit is due to Coward’s superb caricature of spiritualists. Madame Arcati as a comic creation is practically flawless. What lies at the core of our interest in this character is probably her over-the-top, theatrical style. Although not on the stage, and only in front of a select group of people, Madame Arcati is nonetheless a performer. In The Darkened Room, Alex Owen gives us some insight into the showmanship of the most popular mediums in 1870s England, writing that, “The most famous of them could produce spectacular and theatrical seances during which invisible spirits played upon musical instruments, rapped out messages, and occasionally quite literally ‘materialised’” (5). Madame Arcati shows a similar flair, nonchalantly laying out the possibilities before her captivated audience.

“Madame Arcati: Of course, I cannot guarantee that anything will happen at all … On the other hand, a great many things might occur. One of you might have an emanation, for instance; or we might contact a poltergeist, which would be extremely destructive and noisy …  They throw things, you know” (Coward 18).

In the middle of Madame Arcati’s trance at the Condomines’, we are told in the stage directions that she “(suddenly gives a loud scream and falls off the stool on to the floor)” (20). This is an echo of spiritualist performances from a much earlier era. Alex Owen writes of how “The entire business of mediumship was, of course, superb theatre. Some of the best seances of the 1870s resembled nothing more than masterpieces of dramatic orchestration with young girls in the starring roles” (54). Many people say that theatricality is in the blood and Madame Arcati is literal proof of this because her own mother was a medium of the Victorian era, the era Owen writes about. In fact, Madame Arcati is aged “(between forty-five and sixty-five)” (10) which places her birth date between 1876 and 1896 (Coward’s play is dated 1941). Since Madame Arcati was a child prodigy in spiritualist terms, entering a trance at four years of age, then she has plausibly been performing since 1880!  The link is important as it ties into an important historical archive. To understand Madame Arcati is to begin to understand one of the few domains in which women could attain fame and influence in Victorian England.

Fame.

Noel Coward looks at the value of having an established name in one’s field. One may call this fame or just a proven record of artistic integrity but in most cases it leads to financial security. Charles Condomine and Madame Arcati are established writers, meaning they have publishers and a proven audience. However, Madame Arcati is the more fascinating of the two as she works in separate disciplines, writing and spiritualism, but there are important links. It was as a medium that Madame Arcati first established her name (medium from childhood). She later utilized her established name and connections to enter into a second career as an author and this is a sign of her shrewdness and intelligence. Alex Owen gives many examples of how mediums made their names in the 19th century and such methods would also hold true for Madame Arcati given her age. For instance, mediums sometimes had magazine articles printed about them like the famous English medium Florence Cook – “In June 1871 Blyton published an article on Florence Cook in The Spiritualist, and other believers became aware for the first time of a new and promising young medium” (Owen 45). Promotion in the media usually came as a result of proven success and in the case of a medium, success was secured through materialisations. However, “Materialisation was considered difficult and dangerous to perform and was undoubtedly the acme of mediumistic development” (Owen 42). In Blithe Spirit, Madame Arcati is delighted with the news that Elvira has been materialised, saying, “At last! At last! A genuine materialization! … It’s tremendous! I haven’t had such a success since the Sudbury case” (Coward 45). The medium later explains the Sudbury case to Charles, noting, “It was the case that made me famous, Mr Condomine. It was what you might describe in theatrical parlance as my first smash hit!” (79). On that occasion, Madame Arcati dematerialized a spirit. The fame that the medium earned as a result was literally global and it is pertinent that she compares it to a theatrical success. It would be incorrect to think that spiritualism had decreased in popularity by the time Coward wrote his play. On the contrary, in Jenny Hazelgrove’s book, Spiritualism and British Society Between the Wars, she writes that “Geoffrey Nelson, the only historian to comment in any detail on Spiritualism in the postwar period, designates the 1930’s as its ‘high water mark’” (14). Therefore, Madame Arcati’s recent success would have, in real life, caused a considerable media stir.

Mediumship was to Madame Arcati what modern readers would call an opportunity to social network. In the 19th century, the renowned English medium, “Daniel Dunglas Home, gave seances for the royalty and aristocracy of Russia, France, and Holland, and was eagerly sought after by the wealthy and titled in Britain” (Owen XII). It is most likely that Madame Arcati first struck up her personal relationship with Princess Palliatani in a similar fashion. This minor royal then serves as the subject of one of Madame Arcati’s books. It was not unknown for a medium to take up the profession of writing and Owen notes that “A few, like Madame Llancoré, who played the piano entranced and blindfolded whilst controlled by Mozart and Mendelssohn, managed to produce a novel and lucrative forms of entertainment which no doubt found favour with middle-class spiritualists” (61). That Madame Arcati successfully capitalized on her spiritualist fame with a writing career is evident and shows a savvy business mind. When she speaks of her current children’s book, she notes that “I have to finish it by the end of October to catch the Christmas sales” (Coward 11). While Charles Condomine’s work may be more high-brow, it is not necessarily more famous or lucrative than Madame Arcati’s. Alex Owen writes that very successful mediums could be the beneficiaries of rich patrons or receive the support of spiritualist societies but that the large majority were not so fortunate, “most were small-time mediums who remained heavily reliant on personal recommendation and their advertisements in the spiritualist press” (61). Madame Arcati remains a working medium but bolsters her financial security by adding the second skill of writing to her curriculum vitae. In this way, she gains a level of independence rare even among spiritualists. She is a formidable character whose understanding of the potential of fame is quite modern.

Women & power.

One falls too easily into the trap of mild misogyny when viewing Coward’s play. This occurs quite simply because we hear all the negative comments about Madame Arcati from her audience of social elites. Madame Arcati is seen by the Condomines (both the living & dead) as a charlatan and silly, old woman, and Dr. Bradman’s views are no different. In the aftermath of the séance, the assembled guests make references to the medium as “raving mad .. mad as a hatter” (Coward 24) and Dr. Bradman claims that even though her trance was real, this could be accounted for by “a form of hysteria” (25). The discrediting of a woman by recourse to the ‘disorder’ of hysteria is a reminder of the Victorian era. These dismissive remarks obscure what Madame Arcati additionally symbolizes within the story – an independent and intelligent woman. She effortlessly quotes Hamlet (44) and a line from a poem by François Villon entitled “Ballade of the Ladies of Time Past” (47). The poem references great women of history such as Joan of Arc, women who held prominent positions despite their gender or lack of a husband. This other side of Madame Arcati’s characterization is less obvious due to the comedic nature of the play. Given the history of English, female mediums, it is appropriate to consider Arcati’s level of power. Even though Madame Arcati’s methods are often haphazard, she still manages to relieve Charles Condomine of two tenacious, interfering, ghostly wives. She is the only person qualified to solve the problem and it is her gifts as a medium which set her apart from the others.

As a single woman, Madame Arcati’s mediumship allows her to not only provide for herself financially, but also to assert herself. It is impossible to ignore the example of Madame Arcati’s robust repartee with Dr. Bradman whose wife later remarks, “she certainly put you in your place, George, and serve you right” (24). This special role allowed to mediums may be traced back to issues of women’s rights in the previous century. Owen writes the following about the interconnection between women’s rights and spiritualism.

“It was no accident that spiritualism, a movement which privileged women and took them seriously, attracted so many female believers during a period of gender disjunction and disparity between aspiration and reality. Spiritualist culture held possibilities for attention, opportunity, and status denied elsewhere” (Owen 4).

It has already been established that Madame Arcati is an experienced medium and also has a career as an author. As Owen states, “Spiritualism validated the female authoritative voice and permitted women an active professional and spiritual role largely denied them elsewhere” (6). If one focuses on the female characters in Blithe Spirit, namely the current and former Mmes. Condomine, Mrs. Bradman, the maids Agnes and Edith and Madame Arcati, then only the last woman in this series has a profession. This is proof that times have not significantly changed for women since the heyday of spiritualism in England. Alex Owen provides a quote from the BNAS (British National Association of Spiritualists) in reference to the era of 1870 and 1880.

“The Association recognised that marriage often represented the only respectable means of support available to women – particularly middle-class women such as those of its own membership. The problem of the ‘distressed gentlewoman’ who, in the absence of a husband, had little realistic means of subsistence, struck home with some BNAS members” (Owen 33).

Marriage as a ‘respectable means of support’ seems quite an apt description for most of the marriages depicted in Blithe Spirit. The spinster, Madame Arcati, is treated as an amusement by Ruth Condomine and Mrs. Bradman, yet their independence is anchored to their husbands’ professions. Madame Arcati, though a figure of ridicule, stands detached from such concerns due to her independent income.

Marriage.

If one begins to focus on marriage, the subject at the centre of Coward’s play, then several issues come to the fore. Firstly, there is the very humorous aspect of Elvira’s love being eternal in an all too literal sense! As Elvira says to Charles – “There was a time when you’d have welcomed the chance of being with me for ever and ever” (Coward 67). The comedic delight generated by Coward’s resurrection of a 1st wife from the dead is the energy that propels his play. The second issue regarding marriage pertains to the subplot of the play and the question – why exactly was Elvira summoned at all? The possible explanations explored in the play are that Elvira desired to return to visit her husband Charles and this is true but apparently insufficient to cause her materialization. Then there is the fact that Charles discussed Elvira with Ruth just before the séance but Charles vehemently denies he wanted his former wife to return. Finally, Madame Arcati, having assessed the possibilities, says of the now-present spirits of Elvira and Ruth – “Neither of them could have appeared unless there had been somebody- a psychic subject – in the house, who wished for them” (79). This psychic subject is Edith, as the medium soon discovers thanks to her crystal ball. An unanswered question remains – why did Edith want the return of Elvira? The maid is new in the household so presumably never even met the former Mrs. Condomine.

The reason for summoning Elvira in Blithe Spirit may be explained by the posters for the movie adaptation of the play, for example the poster shown at the top of this essay. Like in many works of farce, sex is the answer. Charles says of Elvira, “I remember her physical attractiveness, which was tremendous” (4). His current wife, Ruth, is quite different and sexual satisfaction is not something she expects from her marriage, saying, “we’ve both been married before. Careless rapture at this stage would be incongruous and embarrassing” (5). Another interesting point is that Ruth’s former husband, who is now deceased, was much older than her. Charles, who is approximately 40 years old, remarks ironically that he hopes he hasn’t been a “disappointment” (5) to Ruth suggesting that sex may be, for her, an unwelcome expectation in a relationship. If Ruth committed herself to a decidedly middle-class marriage of convenience and her husband is sex-starved as a result then it comes close to explaining why Edith wishes for the return of Elvira the reckless femme-fatale who died laughing (literally). The answer to the mystery lies with Agnes the former maid. Agnes had become pregnant but Charles pleads ignorance to the reason for her departure, asking Ruth, “What do you suppose induced Agnes to leave us and go and get married? (2). Ruth curtly replies that “The reason was becoming increasingly obvious, dear” (2). Although we cannot say Charles is the father, his feigned lack of observational skills, especially for a novelist, are decidedly suspect. Furthermore, Ruth says, “You’re up to something, Charles – there’s been a certain furtiveness in your manner for weeks” (39). Ruth makes this observation on the day just after the séance so the timeframe corresponds with Agnes’ departure, rather than the current issue. Charles eventually admits to extramarital affairs when he was married to Elvira but he also says to Ruth, “I was reasonably faithful to you, Ruth, but I doubt if it would have lasted much longer” (85). Reasonably faithful is a nice euphemism for unfaithful. Perhaps Edith had heard of the former maid’s pregnancy or maybe Charles has a reputation as a ladies’ man, either way, she has cause to be concerned in her new job. The playwright, having opened the comedy with a tale of a pregnant maid, closes it with another maid in fear of her good reputation. Edith is hypnotised by Madame Arcati and then awakes to her surprise in her nightdress in the living room. At which point, Charles “(presses a pound note into her hands) [saying] Thank you very much indeed” (84). Edith’s response in her strong cockney accent is worthy of a classic, British, Carry On movie.

“Edith: Oh, sir, whatever for? (She looks at him in sudden horror) Oh, Sir!!”.

(Coward 84).

Noel Coward presents a scenario where a young, vulnerable house-maid is the potential prey of a sex-starved, over-sexed, middle-aged man. This scenario is, in large part, the result of a marriage of convenience between Ruth and Charles. Coward somewhat strangely directs our sympathies towards Charles in the end, who declares that – “You said in one of your more acid moments, Ruth, that I had been hag-ridden all my life! How right you were! But now I’m free” (85). The subtext of the play is that women have value only if they are sexualised like Elvira, or submissive and vulnerable like the housemaids. Marriage is repeatedly degraded as it is shown as an escape route, a mark of respectability, or a financial support. Only Madame Arcati stands aloof of the situation because she is free of the need to either marry or work a menial job for financial security.

Conclusion.

The history of English spiritualism shows that women like Madame Arcati were always treated as oddities, however, despite the ridicule they endured, such women enjoyed a level of independence impossible in conventional society. Noel Coward’s depiction of an eccentric medium is a homage to show people. Madame Arcati sweeps into the Condomines’ lives and performs multiple séances, followed by materialisations and dematerialisations, and then departs leaving her audience in awe. No doubt, she is also a figure of fun but this popular character of stage and screen encompasses a whole spiritualist history too. Jenny Hazelgrove writes the following about female mediums:

“The authenticity of her identity was continually called into question, and demands were made upon her to produce ‘proof’, but what counted as ‘proof’ was itself a subject of doubt and conflict” (7).

What Hazelgrove describes is the plight of any artist because the proof is always artistic output. In writing Madame Arcati, Mr. Coward depicts a figure as adept at diversification as he was himself. She confounds her possibly more skilled contemporaries like Mr. Condomine because her artistic output is impressive. One may consider her an incorrigible rogue which is probably how Coward viewed her, but she is also interesting for all the reasons explored here.

Works Cited.

Coward, Noel. Blithe Spirit: An Improbable Farce in Three Acts. Samuel French, Inc., 1968.  

Hazelgrove, Jenny. Spiritualism and British society between the wars. Manchester University Press, 2000.  

Hoare, Philip. NoëlCoward: A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 2013.  

Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Virago Press, 1989. 

Loot

Kenneth Halliwell. Loot collage poster. 1965.

  • Play title: Loot  
  • Author: Joe Orton 
  • First performed: 1965  
  • Page count: 84 

Summary. 

Joe Orton’s play, Loot, is best classified under the genre of farce. The action of the play revolves around two events: the recent death of Mrs. McLeavy, and the robbery of a bank next to the undertaker’s premises. All the action of the play occurs on the day of Mrs. McLeavy’s funeral. In this work, Orton pokes fun at the establishment in general but takes particular aim at Catholicism and the police force. Among the types to be caricatured are the diligent police inspector, Truscott, and the benevolent nurse, Miss. McMahon. The plot of the drama deals with Truscott’s humorously slow path to discovering the identity of the bank robbers, as well as the unravelling of the true cause of Mrs. McLeavy’s death. The absurdly intertwined relationships of the characters add to the comedy. The widower, Mr. McLeavy, is depicted as the honest everyman while his son, Hal, is romantically involved with the undertaker’s driver, Dennis, who proposes to Nurse McMahon, who herself has already proposed to Mr. McLeavy on the day of his wife’s funeral. The ending, unsurprisingly, defies all normal expectations. 

Ways to access the text: listening/reading. 

There is a free audiobook version of the play available on the Internet Archive which has a running time of 1hr and 24mins. A simple internet search for “Joe Orton’s Loot – Internet Archive” will find this audiobook. This is a professional production originally aired on BBC Radio 3.  

If you would like to read the text then it is also available on the Open Library Internet Archive, however registration is needed (no payment details required).  

Why listen to/read Loot? 

Likeable scoundrels.  

In Loot, the appearance of propriety is essential to getting away with murder, so to speak. Many of the chief characters take advantage of this fact while simultaneously exposing themselves as notorious hypocrites. What makes characters like Fay (nurse McMahon) and inspector Jim Truscott quite likeable, even though they are obvious scoundrels, is that they are charismatic villains. These characters present themselves as paragons of society. However, there is a constant and amusing jarring effect between what they are saying and what mischievous deeds they are actually conducting. Their rhetoric is captivating, not least because they have a brash confidence and a knowledge of how the world really works and therefore know how to win. In contrast, Orton sets up Mr. McLeavy as the honest man who is predictably slavish to the demands of conventional society, and whose views seem to be lifted from the newspaper headlines of the day. Orton delights in presenting a world of play where Machiavellian types like Nurse McMahon indulge their immoral tastes and an audience is understandably seduced by such wanton freedom.    

Undermining the pillars of society (with a laugh).   

Orton’s play, while making his audience laugh, also undermines the pillars of conventional society. The genre of farce, a subgenre of comedy, is normally aimed solely at eliciting hearty laughs through the depiction of caricatures of recognizable types in absurd situations. While Orton does indeed stick to these guidelines regarding character and situation, and he certainly provides much humour, he also invests his work with some depth of meaning. The playwright’s sharp intellect is evident in the very witty dialogue and also his definite intention to critique, even lambast, certain aspects of English society that would still have been considered sacrosanct in the mid nineteen sixties. The pillars of society are namely, law enforcement, religion, and the model citizen. Through observing the characters of Truscott, Miss McMahon, and Mr. McLeavy, we grow to suspect that society does not function as smoothly as usually presumed and that equitable outcomes are often the exception rather than the rule. It is clear that Orton’s own spell in jail for defacing library books led to a more jaundiced view of society, but this political edge adds rather than detracts from the comedy.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

Confronting taboo subjects.  

Loot was first performed in 1965 and therefore it is all too easy, from a modern reader’s standpoint, to overlook the restrictive society in which Orton worked. The nineteen sixties were a decade of immense societal change in England and only by viewing Orton’s play against the backdrop of such major changes can one appreciate his daring. For example, Loot deals openly with sex, yet in England it was not until 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalized, abortion became legal, and the Family Planning Act made contraception readily available. While a modern reader may enjoy Loot as a rip-roaring farce, the work does have a distinct vein of black humour that shows Orton’s societal critique and gives his humour some bite. Therefore, the humour is not just whimsical but gains its potency from satirizing an old society that Orton openly challenges. Orton was himself very much an outsider and he believed his own imprisonment for defacing library books, obviously a harsh sentence, was actually due to his queer identity. The playwright uses the topics of sex, Catholicism, and death, as vehicles to challenge the status quo of English society, a society that was still very classist, conventional, and prudish in the nineteen sixties.  

Sexual escapades are a familiar part of farce, yet Orton is making a statement by putting sex front and centre for the audience. Loot has heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual characters along with references to child prostitution, rape, necrophilia, and even sex with a doll. In the story, Hal is homosexual and plans to flee to Portugal with his lover, Dennis, a bisexual character who unashamedly sleeps with both Hal and Fay. Nurse McMahon has sex with both Mr. McLeavy (unzipped dress incident) and Dennis, and she finally decides on her future husband based on the size of his bank balance. While these sexual relations would have been quite controversial in the era of the play’s publication, Orton transgresses much further. For instance, Hal plans to treat Dennis to some fun at a brothel that is run by three Pakistani children! There is also a reference to Hal being present when Dennis apparently raped Pauline Chung. These references to sordid events, reflective of the underbelly of society, are still presented as humorous because they are cushioned in the fantasy land of on-stage, theatrical farce. However, Orton is undoubtedly using things that really happen in society in his black humour, eliciting a laugh from an audience because there is a sharp edge to the play’s frivolity, and it is the creation of this slight uneasiness that fuels the laugh.    

Regarding religion, Orton ridicules Catholicism as he perceives it to be part of the establishment and therefore inherently hypocritical. In the text, Fay says of the police, “God works for them. They have Him in their pockets.” As an authoritarian institution, the church is a legitimate target. Orton makes exceptional comedic capital from his offensive on Catholicism because it is such a prescriptive, rule-laden faith. The McLeavy family are depicted as Catholics as is Nurse McMahon. While both surnames sound Irish, McMahon undoubtedly is, and therefore Orton presents this homicidal nurse as someone with a good Catholic, Irish background. The character of Fay is a superb creation of Orton’s, a woman whose staggering hypocrisy reflects negatively on the teachings of the church she represents. For example, the crucifix she wears along with her wedding ring, both bear the physical marks of a dispute with a previous husband whom she shot dead. As Truscott says to her after recounting the deaths of her seven husbands, “there’s something seriously wrong with your approach to marriage.” Like any good Catholic, Fay cannot divorce or leave a husband – they must die before she can move on! There is a wonderfully comic moment when Fay refuses to return the money to Mr. McLeavy that she had previously stolen from Mrs. McLeavy, insisting instead that they marry to avoid scandal. When Dennis reveals to Hal that he had sex with Fay, proving that she is hardly strictly Catholic, he wryly adds that it happened under her picture of the Sacred Heart. In all, Orton takes aim at religious authority because just like state authority, it presumes to dictate how people should live. If one thinks that Orton’s attack on the church is less harsh than on other targets then one need only consider Hal’s proposed name for his future brothel, “consummatum est.” These were the last words of Jesus on the cross, “it is finished,” and Orton now links them to some ejaculatory fantasy! 

Finally, in regard to death, Orton depicts not only disrespect for the corpse but more importantly, he continually shows money replacing the body as the venerated object in the coffin. This tactic, ostensibly necessary for the plot’s twists and turns, also reveals the themes of selfishness and greed. Hal is the epitome of a dysfunctional youth, a lad who refuses to attend his mother’s funeral as it would upset him, but who later plans to dispose of her body in a mine shaft or swamp. These scenes clearly signal that money is the ultimate motivation in life. Even Truscott states that “stealing public money is a crime more serious than murder.” When the detective finally discovers the stash of five-pound notes in the coffin, he protests, “twenty thousand tiaras and twenty thousand smiles buried alive!” The power of the Queen’s image visible on so many bank notes erases the image of poor Mrs. McLeavy. However, Orton does not totally abandon the taboo of the dead body which is itself quite potent. For example, the stripping of Hal’s mother leads to what he calls a “Freudian nightmare.” The constant movement of the body, the dressing of it in a mattress cover making it look like a mummy/dummy, and the loss of bits of the body such as an eyeball, all add to the scene of black humour. One may say that Orton anticipates some unease at scenes with a corpse and counteracts this reaction by having Mr. McLeavy make outrageously comical enquiries about what happened at the funeral parlour during the bank robbery. He solemnly questions Dennis, “was your chapel of rest defiled?” and receiving a negative response, he quizzes further, “human remains weren’t outraged?” This desire to be shocked is identified by Orton as a desire of genteel, middle-class people who need it to feel righteous. Most likely, many such people were in the audiences of Orton’s plays. As Hal says of his father, and by extension the older generation of English people, “his generation takes a delight in being outraged.”

What Orton achieves by his blackly humorous treatment of the topics of sex, Catholicism, and death, is primarily a dismantling of the old guard, a challenge to the norms of society. Orton as the enfant terrible of the nineteen sixties theatrical world steamrollers through the conventions of what is in good taste and encapsulates his message in a farce.

The police force.  

Jim Truscott is considered by some commentators to be a parody of Sherlock Holmes, or at least of detective fiction in general. Truscott certainly represents a police force which Orton obviously had little respect for and yet Truscott is one of the most engaging characters in the play. This is a man who gives police suspects rabbit punches (blows to back of head), assaults them until they are on the floor in tears and is a smiling cat-kicker to boot, and yet we laugh due to the outrageous caricature. Part of the reason for the hilarity that Truscott’s presence elicits is due to dramatic irony, for example when Mr. McLeavy is confused by being questioned by a Water Board employee. Another reason is the policeman’s utter disbelief at the gullible nature of the public at large, like when Mr. McLeavy states that the police are there to protect ordinary people and Truscott responds, “I don’t know where you pick up these slogans, sir. You must read them on hoardings.” Orton establishes a particularly important differentiation in the play between the older and younger generations. People like Mr. McLeavy and Dennis’ father accept Truscott’s explanation that he is with the Sanitary People or Water Board, whereas the younger generation like Hal, Dennis, and Fay immediately recognise Truscott’s underhand methods. The generation gap signifies how the older group still retain faith in the integrity of the system including public services, the police, church, and law. The younger generation are rebellious, savvy, and unwilling to accept a transgression of their rights. Orton’s message is that people’s compliance with authority, indeed docility of any kind, is a sign of stupidity.    

Even though Truscott is what is traditionally termed a ‘bent copper,’ he is wholly inadequate in his investigative methods. There are several scenes where, despite the detective’s blatantly unethical behaviour and egregious rule bending, he is still unable to decipher the clues that lie in front of him. For example, Mrs. McLeavy’s eye puzzles the detective for an inordinate period of time before he pulls a mini magnifying glass from his pocket to have an even closer look. Orton is presenting a representative specimen of English law enforcement who is too crooked to follow the rule of law and too obtuse to achieve results – a truly terrifying and hilarious depiction. If one needed a clear indictment of how the English system worked then Truscott’s words to a concerned Mr. McLeavy provides it, – “it’s for your own good that authority behaves in this seemingly alarming way.” In the end, Truscott is willing to maintain his silence about the crimes of murder and bank robbery for a twenty-five percent cut of the criminal proceeds. In a superb final twist, the most law-abiding person, Mr. McLeavy, who accommodated Truscott in the investigation, is finally the one to be led away in handcuffs. Orton depicts a topsy-turvy world where abiding by the rules leads to hilarious consequences.

Works Cited.

Orton, Joe. Loot. Methuen Drama, 1967.