Staging Blithe Spirit — a step by step history

Dedicated to the cast and crew of Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward 
produced by the Linden House Theatre Company
Ottawa, Ontario in October 2010.
“The play’s the thing… “
It shouldn’t be this difficult. Linden House only produces one play a year. We don’t have to design a whole season, and Heaven help us if we did. As it is, the choice of play takes an inordinate amount of time and creates disproportionate amounts of stress, with the director emailing hotly: No! No! Life is too short to spend half a year on that silly play!” Or actors pleading, “Please! Please let me be Eleanor of Aquitaine. Just once.” No sooner have we struck the set from last year’s play than we are talking (shouting, pleading, whimpering) about what’s next. As the process begins in November, we have a lot of time available to debate, quarrel and second-guess ourselves.
Strangely, this is the most difficult — and perhaps the most vital — part of the whole process. You wouldn’t think so. After all, there are thousands of wonderful plays out there. What’s more, Linden House has a very clear idea of the kind of play it wants to produce. Maybe that’s the problem. We are addicted to classic, intelligent comedy. What a shame. If we wanted to make you cry, we’d have our choice of high-quality tearjerkers. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible…. The list goes on and on. But no, we had to choose comedy.

We don’t want to make you cry. We want you to laugh at us and with us. We want you to leave the theatre smiling, delighted and uplifted. That means a happy ending, I’m afraid. It isn’t sophisticated, I admit, but it’s the way it is. I almost gave up theatre a few years ago when, in a single week, I saw two dreadful plays and a movie. I remember them vividly, a comedy about torture (on Tuesday), a lighter piece about incest and infanticide (Thursday) and, the pi├Ęce de resistance, a drama about genocide (Saturday). To my credit, I decided not to abandon theatre but to devote myself henceforward, body and soul, to comedy. Still, it’s depressing. After reading a hundred plays or so, I realize that I am probably the only person in the English-speakng world who likes a happy ending.
Of course, the problem is that — though addicted to happiness — we are not willing to be soppy. The happy ending cannot be sticky and sentimental. It has to have stature, dignity and grace. Sighing, we cross out a few dozen titles from the list.
And no cheap laughs please. We like laughter but not farce. Slapstick and situation comedy is not for us. Instead, we are looking for wit, for soaring language and characters that enchant (or, at least, that enchant us). Sigh. A few more plays join the stack of rejects on the floor.
Did I mention intelligence? We may be frivolous but we are not stupid. We want plays to be about something. We weren’t sure to begin with that our audiences felt the same way and so, with some hesitation, we produced Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw in 2008 (it’s about the idiocy of glorifying war). We got away with that one, but I was certain that we had overreached ourselves with Peter Shaffer’s Lettice & Lovage in 2009. In the middle of some enchantingly silly business, it offered up a long LONG lecture on modern architecture (the horrors of). I was sure the audience would leave in droves during the intermission. They didn’t. They loved it, and a new criterion was added. The Linden House play had to be intelligent. More unsuitable plays went into the box for the local garage sale.
There is another criterion and this one is a little embarrassing. There has to a good role for a middle-aged, comic actor of the female persuasion (me). I founded Linden House for a number of good reasons. You can read all about it on the website — https://www.lindenpro.ca/ — if you want the official story. But the truth is that I wanted good parts, great comic roles. And I didn’t want to subject myself to the painful humilation of auditions. If you ever feel that your ego is a little swollen — too many favourable reviews, too many bonuses at work, too many people in love with you — try an audition. That will sober you up. Anyway, I decided to found a theatre company instead. I must have been mad, you say? Yes, but it was divine madness.
Back to choosing a play. After reading some more, I began to compile a blacklist of topics — with incontinence heading the list. I do not find incontinence funny or even interesting. (See torture, incest and infanticide, above, for other topics on the list). After a while, I realized that it was a waste of time to look at any but the very best playwrights — George Bernard Shaw, Peter Shaffer, Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard….

And there it was, at last. A funny, well written, witty hoot of a play: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward. Oh all right. It doesn’t have any earth-shaking ideas at the core, such as the meaning of war or the horror of modern architecture, but the wit and playfulness of the language and plot are as close to intelligence as I need. And it has a happy ending, unless perhaps you think that means the happy couple heading into the sunset. As for Madame Arcati, that’s the role for me — the dotty medium with a taste for martinis.  At last, we had a play. The play.

It’s been a long time coming. We first tried to get the license for this play a couple of years ago. But Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett were doing it in New York — the selfish things — and when we applied for the rights the agent said that we couldn’t have it because we would “constitute competition.” Oh, I said, deeply shocked: “We wouldn’t. We really wouldn’t.” But they were determined to protect Broadway from us. So we had to wait.

That’s the story. We all agree. We’re excited about Blithe Spirit — especially the man who has to figure out how to make vases fall without being pushed and cushions fly across the stage from ghostly hands. Next time, I’ll tell you about finding a cast.