I’m currently directing Blithe Spirit, which opens Thursday (Oct. 4) at the Covey Center. Tickets available here! The cast and I are having a lot of fun with it, but of course, as always, we’re rediscovering that central truth of comedy; that it’s way harder to do than serious drama.
The play’s by Noel Coward, all-around man of the theatre, who thrived from the thirties through the late fifties. He died in 1973. Coward was a singer-songwriter-playwright-director-comedian-performer, and his charming, witty plays still hold the stage. Blithe Spirit is about Charles Condomine, a writer (based on Coward himself, as is often true in his works), happily enough married to Ruth, his first wife, Elvira, having died some years previously. Researching a novel about the occult, he invites a local medium to perform a seance in his home, which goes disastrously wrong. The ghost of Elvira returns and haunts him, though Ruth, at first, can neither see nor hear her. A lot of farcical hi-jinks ensue, in which Charles responds to comments by Elvira in ways Ruth finds insulting. The echoing vaults of eternity have in no way improved Elvira’s character, and although Charles is initially tempted by the kinkier possibilities of what Ruth calls ‘astral bigamy’, it becomes painfully clear that Elvira wants him to herself, and sees murdering him as the way to make that happen.
One challenge of the production is that most of my actors are a deal younger than the characters they’re playing. There’s a style to Coward that American actors don’t automatically plug into, and our rehearsal time has been necessarily rather truncated, due to other commitments for some of the actors. But I think it’s going to come together.
A lot of the fun of the play, however, comes from the fact that, for these characters, the reality of a eternity doesn’t really change them. Joseph Smith once wrote of the afterlife that ‘the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there” (D&C 130: 2); this play explores the darker side of that thought. Another great British wit, the actor Stephen Fry (the incomparable Jeeves of the Jeeves and Wooster BBC show), once sat horrified through the Temple Square presentation of the LDS plan of salvation. Told that Mormons believe that our families can be together forever, he blurted, “but . . . what if we’ve been good?” Or as Jean-Paul Sartre famously put it, “hell is other people.” I’m reminded of a ancient relative of mine, who refused to be buried with her husband, saying “I spent this life with the man, and that was quite enough!”
I love my wife and I love my family. I can’t imagine eternity without them. But when I hear married couples that say ‘we never had a single fight in our marriage,’ I think they’re either lying, or that theirs was an unhealthy and possibly even abusive marriage. My wife and I are suited to each other (and I think we are uniquely suited, I think she’s not just my best friend, but the best friend I can imagine having) but in part that’s because of shared scar tissue more than anything. An eternity made up of the worst fights of even a good marriage really would be hell. Writing about it could make for tragedy: O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example. Or . . . the funniest of comedies.
Coward seems to have figured this out. His best play, in my opinion, Private Lives, is a wonderfully comic two hours spent in hell. A divorced couple, enjoying one last fling, just end up carving each other up. It’s witty and fun and funny, but it’s also kind of hilariously horrifying. August Strindberg probably created the worst fictional marriage I know, in Dance of Death. It’s the darkest of tragedies, from a playwright who defines modern tragic playwriting. Private Lives, a comedy, comes a close second. Was Coward, an absurdly gifted gay man in a world where that wasn’t something you weren’t allowed to be, a brilliant observer of life, a mordantly humorous chronicler of his time, commenting on what he could see of heterosexual marriage? I think so, and adding, in Blithe Spirit, a spirit world twist makes it all the funnier.
So the rehearsal process has been interesting, watching a young cast grapple with both the technical challenges of comic timing, and the psychic challenge of portraying characters who are clever and fun and charming and . . . . empty. I took the assignment because I thought a fun little comedy was all I needed. It’s turning out to be a lot tougher and meaner play than that. And all the funnier for it.