Today in Theatre History: NOEL COWARD’S BLITHE SPIRIT OPENS–July 2, 1941

Margaret Rutherford in one of her most memorable roles as Madame Arcati, along with Kay Hammond as Elvira and Fay Compton as Ruth in the original 1941 production.

Margaret Rutherford in perhaps her most memorable roles as the wacky spirit medium Madame Arcati, along with Kay Hammond as Elvira and Fay Compton as Ruth in the original 1941 production.

On this day in 1941, Coward’s Blithe Spirit opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre.  Written at the height of the London Blitz, the comedy was an unlikely hit given its theme of death, seances and ghosts.  In fact, the piece was so popular, it went on to run for over four years and 1,997 performances, breaking all previous records for a non-musical on the West End stage–a record that would last until 1957 when it was surpassed by The Mousetrap.  Coward claimed he wrote the play in five days while on a brief holiday on the Welsh coast after his London offices had been destroyed by the bombing.  It was his intension to create a light-hearted piece to help audiences forget the war momentarily.  Despite some initial reaction by some who thought a play about dead loved ones was too much for London audiences who themselves were facing such harsh realities, the play struck a chord, nonetheless, with its emphasis on seances and ghosts.  Perhaps it appealed to audiences at a time when mysticism was making a brief comeback during the war or perhaps the subtly dark humor was just the tonic needed to thumb their noses at the German attacks.  In any event, the play would become one of Coward’s greatest works.

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