Do old plays have a place in today's theatre?
The 1945 film version with Margaret Rutherford, far left.
One would never think that “Blithe Spirit,” the 1941 play by Noel Coward could ever have been considered controversial. Theatrical productions almost always follow the script to the letter, setting the story in an overstuffed living room draped with tasseled shawls and lace doilies. It’s difficult to imagine that this sort of age-worn setting ever shocked censors. But after the play met with overwhelming success in London, setting box office records with nearly 2,000 consecutive performances, director David Lean (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER RIVER KWAI) took on the film adaptation in 1945, but had to cut one “extremely risque” line for the U.S. release. During an argument with his wife, Ruth, Charles says, “If you’re trying to compile an inventory of my sex life, I feel it only fair to warn you that you’ve omitted several episodes. I shall consult my diary and give you a complete list after lunch.”
Noel Coward wrote the play as an escapist comedy for British audiences who wanted a break from the Blitz in WWII. The Blitz destroyed Coward’s own apartment and office, prompting him to take the vacation during which he wrote the play, a feat he claimed to have finished in just five days. For better or for worse, that five-day draft was barely edited before it was brought to the stage and includes a tedious second act that serves no purpose other than to allow Coward more room for the verbal repartee he was known for. Witty though it may be, there’s only so much pointless back-and-forth an audience can take.
“Blithe Spirit” is currently in performances at A Noise Within, and it’s staged in true repertory fashion – not an overstuffed, over-draped chair is out of place, nor is a singe witticism omitted. While it’s important that certain classics are still performed true to the author’s original intent, “Blithe Spirit,” in particular, is prime for an update. While certain audiences are still hungry for all that Coward’s verbal swordplay has to offer, his signature tête-à-tête’s do little to engage modern viewers. If it wants to survive in theatre as more than a charming relic capable of a light-hearted chuckle or two, it ought to be reimagined in a more contemporary setting, If Noel Coward’s writing is still up to snuff, which I suspect it is, it will only be more cutting and funnier, if not necessarily shockingly controversial.
“Blithe Spirit” at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz