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Darling of a Play

"Blithe Spirit" is next play in Mainstage season.

2013-10-22
Tanner Kent, Mankato Free Press, 10-17-2013

The Minnesota State University Department of Theatre and Dance opens its production of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” today.

The comedy remains one of the most enduring works written by the legendary, and eccentric, British talent who excelled in acting, playwrighting, songwriting and painting.

A hit of the London and Broadway stages, “Blithe Spirit” offers up fussy, cantankerous novelist Charles Condomine, re-married but haunted (literally) by the ghost of his late first wife, the clever and insistent Elvira. She is called up by a visiting “happy medium,” one Madame Arcati. The play was first seen in the West End of London in 1941, creating a new long-run record for non-musical British plays of 1,997 performances. It also did well on Broadway later that year, running for 657 performances.

Even so, the much-revived classic will be retired after this round of performances following MSU’s tradition of shelving a work once it has been staged three times.

So, in tribute to the theater bon vivant who defined English class and sophistication, here are some trivialities, oddities and verities that help to understand why he was one of the early 20th century’s most popular personalities:

Born in Teddington, Coward made his stage debut at age 11 and rose quickly into the high society of English theatre.

At the age of 20, Coward starred in his own play, “I’ll Leave it to You,” in London’s New Theatre.

A closeted homosexual until he died, Coward may have began a nearly twodecade affair with Prince George, Duke of Kent in 1921 (biographers debate whether the relationship was platonic). Coward’s secret relationships and unrequited loves were a significant source of depression and angst throughout his life, though he always publicly denied his sexual orientation. When asked why he didn’t announce his homosexuality, Coward offered a standard reply: “Because there are still three old ladies in Brighton who don’t know.” (Coward would interchange the city where the old ladies lived.)

A fashion dandy in his day, Coward is credited for starting the turtleneck craze in the 1920s and for crafting a polished public image enhanced by long cigarette holders and dressing gowns.

After sending the manuscript to 1922’s “The Young Idea” to George Bernard Shaw in order to make sure he had not plagiarized any influence, Shaw responded with an encouraging letter that included detailed feedback on the work. Coward later exhibited the same warmth to other theatre hopefuls and acquaintances, earning admiration for his generosity to the downtrodden. He also served for a time as president of The Actors’ Orphanage.

Coward’s opening of “Sirocco” in 1927 became one of the most infamous in all of theatre history when the play about sexual freedom among the wealthy met with catcalling, booing and even violent reaction from the crowd. Though Coward was spit on in the street after the play, he remained in town to suffer the criticism, keeping his dinner reservation the following night at a restaurant popular among theatre professionals.

Coward’s 1930 play, “Private Lives,” was one of his most popular, selling out in both London and New York with he starring alongside Gertrude Lawrence. Following its success, Coward vowed he would not star in play for longer than three months at any one venue.

Coward worked with the British secret service during World War II, collecting information about American sentiments during the war. He was vilified in the press for supposedly fleeing the country, prompting Coward to write a poignant, if hopelessly naive, letter to the British Ministry of Information asking that the truth of his actions be shared with the public: “Please believe that I shall continue to do my best, as discreetly as possible. If however it were possible for me not to be quite disowned in all directions I think it would strengthen my hand.”

Coward was knighted in 1970, though it was discovered only recently that Winston Churchill personally blocked Coward’s knighthood several decades earlier, likely on account of Coward’s homosexuality.

His highly successful cabaret show in Las Vegas in 1955 prompted a series of 90-minute TV shows on CBS that cemented Coward’s fame in America.

Though Coward appeared in several films late in his career — including “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Italian Job” — he turned down the roles of Col. Nicholson in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the title role in the James Bond thriller “Dr. No.”

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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