The title of the play is taken from Shelley's poem "To a Skylark", ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert"). For some time before 1941 Coward had been thinking of a comedy about ghosts. His first thoughts centred on an old house in Paris, haunted by spectres from different centuries, with the comedy arising from their conflicting attitudes, but he could not get the plot to work in his mind. He knew that in wartime Britain, with death a constant presence, there would be some objection to a comedy about ghosts, but his firm view was that as the story would be thoroughly heartless, "you can't sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story."
After his London office and flat had been destroyed in the Blitz, Coward took a short holiday with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmeirion on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. She was writing a play about Keats, and he was still thinking about his ghostly light comedy:
We sat on the beach with our backs against the sea wall and discussed my idea exclusively for several hours. Keats, I regret to say, was not referred to. By lunchtime the title had emerged together with the names of the characters, and a rough, very rough, outline of the plot. At seven-thirty the next morning I sat, with the usual nervous palpitations, at my typewriter. Joyce was upstairs in her room wrestling with Fanny Brawne. There was a pile of virgin paper on my left and a box of carbons on my right. The table wobbled and I had to put a wedge under one of its legs. I smoked several cigarettes in rapid succession, staring gloomily out of the window at the tide running out. I fixed the paper into the machine and started. Blithe Spirit. A Light Comedy in Three Acts.
For six days I worked from eight to one each morning and from two to seven each afternoon. On Friday evening, May ninth, the play was finished and, disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.
Charles Condomine, a successful novelist, wishes to learn about the occult for a novel he is writing, and he arranges for an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance at his house. At the séance, she inadvertently summons Charles's first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. Madame Arcati leaves after the séance, unaware that she has summoned Elvira. Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, and his second wife, Ruth, does not believe that Elvira exists until a floating vase is handed to her out of thin air. Elvira is louche and moody, in contrast to the more strait-laced Ruth. The ghostly Elvira makes continued, and increasingly desperate, efforts to disrupt Charles's current marriage. She finally sabotages his car in the hope of killing him so that he will join her in the spirit world, but it is Ruth rather than Charles who drives off and is killed.
Ruth's ghost immediately comes back for revenge on Elvira, and though Charles cannot at first see Ruth, he can see that Elvira is being chased and tormented, and his house is in uproar. He calls Madame Arcati back to exorcise both of the spirits, but instead of banishing them she unintentionally materialises Ruth. With both his dead wives now fully visible, and neither of them in the best of tempers, Charles, together with Madame Arcati, goes through séance after séance and spell after spell to try to exorcise them. It is not until Madame Arcati works out that the housemaid, Edith, is psychic and had unwittingly been the conduit through which Elvira was summoned that she succeeds in dematerialising both ghosts. Charles is left seemingly in peace, but Madame Arcati, hinting that the ghosts may still be around unseen, warns him that he should go far away as soon as possible. Coward repeats one of his signature theatrical devices at the end of the play, where the central character tiptoes out as the curtain falls – a device that he also used in Present Laughter, Private Lives and Hay Fever. Charles leaves at once, and the unseen ghosts throw things and destroy the room as soon as he has gone. (In the David Lean film version, the ghosts thwart Charles's attempt to escape, and his car is again sabotaged; he crashes and joins them as a ghost, with Elvira at one arm and Ruth at the other.)
The original West End cast was as follows:Charles Condomine – Cecil Parker
Ruth Condomine, his second wife – Fay Compton
Elvira Condomine, his first wife and ghostly presence – Kay Hammond
Madame Arcati, a medium – Margaret Rutherford
Doctor Bradman, a friend – Martin Lewis
Mrs Bradman, his wife – Moya Nugent
Edith, a maid – Ruth Reeves
The play was first produced at the Manchester Opera House in June 1941, and then premiered in the West End at the Piccadilly Theatre on 2 July 1941, later transferring to the St James's Theatre and then the Duchess Theatre, for a total of 1,997 performances. It was directed by Coward; sets and costumes were designed by Gladys Calthrop. During the run Beryl Measor took over as Madame Arcati and Irene Browne took over the role of Ruth. When the play transferred from the Piccadilly to the St James's in 1942, Coward took over the role of Charles for a time. The run set a record for non-musical plays in the West End that was not surpassed until 1957 by The Mousetrap.
The Broadway premiere was on 5 November 1941 at the Morosco Theatre in a production staged by John C. Wilson and designed by Stewart Chaney. In the cast were Clifton Webb as Charles, Peggy Wood as Ruth, Leonora Corbett as Elvira and Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. The play transferred to the Booth Theatre on 18 May 1942; it ran for a total of 657 performances. Coward starred as Charles in a wartime UK touring company, beginning in September 1942, with Joyce Carey as Ruth, Judy Campbell as Elvira and Molly Johnson as Madame Arcati. Dennis Price covered for Coward when the latter was taken ill. Another wartime touring company, run by ENSA, toured the Far East in 1945, headed by John Gielgud, who directed, and played Charles.
In July 1970, the play was revived in the West End at the Globe Theatre, starring Patrick Cargill as Charles, Phyllis Calvert as Ruth, Amanda Reiss as Elvira and Beryl Reid as Madame Arcati; it ran until January 1971. It was then revived by the National Theatre in 1976, in a production directed by Harold Pinter, starring Richard Johnson as Charles, Rowena Cooper as Ruth, Maria Aitken as Elvira and Elizabeth Spriggs as Madame Arcati. Another London revival played in 1986 at the Vaudeville Theatre, starring Simon Cadell as Charles, Jane Asher as Ruth, Joanna Lumley as Elvira and Marcia Warren as Madame Arcati.
Blithe Spirit was revived on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre on 31 March 1987 in a production directed by Brian Murray. It starred Richard Chamberlain as Charles, Judith Ivey as Ruth, Blythe Danner as Elvira and Geraldine Page as Madame Arcati. It ran for 104 performances. Page, who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress, died of a heart attack during the run; Patricia Conolly succeeded her in the role.
In 2002 the play was given a short production at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York, with Daniel Gerroll, who also directed, as Charles, Patricia Kalember as Ruth, Twiggy as Elvira and Dana Ivey as Madame Arcati. The piece was back in the West End at the Savoy Theatre in 2004, in a production directed by Thea Sharrock, starring Aden Gillett as Charles, Joanna Riding as Ruth, Amanda Drew as Elvira and Penelope Keith (succeeded by Stephanie Cole) as Madame Arcati.
A Broadway revival played in 2009 at the Shubert Theatre. Michael Blakemore directed, with Rupert Everett as Charles, Jayne Atkinson as Ruth, Christine Ebersole as Elvira, Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati and Simon Jones as Dr Bradman. The New York Times found the revival somewhat uneven, calling the opening performance "bumpy", but praised Lansbury's performance.
Sharrock directed a revival of her production of the play, which started as a UK tour and then moved to the Apollo Theatre, London. It ran there from March to June 2011, with a cast including Robert Bathurst as Charles, Hermione Norris as Ruth, Ruthie Henshall as Elvira and Alison Steadman as Madame Arcati.
A West End production, directed by Blakemore, opened at the Gielgud Theatre in March 2014, with Charles Edwards as Charles, Janie Dee as Ruth, Jemima Rooper as Elvira and Lansbury as Madame Arcati, and Jones as Dr Bradman as in Blakemore's 2009 Broadway production. It ran until June. A revival, again directed by Blakemore with most of the West End cast (including Lansbury at age 89) except Charlotte Parry as Ruth, toured North America from December 2014 to March 2015, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington D.C..
After the first performance in Manchester, the reviewer in The Manchester Guardian thought the mixture of farce and impending tragedy "An odd mixture and not untouched by genius of a sort". After the London premiere, Ivor Brown commented in The Observer on the skill with which Coward had treated his potentially difficult subject; he ended his notice, "But here is a new play, a gay play, and one irresistibly propelled into our welcoming hearts by Miss Rutherford's Lady of the Trances, as rapt a servant of the séance as ever had spirits on tap." The London correspondent of The Guardian wrote, "London received Mr Noel Coward's ghoulish farce with loud, though not quite unanimous acclaim. There was a solitary boo – from an annoyed spiritualist, presumably." The Times considered the piece the equal not only of Coward's earlier success Hay Fever but of Wilde's classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. There were dissenting views. James Agate thought the play "common", and Graham Greene called it "a wearisome exhibition of bad taste".
When the piece had its first West End revival in 1970 the play was warmly though not rapturously praised by the critics, but by the time of the next major production, in 1976, Irving Wardle of The Times considered, "Stylistically, it is Coward's masterpiece: his most complete success in imposing his own view of things on the brute facts of existence," and Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote of Coward's influence on Harold Pinter. In 2004, Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote, "With Hay Fever and Private Lives, Blithe Spirit strikes me as being one of Coward 's three indisputable comic masterpieces. [It is] the outrageous frivolity with which Coward treats mortality that makes the piece so bracing."
Blithe Spirit was made into a successful film in 1945, adapted by Coward and directed by David Lean. The cast included Rex Harrison as Charles, Constance Cummings as Ruth, Kay Hammond as Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati.
An American television adaptation was broadcast in 1946, with Philip Tonge as Charles, Carol Goodner as Ruth, Leonora Corbett as Elvira and Estelle Winwood as Madame Arcati. In Britain, BBC television broadcast a production in 1948, directed by George More O'Ferrall, with Frank Lawton as Charles, Marian Spencer as Ruth, Betty Ann Davies as Elvira and Beryl Measor reprising her stage role of Madame Arcati. Coward directed a 1956 American television production, in which he also starred as Charles, with Claudette Colbert as Ruth, Lauren Bacall as Elvira and Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. A British commercial television adaptation in 1964 was directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, with Griffith Jones as Charles, Helen Cherry as Ruth, Joanna Dunham as Elvira and Hattie Jacques as Madame Arcati. Another American television TV production was presented in 1966 on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, with Dirk Bogarde as Charles, Rachel Roberts as Ruth, Rosemary Harris as Elvira and Ruth Gordon as Madame Arcati.
BBC Radio's broadcasts of the play include a 1983 version with Paul Eddington as Charles, Julia McKenzie as Ruth, Anna Massey as Elvira and Peggy Mount as Madame Arcati. In December 2008 a BBC radio adaptation was made by Bert Coules, with Roger Allam as Charles, Hermione Gulliford as Ruth, Zoe Waites as Elvira and Maggie Steed as Madame Arcati. In December 2014, an adaptation of the play by Sean O'Connor was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of an episode of The Archers, with the characters from the series playing the roles in Blithe Spirit.
The play was adapted into a musical, High Spirits, in 1964, with book, music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray. It had a Broadway run of 375 performances, starring Edward Woodward as Charles, Louise Troy as Ruth, Tammy Grimes as Elvira and Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati. It had a three-month West End run in 1964–65, with Denis Quilley as Charles, Jan Walters as Ruth, Marti Stevens as Elvira and Cicely Courtneidge as Madame Arcati.