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October 17, 2013

Noël Coward comedy opens today at MSU

As 'Blithe Spirit' opens today at MSU, some facts about its eccentric playwright

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 two-decade 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."

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