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Magic and the Supernatural

inspector elvira arcarti charles

Modern drama has not been immune to people’s perennial fascination with magic and the supernatural, and a tale with a ghost or a supernatural twist has often performed well at the box office. Not bound by the mundane rules of ordinary life, ghosts and magical occurrences suggest the possibilities and dangers of freedom, and give playwrights an easy conceit by which to explore how people live and the preferred balance between responsibility and freedom to which people should best adhere. Supernatural manifestations have been commonly represented in such plays as Noël Coward’s comical ghost story Blithe Spirit or, more rarely, in the darker, more socially conscious An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley. Whether the ghosts are comical or threatening, they seem designed to produce the same end—the truer realization by the living as to how they should live their lives.

Coward’s Blithe Spirit features seances, ghosts, and a variety of astral hocus pocus. For Coward, plot is not as important as creating an intriguing situation that offers the potential for plenty of witty dialogue by which the characters (and audience) relish that situation. Blithe Spirit does not expect its audience to believe in ghosts, merely to be entertained by them. Coward is an acute observer of the social scene around the mid-twentieth century in all of its foibles and absurdities. With gentle humor, Blithe Spirit efficiently exposes and satirizes its characters’ obsession with surface over substance and their tendency to privilege talk over action. Luckily, they have the common sense of the medium Madame Arcarti, a character whose views would traditionally have been the least credible, to save the day and send the ghosts back where they belong.

An Inspector Calls takes itself a lot more seriously. It is the best known of a number of plays written by Priestley that utilize the concept of a time-slip in their plots. Through a kind of supernatural precognition, the Inspector’s questioning of the Birlings and Gerald Croft foreshadows future events and suggests a beneficent, ghostly force willing to get involved on behalf of the Eva Smiths of this world and ensure, at least, that their deaths are not in vain. Although An Inspector Calls incorporates many of the common elements of a typical mystery play, with its suspense, unraveling of clues, and series of plot twists, it is a mystery play with a twist, as there is no murder or murderer in the usual sense and Inspector Goole is no ordinary detective, but a ghostly inquisitor who promotes social conscience and social responsibility.

There are also plays like Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas, whose whole premise relies on a magical occurrence, in this case, the switching of bodies between a young bride on her wedding day and an old man preparing for death. The use of magic is never really explained beyond the suggestion that it occurred because both parties had wished it to, and the conceit is used again to teach people how to better live their lives, as well as providing much comic relief. Ironically, despite our lack of knowledge or belief in magic or the supernatural, it appears that modern dramatists mostly view them as simple contributory factors in our constant quest to improve the quality of life, rather than anything truly mysterious.

Prelude to a Kiss was first performed in 1988, but this chapter references the better-known revised version that was produced two years later, which cut and added various subsidiary characters. To assist the audience in taking the “imaginary leap required to make sense of the story” (xv), Lucas suggests that scenery be minimal, and lighting and sound used to create a sense of magical possibilities. The play’s epigraphs from “The Frog Prince” and Howard’s End prepare us for a tale of transformation, motivated by a fear of death, and the drama plays much like a classic, romantic fairy tale, only set in modern times, with a couple who swiftly fall in love, then face a major challenge that must be overcome for them to live happily ever after.

In Blithe Spirit , Charles and Ruth Condomine are both on their second marriage, each having been widowed in their mid-thirties. Expecting an entertaining fraud, they invite a local clairvoyant, Madame Arcarti, to a dinner party along with their friends, the Bradmans. But Arcarti is the real thing, and conjures up the spirit of Charles’s first wife, Elvira, who then refuses to leave. Only Charles can see Elvira, which first makes Ruth believe him to be mad, until Charles gets Elvira to indicate her presence by moving something for Ruth to witness. Ruth asks Arcarti to get rid of Elvira, but when she is unable to do so, Arcarti suggests that the spirit remains because someone is drawing her, and it is most likely Charles who subconsciously wants her back. Elvira tries to kill Charles to bring him over to her spirit world, but murders Ruth by mistake. Arcarti tries again to dematerialize Elvira, but brings back Ruth instead. Looking in her crystal ball for clues, Arcarti suddenly realizes that it has been the maid, Edith, wishing for the return of the wives, rather than Charles, which enables her to dismiss them both, leaving Charles to revel in his newfound freedom, to the angry chagrin of his deceased wives.

The play is filled with stage tricks, such as the floating bowl of flowers that proves Elvira’s presence to Ruth, and the crashing china and falling fixtures when the ghostly wives object to Charles’s declaration of independence. There are also such set devices as the séances that open and close the play, and which are filled with classic eerie sounds, trances, moving tables, crystal balls, and ghostly rapping. All of these contribute to the visual fun, making this a far more entertaining play to see than to read.

Coward subtitles the play “an improbable farce,” and it is, since it asks its audience to both believe in ghosts and find them comedic, as they would living people in the automatism of their responses. Highly entertained, we willingly suspend our disbelief, knowing because of the insistence of the dinner guests both that ghosts cannot appear and that they must, and fairly soon. The butts of much of the humor are those characters who refuse to believe in Elvira’s presence. The audience, like Charles, is kept in on the joke because Elvira is present on stage for them to see. Coward keeps this conceit entertaining by changing the circle of those in the know. Initially we may be as skeptical as the Condomines, but then we join Charles and Arcarti in understanding that Elvira exists, while Ruth’s skepticism makes her appear foolish. Later Ruth learns the truth, and it is the Bradmans who become the dupes. Later on, Charles and his two ghostly wives appear to know more about the spirit world than even Arcarti does.

The fact that the medium, Arcarti, despite her outlandish garb and clairvoyance, is actually the most down-to-earth character we meet makes the supernatural world she endorses seem all the more credible. With her commonsense aphorisms, bicycle riding, and infectious enthusiasm, Arcarti seems far more in touch with the real world than her hosts, evidenced by her wide-ranging knowledge of village gossip. The Condomines’s oversophistication and evident superficiality make them seem fake by contrast. It is natural that it should be Arcarti who solves the mystery by pointing the finger at Edith, as she is the only character sufficiently able to look beyond her own concerns to understand what is actually happening.

As a ghost, Elvira behaves exactly as she had when she was alive: she sulks, whines, manipulates, and plots. Thus we see little difference between a ghost and a living person other than the color of her dress; Elvira, and later, the ghost of Ruth, are dressed completely in gray. Elvira describes the afterlife as a continual cocktail party full of famous figures, where she can play chess with Genghis Khan and watch Merlin do magic tricks. Her jealousy of Ruth leads her to murder, but since the afterlife seems so benign and death itself not quite so final, Ruth’s fatal accident becomes less of a concern. We know it is only a matter of time before she rejoins us on stage, which deflects the seriousness of what Elvira has done. Life on the “other side” is clearly not so different, so death automatically becomes less something to be feared than merely a temporary inconvenience.

The ghostly premise of the play is just an excuse for Coward to craft a fairly typical comedy of manners, based on domestic disagreement, with the unusual love triangle of a husband caught between two wives (one of whom is legally dead), who, quite literally, fight over him. Each wife displays a mix of attractive and unpleasant aspects of character to ensure that we do not privilege one over the other, and Coward turns the tables by having both turn on Charles at the close, when he mocks their spirits and declares his freedom. But at no point is the audience allowed to really engage with any of these superficial people, so their fate can never be more than simply amusing, as the playwright intends. In many ways, the real magic here is Coward’s sparkling dialogue.

Set in the North Midlands of England in 1912, shortly before the launching of the Titanic, An Inspector Calls depicts the self-satisfied and self-centered Birling family at a dinner party to celebrate daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft. Inspector Goole enters to break up their complacency and implicate each of them in the suicide of Eva Smith. After he has left, they begin to realize that the Inspector is not who he claims to be, and there has been no recent death like the one he described. This alleviates the guilt of the older family members, until the police call to say that a dead girl has just been found, and a police inspector is on his way to question them.

The Inspector’s name is the first clue to his supernatural potential, suggesting ghoulish or ghostly origins. The fact that he apparently knows details it is impossible for him to know and foretells a death that has not yet occurred confirm this. Ironically, although a name like Goole implies a specter of the dark, the Inspector is anything but, and it is the apparently innocent Birling family who turn out to be truly rotten and evil in their callous and inhumane treatment of others. The Inspector brings the light of truth, quite literally: Priestley has the set lighting brighten as he proceeds to reveal these people’s collective prejudiced, selfish, and vindictive behavior. He acts as a sentinel of morality, a potentially angelic force brought to teach the Birlings: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” And he warns them, “And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and anguish” (54), words that would resonate strongly with an audience fresh from the experience of World War II.

From the start, we are prepared for the Birlings’ carefree bubble to burst because we, like the Inspector, have the knowledge of hindsight. Arthur Birling’s extravagant praise for the unsinkable Titanic just a week before her disastrous voyage and his pompous insistence that Europe will continue in peace and prosperity shortly before the outbreak of World War I, both show how wrong he can be. As the Inspector begins to chip away at Birling’s complacency, it is clear to the audience who is on the side of right. The Inspector’s accusations   are an attempt to shake each family member into accepting responsibility for such calamities as the Titanic and war as much as for the death of Eva Smith/Daisy Renton. It soon becomes clear that his task will be easier to complete with the more impressionable younger people in the room, Sheila and Eric. These two alone, on discovering there was no suicide victim, continue to acknowledge that they still did the things of which they have been accused to someone, while the others instantly give up what little sense of guilt they had begun to feel.

What the supernatural force of Inspector Goole allows us to see is the potential destructiveness of those apparently insignificant slights people often give to those over whom they feel superior. As Sheila insists, whether or not Eva exists is immaterial, as they are all guilty of treating a fellow human being badly when they had the choice to behave better. Arthur Birling chose to dismiss her as a troublemaker when she was only asking for a fair wage. Sheila also had her fired, just because she had been in a bad mood and was offended by what may have been a smirk at her expense. Gerald’s attentions may initially have been more chivalrous, but he nonetheless uses her no less than Eric does. Gerald dropped “Daisy” when he became bored with her, and Eric got her pregnant then stole money from his father’s business to help her out. The fact that Eva refused such aid proves that she has a stronger moral character than he, despite her predicament, and makes Sybil Birling’s sanctimonious refusal of aid from her charity group, because Eva will not name the father, intentionally ironic.

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