WSC Avant Bard’s current production of Giraudoux’ The Madwoman of Chaillot, an entertaining tribute to the power of joy over despair, reminds us of the importance of the artist in an inevitably compromised world.
The premiere, in December, 1945, was viewed as a triumph over the Nazis, and a celebration of victory. The illustrious author, Jean Giraudoux, was dead, and there were rumors, probably untrue, that he had been poisoned by the Germans. Director Louis Jouvet, was a longtime associate of Giraudoux, and a leading figure in French theatre himself. Jouvet had just returned from a long exile in South America, where he and his company suffered privation rather than struggling with the horrors of the Paris occupation.
The opening of Madwoman was the beginning of a new era. German soldiers were not present. All of Paris (le tout Paris) was there, including General deGaulle. It was not difficult to see the parallels between the evil financiers and the occupying Germans, with Aurelie, the Madwoman, representing the real France, the epitome of literary culture with a philosophy of generosity and kindness, at least towards those who are not evil financiers. But the real story is slightly more complicated.
Paris in 1943, as Giraudoux was writing his play, was still under occupation. Jean-Paul Sartre notes in Paris Under the Occupation (Lisa Lieberman, tr., 2011…) that when friends disappeared, cries of horror split the night. The Gestapo often arrested people between midnight and five in the morning. “Three friendly Germans with revolvers” would appear. Houses were closed up or destroyed. He describes a people who fear that they have lost their future and their soul.
Giraudoux, like many theatre artists, remained in Paris. Separated from his wife, he lived in a small hotel in the rue Cambon, struggling to keep warm, with his poodle Puck for company. Friends describe him as often to be found “sitting in bed with a hot water bottle, wrapped up in a heavy sweater”, according to Donald Inskip in Jean Giraudoux: The Making of a Dramatist (Oxford University Press, 1958.) What must his thoughts have been as he worked? His mother died near the end of 1943. Inskip quotes his remarks to his son Marc, “This idea of the uselessness and laughableness of all our efforts… haunts men of my age… and makes our closing years dark and imprisoned.” Yet his friend, poet and novelist Louis Aragon, who met Giraudoux shortly before his death on Jan. 31, 1944, describes him as full of optimism. “He was full of plans for writing, full of plans for happiness,” as Inskip relates….
As a writer, he has been described as a “precieux,” a word which suggests artfulness, or artifice, with an emphasis on style. In The Madwoman of Chaillot, he dramatizes the conflict between the sinister baron, broker, and prospector who conspire to destroy Chaillot in order to exploit its oil, and the Madwoman, an eccentric resident who represents everything the district has to offer in terms of goodness, beauty, and love….
In its time, Madwoman was viewed as a fable of the French Resistance. Some maintain that in the wake of the Liberation, with the purges of Nazi sympathizers like the novelist Robert Brasillach, the French needed to view Giraudoux as great. It is true that he was no hero of the Resistance, but neither was he a collaborator. He was first and foremost, an artist, and as such fulfilled his major responsibility, which was to be a witness.
Today, his work seems startlingly prescient. The triumph of the 1% sometimes leaves the rest of us wondering what happened to the American dream. Whatever your dream is, in America you used to feel that you had the opportunity to accomplish it. That opportunity is vanishing, at a rapid rate. Giraudoux reminds us that poetry and love are eternal, and have nothing to do with one’s bank balance, station in life, or ability to succeed by manipulating others….
Excerpted with permission from “Dangereuse: ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot: An Ode to Joy in the Midst of Corruption’ by Sophia Howes, published June 15, 2015 by DC Metro Theater Arts. Copyright © 2015 DC Metro Theater Arts. To read the full article, click here.
Jean Giraudoux was born in Bellac, France, in 1882. A decorated war hero and career-long civil servant, he entered diplomacy and was appointed undersecretary of state for information in 1939. During the interwar period he began to publish novels and short stories. He owes his theatrical career to the prominent actor-director Louis Jouvet, who adapted his novel Siegfried and the Limousin to the stage (1928). In collaboration with Jouvet, Giraudoux became the first important modern French writer to devote himself exclusively to playwriting. Every premiere of a Giraudoux play—including Amphitryon 38 (1929), Judith (1931), Intermezzo (1932), The Trojan War Will Not Take Place (1935), Ondine (1939), and, posthumously, The Madwoman of Chaillot (La Folle de Chaillot, 1945)—was treated in Paris as a major cultural event. He died on January 31, 1944.