Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Madwoman....

Well, not me. Not yet.

I recently played a game of Wheel of Fortune on the computer.  The puzzle answer, category Title, was The Madwoman of Chaillot. Intrigued, and because it sounded familiar, I did the Google thing and discovered it was a play written by French novelist/playwright Jean Giraudoux in 1944.

Excerpts from a 2005 review by Russell Hunt, Professor of English at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick:

The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux (adapted by Maurice Valency)

~There aren't many plays about serious issues that after over a half century retain the kind of frothy brio and sheer fun that Jean Giraudoux's final masterpiece, The Madwoman of Chaillot, offers. That's not entirely because, at the time it was written, during the Second World War, western civilization was caught up in the most brutal, devastating disasters humanity had ever known, but it surely adds to our feeling that there's something special about the Countess Aurelia in her subterranean apartment, defending a society where spending your time at a cafe in the sunshine is perfectly okay. And any play written in the midst of such a cataclysm whose most memorable line is "Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can't set it right in the course of an afternoon" has staked a claim to an entirely new, and possibly refreshing, way of looking at human evil.

~Now, as sixty years ago, those who will sacrifice anything for the miracle of oil and the money it generates seem to have us all in thrall, and perhaps more than ever we need a madwoman to set things right. In the words of the ragpicker, "Countess, little by little, the pimps have taken over the world."

~Giraudoux's play is often characterized as one "offering hope" during the occupation of France by the Nazis. It's a strange kind of hope: in the first act, set entirely in the sidewalk cafe, we (and Aurelia, the area's resident madwoman, the -- perhaps self-styled -- Countess) discover that a phalanx of soulless, profit-driven madmen (The Prospector, The President, and The Baron) are about to demolish the district -- the entire city of Paris -- in search of the oil they've discovered underlies it. We also see the texture of the life centered on the cafe, a kind of carefree, colorful bohemian life that one thinks Puccini's characters would have liked to live, had winter never come and food been unnecessary and tuberculosis a myth. A life much to the liking of the flower children of the late sixties and seventies (indeed, of the time when I last saw a production of the play).

~In the second act, which takes place in the cellar apartment of the "Countess" Aurelia, a plan is developed. It involves a miraculous door in her floor, leading down into an endless maze of sewers (ah, we all know about the sewers of Paris) and the help of the neighbouring madwomen (each hailing from her own district), who have to be convinced of the seriousness of the matter. It becomes clear, if it hadn't been before, that the play is prescient not only in its skepticism about capitalist money-grubbing, but also in its feminism. "But I don't understand, Aurelia," protests Gabrielle, the Madwoman of the neighbouring district of St. Sulpice, "Why should men want to destroy the city? It was they themselves who put it up." Sure enough, the plan works like a charm; not only the oil-seeking capitalists, but the phalanx of press agents following them, are lured down into the endless maze of the sewers in pursuit of the oil, never to be heard from again, leaving the Countess to tend to her cats. "My poor cats must be starved. What a bore for them if humanity had to be saved every afternoon. They don't think much of it, as it is."

~Clearly, if we're to wait for the madwomen or the flower children to rescue us from Enron and Exxon and their ilk, we'll wait a long time. If this is hope it's pretty thin stuff. In fact, though, I think what Giraudoux wanted to offer us was not hope, so much, but something to hope for: a world in which it makes sense to sit at a cafe in the sunshine and listen to the talk and the music and care for our imaginary dog.

~The Madwoman of Chaillot has been attacked as a bit of fluff, and one imagines that it may have seemed especially so in postwar Paris -- but its vitality gives the fluff a bit of life, and reminds us that there's rather more to existence than technology, energy and politics. There's a glass of wine in the sunshine and a feather boa, too.


The play was made into a movie in 1969 with a wonderful cast including Katharine Hepburn, Paul Henreid, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Donald Pleasence, Danny Kaye, Charles Boyer. The political observer in me wants to see this. As does the nostalgist.


No comments: