This is an article in the series devoted to seemingly ‘neglected’ plays and playwrights.
Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) was a major French writer in the early 20th Century, particularly in the period between WW1 and WW2. Many of his plays were international successes including Amphitryon 38 (1929), The Enchanted (1933), The Trojan War Will Not Take Place( 1935), Electra (1937), and particularly Ondine (1939) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1943).
Considering Giraudoux’s social and political position, as well as his heightened poetic realism, I find it rather extraordinary that he is now relatively neglected. Is this because a number of his great characters are elderly? His themes and subject matter are still extremely relevant to our complex modern world, just as challenging and, dare I say it, ‘innovative’ as they were when first written and performed. Maybe it’s the arguments – relatively long scenes, reminiscent of Shaw, in which a particular issue is debated. However, in context, they are still theatrically dramatic.
The Madwoman of Chaillot is a case in point. Written in 1943 but not performed until 1945, this is truly a wonderful play – and very relevant for today.
It deals with an eccentric old woman and her equally eccentric friends in Paris who are concerned with the environmental changes they see being inflicted upon their region in Paris, and elsewhere. These environmental and ecological changes are massive in their potential destructiveness, and are led and desired by a group of conniving and manipulative successful corporate businessmen. These corporate executives are known as The Prospector, The President, The Baron, The Broker. They plan to rip up streets in PAris to get at the oil hidden underneath. Countess Aurelai, the madwoman of Chaillot, is determined to stop them. She gathers together her own little army, made up of The Street Singer, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and most importantly The Rag Picker. Then there are her elderly so-called aristocratic friends – Constance, Gabrielle and Josephine.
At a very strange tea-party organized by Aurelia the corporate executives are put on trial. This is truly extraordinary scene, and in particular The Rag Picker’s advocerial prosecutor’s speech is fantastic – breathtaking. One by one the corporate executives, these ‘wreckers of the world’s joy’ are judged, condemned and lured to a basement from which they never return – they disappear – or are they murdered. It isn’t actually stated, but the suggestion that Aurelai and her friends have actually deliberately led them to their deaths, and subsequently are murderers, is very unsettling. Nonetheless, the evil man have gone, and joy returns to the world. Still – what may, or has happened to bring about this happy ending is rather complex and creepy.
The play was a considerable success when it was first produced, and subsequently was performed in London, New York, and many other parts of the world. In 1969 Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee turned the play into the musical Dear World, which starred Angela Lansbury.
Also in 1969 British director Bryan Forbes made a movie version with a truly amazing cast featuring Paul Henreid, Charles Boyer, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Danny Kaye, Oskar Homolka, Nannette Newman, John Gavin, Donald Pleasance, and Katharine Hepburn as Countess Aurelia, with her friends played by Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton and Giulietta Masina – amazing! Unfortunately, however, the film is not really successful, despite the brilliance of the actors. Nonetheless,it is worth watching, especially if you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary play.
Many notable and terrific actresses have played Countess Aurelia, including Martita Hunt, Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson.
The play occasionally re-appears, usually in American Universities theatre courses, and in Europe, sometimes in rather exciting modern re-inventions. However, as far as I’m aware it hasn’t (surprisingly) been seen in Australia for centuries – literally.
It would be so wonderful to see this play live again on-stage. I am quite surprised that it is now in the ‘neglected’ plays bin, at least in Australia. Maybe it simply isn’t known about, not being taught in respective drama schools and History of Theatre course? Hence this article. It does feel sometimes that the respective state theatre subsidized seasons come from the list of plays in whatever History of Theatre course the deciding artists have authorities may have done as students – it is a bit limited and predictable.
Not only is The Madwoman of Chaillot extremely topical for today’s world it also offers great roles for senior actors – something, or rather person who are also somewhat relatively ‘neglected’ in the Australian professional theatre. A new production of this with a cast of some of our finest ‘senior’ actors and actresses would be amazing to see. The Madwoman of Chaillot is a play well worth reviving.