History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/French Pre-WWII
- 1 Eugène Brieux
- 2 Paul Claudel
- 3 Jean Giraudoux
- 4 Jean Cocteau
- 5 Roger Vitrac
- 6 Henry de Montherlant
- 7 Jean-Paul Sartre
The 19th century realist tradition continued in the new century with Eugène Brieux (1858-1932), of particular note "Les avariés" (Damaged lives, more precisely Spoiled goods, 1901) about lives decimated by syphilis.
While reading "Spoiled goods", William Dean Howells (1915) shuddered. "I have never once had the impulse to shut M Brieux off or up except in the instance of that most terrible tragedy...'Damaged Goods', a very vulgar misnomer. I used to bear anything in literature, if only it was true, but in my old age I have to draw the line, and 'Les Avariés' was of a terribleness which left it on the thither side of the frontier fixed by my nerve" (p 403). “It was not as a naturalistic artist, but as a skilful dramatic craftsman along the lines of a normal realism that Brieux won his present place in the contemporary movement. And it cannot be doubted that his widening vogue outside of France, which in itself constitutes a definite forwarding of the principles of dramatic realism, is primarily due to the universal emergence of social problems and the increasing dominance of questions concerning the status of woman in the society of today” (Henderson, 1914 p 121).
"Eugène Brieux is one of the most significant of modern playwrights. His distinction lies, not in his art or philosophy, but in his exemplifying better than any other a dominant dramatic tendency. The useful theatre is the realm that he rules, as the heir of Augier, the younger Dumas, and Ibsen. But unlike Ibsen, he fails to generalize his ideas, fixing attention rather upon specific conditions and reforms. He is a critic of society, keen to observe abuses in custom and law, injurious practices affecting the family, the state, and the church. Knowing no polite reticencies, he diagnoses social maladies, and writes prescriptions for their cure. Deficient in taste, he is eminently sincere. A journalist, as well as a physician, he is gifted with an eye to observe and a nose to smell out what the reporter calls 'a story'. Yet he cares little for plot or character as such. These he regards as but the means to an end, the illustration of social evils and their remedy...This, indeed, is the most notorious instance in the contemporary theatre of conscientious 'muck-raking'. To dilate upon the dangers of venereal disease for the wife and offspring of the afflicted was the author's purpose, summarized in the phrase 'syphilis in its relations with marriage'. The plot and the personages are of no consequence except in so far as they reinforce the warning of Brieux, who speaks here through a specialist. The specialist in the first act advises his patient to refrain for some years from marrying. In the second act, when his patient, disobeying, has become the father of a sickly child, the specialist advises against permitting the wet-nurse to continue her ministrations lest she, too, and her husband and children be infected. Then, when, in the third act, the innocent wife has learned the truth, and her father, a deputy, demands from the specialist an affidavit to be used against the patient in procuring a separation, the physician descants upon the unwisdom of divorce and the folly of parents in not ascertaining the physical condition of their daughters' suitors. To clinch his arguments, he brings in three dreadful examples of the misery entailed by neglect in these matters, and begs the deputy to present measures in parliament for the reform of such evils. Throughout, the attitude of Brieux is scientific, not ethical. Sin and disease are dissociated. The play is a lesson in hygiene, not a lesson in morality. Deficient in characterization and dramatic action, it is tossed together rather than constructed. Indeed, one expects the physician, after dissertations occupying half of the work, to recommend some patent medicine...First and last, Brieux deserves credit for having accomplished more than any other dramatist toward awakening in those concerned with the theatre a sense of social responsibility. He has imposed upon an institution which was becoming merely frivolous or immoral the consciousness of opportunities for public service...Although his drama of social intention too often jettisons the artistic in order to salvage the useful, Brieux has brought to port no mean freightage" (Chandler, 1920 pp 222-235).
"When our modern drama, in the hands of Henrik Ibsen, began anew to illuminate the world with the torch of truth, it was assailed on all sides as immoral by people whose minds had been drugged and drowsed by easy and amiable lies. This is the accusation that is always raised by the unilluminated multitude against the Teacher who causes the light to shine before them; and it is upon the basis of this accusation that, in every age, they crucify him. Doubtless, at the present time, there are many who would accuse Eugene Brieux of immorality because, in Damaged Goods, he has dared to wage war against that horrible conspiracy of silence which continues to submit thousands of the innocent ignorant to the infection of a devastating disease of whose nature they are unaware. But the only immorality of which art is really capable is the immorality of bearing false witness against life; and it is just as immoral to make life appear more easy than it is as to make it appear more difficult" (Hamilton, 1914 p 203).
"How slow our moralists move is best proved by the fact that although the great scientist Neisser had discovered, as far back as 1879, that supposedly insignificant venereal afflictions are due to a malignant micro-organism often disastrous not only to the immediate victim, but also to those who come in touch with him, the subject is still largely tabooed and must not be discussed...Brieux is among the few who treats the question in a frank manner, showing that the most dangerous phase of venereal disease is ignorance and fear, and that if treated openly and intelligently, it is perfectly curable...But 'Spoiled goods' contains more than an exposé of venereal disease. It touches upon the whole of our social life. It points out the cold-blooded indifference of the rich toward those who do not belong to their class, to the poor, the workers, the disinherited whom they sacrifice without the slightest compunction on the altar of their own comforts. Moreover, the play also treats of the contemptible attitude towards love not backed by property or legal sanction. In short, it uncovers and exposes not only sexual disease but that which is even more terrible- our social disease, our social syphilis" (Goldman, 1914 pp 147-149).
Time: 1900s. Place: France.
A medical doctor informs George that he has caught syphilis and writes him a prescription to mitigate the symptoms of the incurable disease. George has no need of it, because he intends to commit suicide. The doctor dissuades him of that, but, to reduce the chances of propagating the infection while the treatment lasts, advises him to wait four years before marrying. While the patient cannot promise to annul his proposed marriage, he reads from a textbook the ravages caused by the disease. Despite this appeal, George marries Henrietta after only a six-month delay, explaining to her he is undergoing medical examinations for possible consumption. Their three-month-old baby girl eventually becomes sick and, after consulting the same doctor, George's mother brings her back home with the nanny. The doctor arrives for a house-visit and is indignant on discovering George as the father. To prevent infection of the nanny, he advises the parents to bottle-feed the baby, but George's mother would rather risk the nanny's health than the baby's. Partially informed about the consequences of the baby's infection and her risk, the nanny agrees to keep breast-feeding for an extra one thousand francs. Knowing that the law forbids him to be silent, the doctor intervenes with the heartless manner of disposing of the nanny. A servant overhears the doctor's comments and fully informs the nanny about her health risks. She requests 500 francs before returning to her village, a dialogue overheard by Henrietta, who falls, cries out, and pushes her husband away. Incensed, Henrietta's father, a member of the legislative assembly, asks the doctor for a certificate stating the nature of George's disease for his daughter's divorce proceedings, but the latter refuses on the grounds he is not allowed to divulge such information. Besides, he recommends both father and daughter to forgive George. The doctor specifies that the only difference between George and other men is that he has worse luck than most. The main culprit is the lack of public information on the disease, which must be counteracted without delay.
The most important play by Paul Claudel is "L'annonce faite à Marie" (The tidings brought to Mary, 1912).
Knapp (1982) specified the social background of the play. “In the Middle Ages, leprosy was considered God-sent, a punishment...from some ignominious act [but also] to be singled out by God...for a very special and mysterious purpose” (pp 147-148). Waters (1970) opined that the play carried the following message: “the birth of a unified nation, with Charles VII’s coronation, spelled unlimited hope for France’s spiritual destiny, but marked the start of a downward trend. It was as if France had been given a chance but had not fully risen to the task” (p 85).
“Violaine sees life opening out before her and is about to marry Jacques Hury when, moved by pity for a leper, Pierre de Craon, she kisses him. She cures him, but Violaine herself catches it...No one around her understands her sacrifice, and even on her deathbed when she tells her story, she is not moved by any sense of self; she has only been God’s tool” (Lamm, 1952 pp 166-167).
"After the failed rape, Peter stays clear of the Vercors because of his leprosy and because he ignores whether his attempted crime was divulged. Paradoxically, Violaine approaches him out of compassion for his physical and moral isolation...Anne Vercors’ decision to depart...accelerates the whole drama...[since he arranges] the marriage of Violaine but also...drives Mara, the jealous sibling, to desperate measures of intervention...[and after Violaine’s revelation to James] removes all obstacles...to marry James and inherit her family estate...[After the miracle], Mara seems to remain...impervious to [its] significance...[Unlike her sister], Mara...shows absolutely no concern over her child’s eternal welfare...Amid this morass of unpleasant characteristics, however, is gradually revealed a redeeming quality: her faith...What scandalizes so many is the way Claudel twists the notion that holiness seems to need evil to be fulfilled and hence approves it for this purpose...Does the saint need the sinner as a catalyst? Perhaps not always, but without this catalyst there is little or no drama” (Watson, 1971 pp 110-125). "Here is not only the local color but the simplicity and piety of a medieval mystery, heightened by a melodious style born of the happy union of free verse and Biblical prose" (Chandler, 1920 p 267).
"The tidings brought to Mary"
Time: 15th century. Place: Combernon, France.
Anne Vercors decides to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and leave his possessions to Jacques, at the point of marrying his eldest daughter, Violaine. Anne has a high opinion of Jacques, a man willing to work and apt to be productive. He is "like a piece of earth accepting any type of grain". However, the younger daughter, Mara, warns her mother that if Jacques marries her sister, she will commit suicide. The mother does not sympathetize with her. "Whenever you speak of your Violaine," Mara complains, "you are all sugar." Jacques accepts Anne's offer. "I take you thanks to God and will not let you go," he promises Violaine. She is equally willing to marry him and feels at one with nature and that all nature comprises God. "It is not June's sun that lightens us but His very face," she states. Yet she reveals a secret he knew nothing about: marks of leprosy on her body. On seeing this, Jacques immediately backs off from any thought of marriage. He learns from Mara that she probably caught the disease by deliberately kissing a leper, which Violaine acknowledges. After her husband's departure, the mother learns that Violaine also chooses to leave home. "Why are you treating us like lepers?" Mara asks Violaine. In spite of their protests, Violaine goes away. Some time later, Mara visits the isolated Violaine on Christmas eve to tell her that their mother is dead. Otherwise, the farm is prospering. But the main reason of her visit is that after marrying Jacques and giving birth, her baby died and she was told she will never have another. Since Violaine is considered by many as a sort of saint, Mara insists on her attempting to bring her baby-boy back to life. Violaine is unwilling to attempt such a deed, advising instead submission to one's destiny, but Mara forces the corpse into her arms. While bells ring at midnight, the baby-boy begins to move. Mara is overjoyed to find him alive, noticing that his eyes have changed to Violaine's and that his lips have milk on them. When Anne returns from Palestine, he carries back with him a woman he found at the bottom of a sand-bank, his dying daughter Violaine. Jacques approaches her, to Mara's disgust. When she attempts to block his movement towards her sister, he pushes his wife away. "He is kneeling! That Violaine who cheated him with a leper!" Mara sputters. However, Jacques is convinced she never slept with the leper, but only kissed him. He gazes for a long time on Violaine. "O my intended between flowering branches, hail!" he exclaims, ignoring his wife.
Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) is another prominent dramatist of the period, whose most important plays include "La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu" (The Trojan war will not take place, also known as Tiger at the gates, 1935) and "La folle de Chaillot" (The madwoman of Chaillot, 1945).
“Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ is the first source of the work, with the significant difference that ‘The Iliad’ starts at the tenth year of the war, whereas 'The Trojan war will not take place’ begins immediately preceding the conflict...Hector had just returned from battle and has no desire to see another conflict. He and his wife, Andromaque, represent the forces of peace...He will go to any length to avoid war; he even allows himself to be humiliated...The experienced warrior knows what battle is really like...He also reduces the influence of Demokos, who is actively promoting a conflict...Neither [Paris nor Helen] is committed to the other...Helen embraces Troilus...Ulysses is willing to meet Hector to discuss ways of avoiding the conflict...He decides to leave with Helen...He accepts the plan for another reason: he has observed that Andromaque flutters her eyelids in the same way that his wife flutters hers. Here Giraudoux, the diplomat, who has seen statesmen at work at close quarters, shrewdly points out that important decisions in world affairs are often made for very superficial and trivial reasons...Ojax appears in a drunken state and begins to make advances to Andromaque...but is finally persuaded to leave...At that moment, Demokos arrives, filled with rage...In a desperate gesture, Hector stabs Demokos...but the Trojans arrive and the dying Demokos claims that Ojax, not Hector, has killed him...and the Trojan war will take place...Giraudoux has created the height of ironies: Hector, the advocate of peace, becomes the actual cause of the war...It is even greater tragic irony that Hector probably would never had lost control and stabbed Demokos had he not been aroused to battle by Ojax’ attempt to embrace Andromaque. As a result, the perfect couple brings about the greatest destruction” (Reilly, 1978 pp 94-98). "The emphasis falls on the struggle to preserve the human element. Though Helen retains the allure of her beauty and mystery, there is no doubt that Giraudoux's sympathy lies with Hector and the world of human happiness" (Ganz, 1972 p 287). “War breaks out not because of any failure on the part of the leaders to honor their agreement, not because there is a predestined antipathy between their peoples, but over a misunderstanding provoked by a drunken Greek and fostered with his dying breadth by an embittered Trojan rhymester” (Inskip, 1958 pp 81-82). "A despondent pacifism is its orientation. At first glance, the play appears to say either that war is in the hearts of men or that it is a pastime of gods indifferent to human will or human prayers...In spite of difficulties, Hector seems about to triumph- on the surface, at least- as the play nears its end. Only in the very last moment does a lie uttered by the dying Demokos turn Hector's apparent victory into defeat. However, an analysis of the central motif suggests that Demokos' sudden bursting upon the stage is, like Cyrano's protuberance, really an expressionistic device; for all those who matter, and especially those who are shown to wield power, have actually never been won over by Hector completely...Demokos obviously does not know that in the public meeting Hector has offered to return Helen and that none of the people present have objected with even a single voice. And he does not know that the negotiators have met in private to seek the ways of peace upon the explicit order of Zeus. Thus Demokos' last intervention appears, from the point of view of dramatic action, as an unmotivated device, but it serves a number of purposes: it raises the question of what the role of destiny may be and what part is played by human craving for war, and at the same time it leads us back into the atmosphere of mystery and foreboding with which the play begins and which befits its setting. But I feel that it signifies above all an arbitrary- and consequently exclamatory- denial of the reality of Hector's success" (Falk, 1959 pp 17-19). “As time went on, Giraudoux could less and less see the possibility of a harmonious solution for the fundamental antimony that...dominates all the emotions and the decisions of mankind” (Lemaitre, 1971 p 120). “The women reject the values of the warmongers as established on lies, but [lack] the necessary power to influence those in authority...Andromaque’s efforts to convince the belligerent Trojan leaders having failed, she subsequently embarks upon an alternative course of action and approaches Helen...Her position as social redeemer is thereby effectively compromised as she betrays her principles and colludes with those who would perpetuate Troy’s cycle of conflict” (Korzenlowska, 2001 pp 75-76). “Giraudoux paints the inevitability of war as an insignificant by-product of a heavenly squabble...Trapped between two conflicting orders from independent and antagonistic goddesses, each promising vengeance if her will is not effected, man finds little solace...and the brutally wise Ulysses speaks all too well of the helplessness of man in the face of such heavenly onslaught” (Cohen, 1968 p 102).
In "The madwoman of Chaillot", “a ragpicker, a [dishwasher], a sewerman, a flower girl...contribute the real essence of life...Towering over all the figures is...the madwoman of Chaillot dressed in her exaggerated outfits...Opposite to them are the ‘evil’ ones- the barons, presidents, the financiers- all representative of the capitalist system” (Reilly, 1978 p 126). The protagonist "leads a crusade against the financiers. She represents the impoverished hard-working people of Paris. The world is evenly divided between the good and the wicked. It is an oversimplified Manichean kind of world. But it reveals Giraudoux' social philosophy, his horror of usurpers and of the vulgarity they spread in their act of usurpation" (Fowlie, 1959 p 11). “Giraudoux presents the group of unscrupulous financiers who are prepared to sacrifice the beauty and tradition of Paris...Opposite these gangsters of the body and the mind...humble folk in whom all real love of life and of each other seems to have taken refuge... In a scene of...beauty at the end...we learn that once more the pigeons are flying, the grass is growing, politeness and freedom have returned to the earth” (Inskip, 1958 p 142). The play is seen as “willful optimism” against a “corrupt and abject” world. “The villains are despicable speculators, venal promoters, and shady financiers who talk among themselves...about the most effective ways of fleecing the public...[At the end], the madwoman...closes the trapdoor on them. Thus, evil is eliminated” (Lemaitre, 1971 pp 140-141). "The enemy army is the one of 'mecs' (pimps), a nameless, faceless assortment of presidents, prospectors, barons, brokers, secretaries general, and petroleum lobbyists. Between these two armies, a comic war is waged, but it must not be forgotten that this war, like its contemporary, is a war to the death...The madwoman and her friends are long-time residents of the area; the pimps, we see immediately, are newcomers. And they control everything. They corrupt everything. Their goal is to destroy Paris and retrieve the oil which they have found under the city's innards...The ragpicker explains: 'there's been an invasion, countess. The world is no longer beautiful, no longer happy, because of the invasion'...The 'mecs' are the property pimps of Parisian commerce...The ending is an act of genocide which only an extreme degree of stylization makes palatable...The pimps are the agents of technological progress; in their faceless anonymity they are the identical pistons in a huge economic machine. Their bent is for progress but their result is destruction...The technocrats are 'cool' people, bespeaking an age where emotion gets in the way of expertise...The interchangeable 'presidents of administrative councils, delegate administrators, self-conscious prospectors, contingency stockbrokers, secretaries general of enterprising syndicates, patent expropriators...publicity arrangers', who are the ice-blooded arbiters of technological society, have no use for the queer assortment of characters that frequent the madwoman's cafe; and the future conflict, we realize, is to be between these technocrats and the less progress-minded...They will either be absorbed or eliminated. The first method is demonstrated at the play's beginning, where the baron is taken into the fold by the president...But many cannot nor will not be absorbed, and these the invaders must liquidate...The president became a pimp only after he sacrificed his dreams of glory and 'turned instead to the inexpressive and nameless faces'" (Cohen, 1968 pp 211-220)...[The technocrats'] goal is to destroy Paris, they run everything, they corrupt everything,’ the ragpicker declares...They are not only above the law, they make it into a rapacious and humiliating weapon. They respect neither tradition, culture, nor personal decency...[Yet] the ending is an act of genocide which only an extreme degree of stylization makes palatable” (Cohen, 1968 pp 116-123). One can argue that stylization falsifies the point, that is to say it turns the play into “a whimsical collection of farce, fantasy, and flippancy”, not a violent dark comedy akin to Jarry’s “Ubu the king” (1896). "Aurélie, the madwoman, is mad only because she despises the egotistical, cowardly, forgetful world in which we all live, and refuses to come out of her dream of beauty, of purity...Irma makes more concessions to life. Yet she is introduced as an angel, though she is a dish-washer. She reads thoughts, particularly the thoughts of the deaf-mute; this is, I suppose, the privilege of the pure in heart" (Reboussin, 1961 pp 16-17). “It is significant that those responsible for humanity’s despair are all men and that the heroine, Aurelia, [lays the blame on men: ‘the occupation of humanity,’ she says, ‘is but a universal enterprise of destruction, I mean the male part of humanity’]...Aurelia not only destroys the exploiters but also the man she suspects of trying to poison her cats. She subsequently hallucinates” (Korzenlowska, 2001 pp 87-89), thus lending a post-Jarry or pre-Ionesco absurdist tinge to the play and indicating a sort of functional madness. The play “vacillates between poetry and vaudeville...between saturnine seriousness and frolicsome triviality” (Gassner, 1960 p 95).
"The Trojan war will not take place"
Time: Antiquity. Place: Troy, Asia Minor.
Paris, a Trojan, has stolen away Helen, a Greek, from her husband, Menelaus, and there is a rumor afoot that the Greeks are ready to declare war on the city of Troy to take her back. The noble Trojan warrior, Hector, is willing to go to war at once, but his father, King Priam, is not. In Hector's view, Helen, the very emblem of beauty, should be defended at all costs, an opinion approved by priests and poets. Although Helen does not love Paris, she loves her husband even less, and so prefers to remain at Troy. Hector asks the advice of a jurist. "I want a truth which may save us," he says. Constrained to consider his own interest, the jurist suggests various options so that the Trojans may save face in the matter. The Greeks arrive to negotiate. Angered by one of Hector's comments, the powerful Grecian warrior, Ajax, hits him in the face, but Hector refuses to be goaded. Still angry, Ajax next strikes Domokos, a poet, who is also hit by the frustrated Hector, so that war seems imminent. The Grecian warrior, Ulysses, arrives to settle the matter. He says it is not enough that Helen is taken back, it must also be proven that Paris never copulated with her. The Trojans swear that she was left untouched, but this view is contradicted by sailors present in the vessel carrying her away, one of whom revealing that the two were like "baking bread that rises". A messenger of the gods, Iris, arrives to express their views. Aphrodite, goddess of love, wishes the Trojans to keep Helen, but Pallas, goddess of reason, wants them to let her go. Impatient over these contradictory opinions, Ulysses seizes Helen. With the event of war still uncertain, Hector, still frustrated at these events, knocks down Demokos. The deed is blamed on Ajax, so that war now seems inevitable.
"The madwoman of Chaillot"
Time: 1940s. Place: France.
Blackmailed by a prospector, Peter is assigned to place a bomb inside a house of a man working against his projects, but then refuses to do so. In despair, he is about to throw himself into the Seine river, except that Aurelia, the madwoman of Chaillot, prevents his desperate course by knocking him unconscious over the head. Charmed after hearing of her strange life and habits, such as reading over repeatedly the same newspaper clippings of 7 October 1896, the day her lover, Armand Bertaut, left her, he becomes reconciled to life once more. However, the prospector shows up with a different view in mind. As he tries to pull Peter over towards him, the madwoman refuses to let go of his hand. Nonplussed, the prospector eventually leaves while uttering an ominous threat. To counter such men, Aurelia has the idea of convincing business executives that there is oil beneath the district of Chaillot and then bury them alive in an underground chamber. Before her plan is put into action, she consults madwomen in other districts, such as Constance, in the habit of speaking to an invisible dog, as well as the girlishly aged Gabrielle, whose sight and hearing depend on the day of the week and who hears voices whenever the boiler is on. These women are unsure whether Aurelia has the right to murder businessmen. Constance suggests asking her father confessor. Being short on means, she is especially afraid that they would be liable to pay some type of fine because of it. Another madwoman, Josephine, joins in and rather favors the idea. "When one destroys, one should do it in large masses," she declares. A ragpicker pretends to act as the business men's lawyer and defends very badly the interests of the rich in this case. Attracted by the false rumor and all the more excited by drinking water mixed with oil given to them as proof, a large crew of chairmen of the board, prospectors, and representatives of oil companies huddle inside Aurelia's apartment along with the public press. Thinking her mad indeed, the president of several companies gives her a piece of paper to sign whereby she is to leave all her fortune to him and to his colleagues, which she promptly accepts. She also promptly signs a paper handed over by the prospector, certifying that as a madwoman she should enter an asylum. One by one, the corrupt go down below the earth to verify the presence of oil. The door is locked behind all of them. While these are sent below, others emerge, notably a large group of Adolphe Artauds, but in Aurelia's mind, her lover has arrived too late.
Though sometimes influenced by surrealism, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) is a dramatist in the poetically realist vein, whose best example is "La voix humaine" (The human voice, 1930).
"The human voice"
Time: 1930s. Place: France.
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After an amorous relation lasting over five years, a woman calls up her lover on the telephone. She is grateful that he has at least let her know gradually his intention of ending their relation. Nevertheless, she informs him that she has been for some time walking around like a sleepwalker. She is offended that he thinks she is playing a role in making light of the situation when it is untrue. She appears grateful for his consideration of her, although her words also seem an accusation. "You took care to soothe me, to anesthetize me," she points out. "I wanted to be mad and wanted a mad sort of happiness." When asked whether she found some gloves he left behind, she pretends not to have found them while putting one of them against her cheek. She asks that he burn her letters, but yet would like to receive the ashes. Her state of mind is wavering. "We think we are dead," she says. "We hear and are unable to be heard." Much still depends on his attitude. "If you didn't love me and were clever, the telephone would become a formidable weapon," she tells him. She then confesses she lied at the start of their conversation: she is not at a friend's house but all alone, not with her pink dress but with a shabbier one. A few days ago, she consumed twelve pills, but a doctor came and now she is all right. She slept with the phone in bed. Their conversation is interrupted by technical difficulties. "We aren't trying to be interesting," she cries out in frustration to the telephone operator trying to arrange the matter. He begins to worry about her state of mind. She assures him that "one doesn't commit suicide twice", with the phone line hanging around her neck.
Surrealist plays of the 1920s bridge the gap between Alfred Jarry's plays and the French Theatre of the Absurd. One of the main exponents of surrealism is Roger Vitrac (1899-1952), who wrote "Victor, ou les enfants au pouvoir" (Victor, or the children come to power, 1928). Derived from surrealism are the theories of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), expressed in "Heliogabale" (Heliogabalus, 1934), a story on the 3rd century Roman emperor of Syrian origin, as well as in the tract "Le théâtre et son double" (The theatre and its double, 1938). By "double" is meant the power between the word and gesture whereby myths are formed.
"In his most famous surrealist play...theater, as Vitrac conceives it, leads the way to modem theater, because it is the meeting point of all arts: performance (theater/dance) as well as non figurative painting. His theater prefigures Artaud's total theater and calls for a poetics of space, constantly questioning the concept of traditional presentation" (Antle, 1990 p 25). “’Victor’ presents what appears to be the start of a perfectly conventional, bourgeois situation. It is, however, [in] the appearance of...Ida Mortemart...that the play veers, revealing the rotten underside of the situation and introducing the threat of dissolution. Death- the name of the lady suggests her secret essence- turns the bourgeois comedy of manners into a vulgar farce tinged with tragic undertones. The play ends, in mock-Greek tragedy manner, with the demise of the protagonist, Victor, and that of his parents” (Lamont, 1973 p 173).
Not so vulgar in the mind of Connon (1994). "Ida Mortemart, although appearing in only two scenes of Act ii, has rightly been considered a most important character in terms of the symbolism of the play. The image of the beautiful woman who cannot help breaking wind is memorable if only because it is shocking. Its confrontation of a social taboo clearly looks back, as do many things in Vitrac's play, to the Dada sport of 'épater la bourgeoisie', but in this work shock tactics are combined with a specific thematic relevance which prevents such effects appearing gratuitous. The dichotomy between the appearance of the character and the nature of her physical affliction may initially appear comic, but in the long term the impact of this scene is undoubtedly tragic...Initially everyone laughs...But as the full horror of the situation is made clear, we are told,'laughter becomes rarer' and her final burst of flatulence is greeted simply by silence. So at the outset, the audience, like the characters, laugh with the sort of embarrassed amusement generally produced by the shocking and the scatalogical, but at the revelation of the tragic implications of the situation, not only is that laughter silenced but we are left with a sense of guilt at ever having laughed in the first place...Ida's infirmity also fits in with another symbolic progression to be observed in the play, which further lays bare the tendency of the body to subvert the pretensions of the spiritual. Act I is devoted to the social ritual which surrounds the consumption of a meal...Toasts are drunk, but otherwise the bodily aspect of the meal, that is the consumption of food, has been suppressed, leaving only those elements which illuminate the human desire to transform such a physical need into an occasion typifying the aspiration to be more than mere flesh and blood. Even artistic aspiration is brought into the frame by the recitation of poetry by the children and then by the insistence by some of the adults that they act out an improvised playlet. In other words, the meal has been stripped of its bodily function in order to become an affair of the mind...By the final act all pretence at social niceties has been left behind, and the digestive process has run its course. Vitrac even has Charles ignore the usual social practices surrounding excretion and go and relieve himself in the garden, thus allowing him to demonstrate just how much his character's status as civilized being is compromised by the animal need of his body...But the pain does not go away, Victor dies of it. In other words, despite all aspirations, he is killed by the simple failure of his digestive process...Victor is perhaps the character who provides the richest illustration of a dualistic issue, for one of his most obvious problems is that he is a supreme intelligence trapped in the body of a child...He towers over the other characters physically just as he towers over them intellectually, terrorizing them with the depth of his perception and his poetic vision...As the end of the play approaches, Victor becomes almost Christ-like, as if to indicate his extreme spirituality...When he forgives Emily, he blesses her...Victor first of all suffers the indignity of a physical examination which includes the doctor taking his temperature rectally...and then he dies. In love too, Victor is let down by the immaturity of his body and finds himself unable to fulfil his spiritual aspirations in the physical way he has observed his father doing with both the maid and Theresa...Parody being one of the sources of comedy, stock situations are used as a way to expose the artificiality of their exploitation in mainstream theatre. Take, for instance, the use of the recognition scene, one of the most artificial and yet most popular of devices in conventional drama. Vitrac's recognition scene is to be found at the entrance of Ida Mortemart, and is noteworthy for the use of the author's use of two different methods of parody. Exaggeration is used to great comic effect in Ida's explanation of how she came to arrive in the house of the Paumelles, an explanation even more delightfully implausible than is usually found in such dramatic situations, and decked out with gloriously incongruous turns...Alongside this, however, there is an apparent attempt to show how people would react to such a situation in real life. So, instead of the fluent speeches of conventional drama, Vitrac's characters find that once they have recognized each other, they have nothing to say. The scene is one of embarrassment, the dialogue punctuated by silences, the characters clutching over-enthusiastically at conversational straws...Neither of these dualistic elements, be it opposed to spirit or bourgeois to surreal, is necessarily incompatible with a moral interpretation of the work and it is undoubtedly true that Victor lays bare the flaws in adult society by laying bare how all the characters seek an escape from its strictures, whether through madness, adultery, or a simple pleasure in that which disrupts the social order" (pp 597-603).
"Victor, or the children come to power"
Time: 1920s. Place: France.
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Victor, a 9-year-old boy but big for his age, indulges on his birthday in sexual innuendos with a house servant, who slaps his face. Annoyed by the blow, he deliberately breaks a precious vase, then accuses his 6-year-old friend, Estelle, of the deed. On hearing of the broken vase, Theresa, Estelle's mother, slaps her with two hands. Theresa's husband, Anthony, insinuates he knows about the adulterous relation existing between his wife and Charles, Victor's father. When the families contemplate a possible marriage between Victor and Estelle, they are considerably upset when Victor plays out with Estelle the adulterous relation between Charles and Theresa, their being a suspicion of incest should that marriage occur. Later, Victor surprises Charles and Theresa during a suspicious rendez-vous and becomes insolent, at which Charles slaps his face. Charles and his wife, Emily, quarrel about Victor's future, during which Charles, exasperated, breaks a vase. An old friend of Emily's, Ida, sudenly appears. She lenghtily explains how at last she was able to find her long-lost friend. As she does so, she farts, explaining it is a recurrent trouble of hers. When Victor is alone with her, he kisses her neck and asks her to fart for him. Worried about his mounting excitement, she abruptly leaves him. More worries accrue when Estelle is found with torn clothes, bloody, and frothing. That evening, Emily weeps about the state of her marriage while Charles calmly reads the paper. Without warning, Charles takes out a gun but then throws it out the window. Meanwhile, Victor reports having an upset stomach. Exasperated, Charles takes him out and whips him till the blood runs. At last, Charles reveals to his wife his adulterous relation. Though calm at first, Emily suddenly slaps him. Theresa enters to announce that Estelle has disappeared, but they find her in the company of Victor. Then they receive news that Anthony has hanged himself. When Emily tries to soothe Victor, still in bed with a stomach-ache, she becomes exasperated by his constant moaning and slaps the boy hard. Victor suddenly dies. In grief over this event, his parents shoot themselves to death.
Henry de Montherlant
Henry de Montherlant (1875-1972) achieved a potent drama with "La reine morte" (The dead queen, 1942).
“Montherlant’s play is a study of duty...in counterbalance with the passions, but King Ferrante’s passions, and not his duty, prevail...The world, as he envisions it, holds a grandeur and an idealism beyond human understanding...[He is] bathed in anger because the inadequacies of his fellow humans frustrate him...yet Ferrante reserves for himself the weight of his severest criticisms, for he is totally aware of his own weaknesses...His concerns for self far outweigh his concern for Portugal...Pedro...is mediocre, but he reflects his father’s instability, an instability which permits us to grasp the meaning of Ferrante’s essential humanity...Pedro...is pusillanimous, without will or energy to defend Ines and himself, and he is incapable of making judgments. There are many motivating forces that push Ferrante...to destroy Ines, the essential [one being] the urge to dominate, to prevail, to impose the self...His tragic act is essentially a defiance of non-action, a battle against frustrations, and a last stand before the debility of old age...Dramatic transition is absent in the play” (Johnson, 1968 pp 102-106).
Cor (1972) opined that "the death of Ines...is due to the decision of Ferrante himself. Suddenly, almost arbitrarily, he becomes tired of the situation. Although the fate of Ines appears inevitable, in view of the circumstances, one has the impression that it is determined by a gratuitous act on the part of Ferrante. This cruelty, or indifference to human suffering, is manifested here and there throughout the play. Ferrante shows himself capable of sadistic pleasures. For example, Ferrante says it would have been amusing to be present at the meeting of Ines and Alvar Gonçalves to study the countenances of the victim and the executioner. Another example: Ferrante threatens to kill, in a very summary fashion, the Archbishop Garda who had performed the marriage ceremony of Pedro and Ines. And finally, one must mention the hate and hardness of heart that Ferrante bears toward his son. A new trait also of the king in La Reine Morte is his cynicism. He is completely disenchanted. He has no illusions in regard to his son, his ministers, his court, of Ines herself. Consequently, he finds himself in an overwhelming state of ennui, of lassitude, and in an almost absolute solitude, although it is briefly relieved by the company of Ines" (p 406). In contrast to these two views, Cruickshank (1964) saw a “tragic inevitability of the plot” (p 101) but also that “all activity is ultimately seen as being vanity” (p 109).
“All Montherlant’s plays make their most distinctive impact by means of the marked serenity and detachment existing behind their immediate strong and even violent emotions” (Cruickshank, 1964 p 114).
"The dead queen"
Time: 14th century. Place: Portugal.
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Ferrante, king of Portugal, has invited Bianca, infanta of Navarre, to marry his son, Pedro, who resists this plan. Unknown to the king, Pedro is already married to Ines of Castro, a Spanish noblewoman. The king confronts the prince on learning that he refused Bianca's hand. Despite his father's anger, the prince reiterates his refusal to submit. However, he later admits to Ines that, weakening before his father, he failed to reveal their marriage and her pregnancy. While they speak, Ferrante enters abruptly to speak to Ines alone. She also refuses to submit and, moreover, reveals she is married to his son. However, like her husband before, she does not reveal her pregnancy, so that the king still cherishes hopes of changing his son's mind and obtaining a dispensation from the pope to annul the marriage. For this purpose, he orders Pedro's arrest. When the king meets his counselors, they propose to execute the bishop who married the recalcitrant couple as well as Ines. The king agrees with the first proposal but not the second. He meets Ines a second time, asking her to convince her husband of the need to annul the marriage without revealing his counselors' advice concerning her. Before the castle of Santarem where he is held, Pedro is allowed to speak with his wife, both still firm in wishing to maintain their relation. They are interrupted by Bianca, who discloses to Ines the counselors' fatal intentions, information obtained from one of the king's pages, and proposes to take her safely away to Navarre. But Ines declines the offer, preferring to remain near her husband. Ferrante meets Ines a third time. He is sick and feels himself to be near death. At night, his heart seems to stop beating. "When it starts to beat again, I am very surprised to be alive, and a little disappointed," he confides. They are interrupted by a note from one of his counsellors, Alvaro Gonçalves, "a man," reveals the king, "who wants you assassinated." The king learns that the pope would consider the bishop's death an outrage and now would no doubt refuse the annulment of the marriage. Ines at last admits she is pregnant. "Another spring to start over, and to start over less well," he cynically comments. No longer believing in the good of the state but yet pretending to, he thereby orders Ines' condemnation to death. At her imminent execution and near death himself, he falters in his intentions, to the extreme fear of the counselors. One of these begs him to write a countermand, but, before that can be done, the king dies.
The most important play for Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is "Huis-Clos" (No exit, 1942).
“Inès wants Estelle who wants Garcin who wants the reassurance of Inès. Every move of one of the three, in word or gesture, sets the cycle of punishment repeating its inevitable round...Like Everyman in the medieval morality play, he learns; unlike Everyman his final lucidity comes too late to help him...His initial admission of guilt involves his wife...The story costs him nothing to tell...It was in the company of men that he wanted to make his mark. It is entirely fitting, then, that hell should put Garcin in eternity with two women...When the door of hell suddenly opens to Garcin’s frantic pounding, he decides to stay where he is...Garcin has something which Inès wants: Estelle. Inès must continue to call Garcin coward for her own protection; only that epithet can guarantee her power to prevent Garcin and Estelle from becoming a couple...Their hell becomes a chosen one...For Inès, damnation is nothing new. She had already made it her destiny in life...Inès does not learn about herself in the course of the play...In hell, Inès wants to re-enact her destiny, to repeat with Estelle her possession of Florence. In her unaware frivolity, Estelle is to be Inès’ torturer, inflicting upon her the one suffering that Inès cannot bear: to be nothing...Inès used her mind as an instrument of fascination, Estelle...her body...Now in hell, she must depend on the look of Inès, who, as another woman, hasn’t any eyes and the look of Garcin, who, until prodded by Inès, is too preoccupied with what has become his eternal soul to pay any attention to her...Estelle’s punishment will be the impossibility of continuing to seem...[All three] existed through domination and sadism...Each one finds now that he/she is him-/her-self a victim, tortured unmercifully by his/her dependence on the others...Each of the three in turn is congealed by the look of the other into what he/she cannot bear to see as him-/her-self: Garcin is fixed as a coward in the eyes of Inès, Estelle as an infanticide in the eyes of Garcin, Inès as nothing in the eyes of Estelle” (McCall, 1969 pp 114-121).
“All three characters share one point of view and are bent on one thing: recognition, and all three are presented to us with the same harsh objectivity” (Jackson, 1965 p 51). The play “sets to show that hell is the others and that man is what the others think he is, but the conflict of the human beings involved in this demonstration is carried out through flesh and blood and not through abstractions to hollow rhetoric. Sartre always rises from a naturalistic framework and order towards essential truths. He is as much concerned with the inner self than Maeterlinck, but his search for the inner self is in the opposite direction...Instead of isolating the soul in a mystery world of anguish and silence, Sartre connects it with the society in which it lives, thus following the Ibsenian pattern upon which he has grafted his existentialist preoccupations” (Chiari, 1965 pp 57-58).
According to Gassner (1954a), the play presents the "view that average human beings tend to lack both integrity and self-knowledge. Two women, a demoniacal lesbian and a spoiled society woman, and a cowardly pseudo-idealistic journalist find themselves after their death in hell. They are held in a chamber in which they must always torment each other with awareness of their delusions or failure as human beings and with their dependency upon each other’s opinion. Their dependency is the result of their lack of character and self-respect. Hell, therefore, as one of them remarks, is 'other people'” (p 715). Sartre's "characters were appalling specimens. There was too little humanity in his denunciation of self-delusion and the individual’s dependence upon other people’s opinion” (Gassner, 1954b p 340).
Inès’ “intelligence and her aggressive honesty makes her a bitterly effective persecutor of Garcin; to have her think him a coward is for him the worst torment. The opinion of Estelle does not matter to him because she is entirely frivolous. She is so selfish that she seems to have no moral sense at all...Garcin, in his bad faith, invokes the falsehood (as Sartre sees it) of essentialism to support his pretence that, although he has committed cowardly acts, he has a brave character or essence or soul. It is the role of Inès to teach him the painful existentialist message that a man is what he does, and no more...He is a coward because his deeds are cowardly...He can no longer become a brave man. Death has closed the account” (Cranston, 1965 pp 65-67). “Estelle and Garcin believe each other, and if they had been alone, their mutual bad faith might have made death bearable for them...Unfortunately Inès is there...[who] refuses Garcin’s suggestion that they now all try to help one another, for she knows that Estelle is there to make her suffer and that she must face up to the truth...Garcin is unable to leave his torturers because only through them can he ever hope to attain satisfaction. The characters are excellently selected to cause one another the greatest possible suffering” (Thody, 1964 pp 81-83). “It is the Medusa-like power...with which Inès imprisons him by her relentless stare...which wrings him with great dramatic effect the cry ‘hell is other people’. Hell is made by man and no other agency, so that the burden of guilt is placed where it belongs...A religious fiction is demolished and replaced by the guilt of man, who is guilty in his dual role of judge and victim” (Wardman, 1992 p 120).
"Of the three, Garcin seems by far the least guilty; he has indeed always posed as a hero and for a time he continues to do so even in hell; but there are a few facts, at first concealed from us, that continue to haunt him. The moralist and hero had consistently ill-treated his wife. He let her bring his breakfast into his bedroom after having installed a mulatto mistress in the bed. His heroism is dubious. He did not face his punishment but tried to escape to Mexico. When he defends himself with the question: 'can one judge a life by a single action?' Inès answers: 'Why not? You have dreamed for thirty years that you have courage; and you allowed yourself a thousand weaknesses because everything is permitted to heroes. How convenient it was! And then, in the hour of danger, they put you on the spot...You took the train for Mexico. Garcin. I didn't dream the heroism. I chose it. One is what one wishes to be. Ines. Prove it. Prove that it was not a dream. Deeds also decide what one has wished. Garcin. I died too soon. I wasn't left time to perform my deeds. Ines. One always dies too soon- or too late. And yet there is one's life- finished; the shot is fired, you must foot the bill. You are your life and nothing else.' It is an apparent climax that gives way- in high dramatic fashion- to a yet greater climax, after which there is a sudden drop and the play ends in hideous quiet. This is the action: deprived by Inès' words of his last illusions, Garcin decides at last to gratify Estelle's wish to sleep with a man, though under Inès' very eyes...Infuriated, Estelle stabs Inès with the paper knife. Vain anger" (Bentley, 1953 pp 129-130).
The dramatic characters "represent the living dead and hence, unlike humans, ought not to be able to choose freely or change their destiny. Yet if they are meant to be beyond the pale and their game is up, they have not yet realized it. Garcin and Estelle are tortured by those whom they have left behind and who are still alive and, in addition, by Inès. The latter, in the meantime, even if she enjoys torture and torturing, is forced to be a spectator to Estelle's and Garcin's amorous behavior but, since she proclaims herself as a sado-masochist, her sado-masochistic needs will forever remain unsatisfied as she alternates between seducing the recalcitrant Estelle and verbally abusing Garcin. Of course, Garcin will never be sure if he is a coward in the eyes of his colleagues on earth even if Inès insists he is, and even if Estelle assures him that it does not matter, while Estelle will never be rid of Inès and hence will not ever have Garcin for herself. Indeed, as Garcin proclaims, 'hell is other people', because it is on earth that one must get one's business straight; once you are dead you fall into the public domain and you become grist for everybody's mill. All three had already lived an infernal ménage à trois on earth; in hell, this is replicated by them and for them in the most unexpected way and it turns into a truly infernal ménage à trois" (Van Den Hoven, 2012 pp 66-67).
Time: 1940s. Place: Hell.
Joseph Garcin is led into a room without a bed, indicating he is never to sleep, a painful thought, he considers. Essentially he is left with "a life with no interruption". There are no mirrors either. Admitted in the same room, Inès Serrano immediately asks: "Where is Florence?" Joseph has no idea. She assumes incorrectly that Joseph is her assigned torturer. A third occupant, Estelle Rigault, is introduced next. To pass the time, they compare their life-histories. Estelle died as a result of pneumonia, Inès of gas exposure, Joseph of "twelve bullets in the flesh". Feeling warm in this unknown place, Joseph begins to take his coat off, but is prevented by Estelle, who detests to see men in their shirts. In his life-time, Joseph ran a pacifist journal, but was gunned down as a result of his political views. He is tormented about the circumstances of his death, wondering whether he did not act as a coward in the end. Moreover, he fears his adulteries are responsible for his wife's death. Inès died when her girl-friend, Florence, turned on the gas while both were sleeping together, in the aftermath of the accidental death of Florence's boy-friend. Estelle was at least partially responsible for the death of her lover, Roger, who committed suicide when she drowned their baby girl. While conversing together, Ines shows signs of being sexually attracted to Estelle, who, uninterested in the love of women, rejects her in favor of Joseph, indifferent to both. In Ines' view, the trio seem like "wooden horses on a merry-go-round". In Estelle's view, it is irrelevant whether Joseph is a coward or not, the important thing is whether he kisses well. "You think too much," she specifies. "What else is there to do?" he asks despondently. All three gaze on the doings of their life-companions still alive, only to find their existence on earth soon forgotten. Ines concludes there is no need of torturers in this place, since each for the other is one, at which Joseph agrees. "Hell is other people," he declares. Pursued by Inès' demands to an extreme breaking-point, Estelle raises a knife to her. After realizing where she is, she laughs. "Well, let us go on," Joseph resolutely affirms.