Jean Giraudoux Essay - Critical Essays


As the saying goes, all is fair in love and war. Almost without exception, the plays of Jean Giraudoux concern either love or war, frequently with both at once, and few if any holds are barred. Resolutely antinaturalistic in style and presentation, Giraudoux’s plays address themselves nevertheless to the basic realities and polarities of life in the so-called civilized world, especially as exemplified in the institutions of marriage and politics. No matter what the institution, implies Giraudoux, it is at odds with humankind’s most natural, indeed most human, tendencies.

Significantly, the first of Giraudoux’s plays to be written and performed was quite frankly political in subject matter, theme, and message, dealing not with war but with its aftermath. Siegfried, derived from a novel written and published by Giraudoux within four years of the Armistice, seeks to discover the true identity of an amnesiac French soldier who has been mistakenly repatriated as a German and has since ascended to a position of some power and responsibility in the government of his native country’s erstwhile adversary. Already, the debatelike structure that will come to characterize Giraudoux’s theatrical expression is very much in evidence, with a wide range of articulate characters to present their views in elegant, truly literary language.

From the witty speculation of Siegfried, Giraudoux moved increasingly in the direction of fantasy: Amphitryon 38, his second play and his first reworking of material drawn from classical mythology, entertainingly explores the relationship between destiny and humanity through Jupiter’s planned seduction of Amphitryon’s wife, Alcmene. Equally within the realm of fantasy, yet drawn wholly from the author’s own imagination, is The Enchanted, perhaps the most widely known of Giraudoux’s major plays. In The Enchanted, an entire town lies under the spell of a ghost who continues to upset the normal chain of events, communicating only with a substitute schoolteacher and competing for the young woman’s affections against an utterly sensible but personable bureaucrat. A similar strain of fantasy pervades Ondine, drawn from Germanic folklore, in which a young man abandons his fiancée in order to marry a mermaid.

With his Judith, written and performed between Amphitryon 38 and The Enchanted, Giraudoux had produced an impressive, if unsuccessful, attempt at tragedy featuring many of his characteristic themes. Unlike her counterpart in the Apocrypha and various prior dramatic versions, Giraudoux’s Judith remains highly ambiguous in character and motivation, stabbing Holofernes in an excess of lust rather than of patriotism. Typifying a growing line of Giraudoux heroines of remarkable character and force, Judith foreshadows such later protagonists as Andromache in Tiger at the Gates and the title character of his Electra. True tragedy, however, continued to hover just beyond Giraudoux’s reach, undercut by the ironic, playful spirit implicit in his dialogue and characters.

Tiger at the Gates, translated into English some twenty years later by Christopher Fry, is considered by many to be Giraudoux’s worthiest play, with characterizations and dialogue that nearly compensate for the length and lofty tone of many individual speeches. The thoughts reflected in the French title, La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu, are those of Hector himself, who finds no justification for a possible war with the Greeks and does all that he can to prevent one, with the results well known in advance. Witty and not infrequently humorous, Tiger at the Gates nevertheless comes closer to genuine tragedy than does Judith; Electra, written and performed some two years later, is a somewhat less successful effort in the same vein.

Hailed for The Enchanted and for his later political plays, Giraudoux during the 1930’s also continued to explore the battle of the sexes first investigated in Judith. Initially with the brief Song of Songs, later with Sodom and Gomorrah (the last of Giraudoux’s plays to be mounted during his lifetime), the author of Judith portrayed communication between the sexes as metaphysically impossible. Despite Giraudoux’s continued use of titles and allusions drawn from the Old Testament, the latter two plays are set in the modern world and have only a tenuous connection to Scripture. A fourth, and related play, performed posthumously, takes its inspiration instead from Roman legend by way of William Shakespeare: In Duel of Angels, the encounter of Tarquin and Lucretia is re-created in nineteenth century provincial France, with the names changed accordingly.

Without question, Giraudoux’s greatest posthumous success came with The Madwoman of Chaillot, resolutely antitragic yet closely related in theme to Tiger at the Gates and Electra. Undeniably a precursor to modern black comedy and perhaps the so-called Theater of the Absurd as well, The Madwoman of Chaillot achieved nearly equal success in English translation and in the original French and is frequently revived, the title role of Madame Aurélie having provided an irresistible showcase for the talents of several celebrated actresses. The Apollo of Bellac, a brief curtain-raiser composed around the same time and also released posthumously, compresses many of Giraudoux’s characteristic themes into a single, brilliant act that is still frequently performed worldwide, offering many spectators their first taste of the author’s singular, and never successfully imitated, theater.

Amphitryon 38

That distinctive blend of dramatic talent is immediately apparent in Amphitryon 38. Waggishly indicating, through his choice of title, that his is the thirty-eighth play to be based on the legend of Alcmene and Amphitryon, Giraudoux proceeds to offer a fresh, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining speculation on the nature of love, destiny, and marital fidelity. Considerably lighter in tone—and message—than such later efforts as Judith and Sodom and Gomorrah, Amphitryon 38 offers an Alcmene so thoroughly devoted to her somewhat cloddish soldier-husband as to render Jupiter’s planned seduction quite difficult indeed: Ignoring the blandishments of a flighty, flirty Leda—who, recalling a most pleasant evening with the Swan, tells her that she would be a fool to pass up the chance of a lifetime—Alcmene persists in her fidelity, unwittingly daring an increasingly frustrated Jupiter to adopt the form, shape, and even personality of her beloved Amphitryon. Beneath the diverting sexual innuendo, however, there lies a serious, thoughtful inquiry into the relationship between man and his destiny, the latter here represented by a world-weary Jupiter and his humorous, voyeuristic messenger Mercury.

Fully confident of his absolute powers, Jupiter knows that he can have Alcmene’s body any time he chooses; what he demands, however, is her consent as well, and this she steadfastly refuses to give him. Even after the seduction has in fact taken place, and Alcmene herself has begun to suspect as much, she continues to withhold her consent, symbolically defending “humanity” as manifest in the person of her limited but oddly endearing mate. Despite the tone of light comedy that reigns throughout the play, it is difficult to ignore the author’s implication that mere mortals are powerless against destiny, much as they might choose to pretend otherwise. Hercules, fruit of Jupiter’s union with Alcmene, will in fact be born.

The Enchanted

Set nostalgically in the provincial France of the author’s own childhood, The Enchanted opposes...

(The entire section is 3238 words.)