Ghelderode, Michel de 1898–1962
A Flemish dramatist, poet, short story writer, and essayist, Ghelderode was born Ademar Martens, but legally changed his name in 1929. His characters live in a world that is grotesque and fantastic—the world of Peter Breughel and Hieronymous Bosch. They portray themes drawn from history and from the Bible, but shrouded in death, evil, and decay. He has created works to be performed by marionettes, and often gives puppet-like qualities to his human characters. Ghelderode's work shows the influence of Poe, with whom he shares a love of the mystical. His masterful command of language evokes a supernatural atmosphere that is reinforced by striking visual and aural effects. (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)
The surface characteristics of Ghelderode's universe are dazzling. In many of his plays masqueraders, grotesque figures, living corpses, gluttonous and lustful men and women frantically move about in a decor of purple shadows, full of strong smells, and throw violent, foul, or mysterious phrases at each other in highly colored language filled with Belgian idioms, archaisms, and shrieks. Even in the plays where the language is closest to modern French, the dialogue and long speeches are profuse and frenetic. There is no rest in Ghelderode's theatre; the shock is permanent. Everything is pushed toward a paroxysm of language and spectacle—a flamboyant theatre, based on Flemish culture, its legends, its humor, its puppets, and its painters, from Brueghel the elder to James Ensor. But in overstressing Ghelderode's Flemish background, so obvious in itself, one is in danger of losing sight of his works' deeper value and of seeing them only as an overwhelming display of folklore. A joyful or macabre kermis, his theatre uses the village fair, the mountebank's stage, overcrowded cabarets, and the swarming streets of the red-light districts as an image of man's condition. Thus the picturesque quality of this tumultuous world becomes more than just a curiosity: rather than set up a barrier of exoticism, it heightens the colors of man's everyday world.
Ghelderode was aware of the reciprocal relations between life and the masquerade of carnival…. Often a character and his theatrical image are opposed or juxtaposed…. Although these effects, midway between Pirandello's and Genet's, may sometimes be somewhat oversimple or, on the contrary, rather obscure, they do help to make Ghelderode's works a kind of theatre of theatre. Using clowns, mimes, jesters, and masqueraders, Ghelderode opposes more charitable images of Creation with his vision of life as a parody of Creation, as a painful Farce. (pp. 165-66)
One substance of this enormous Farce is felt in all its frankness and weight—the flesh. It may sometimes have its charms, as in Hop Signor!, with the executioner Larose, the "handsome blond athlete" who chews roses. But usually it is deformed, obscene, stinking, and always demanding. Brought into play by every possible means, it nails the characters to earth. Even in suffering it is the object of...
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The two principal reasons for Ghelderode's attraction to puppet theatre are his dissatisfaction with living actors and his inclination toward caricature. (p. 973)
A devout Pauline Catholic, Ghelderode sees man as the puppet and God as the puppet master. By employing the world-as-stage metaphor, Ghelderode is able vividly and dramatically to place man in the religious scheme of things: namely, at the end of a string drawn by the hand of God. In the diction of puppetry, Ghelderode finds a vehicle to describe his own search for God and for personal meaning….
However, there is a more practical reason for Ghelderode to promote the use of puppets in place of actors: marionette theatre offers an inexpensive forum for young or unproven playwrights…. Marionette theatre provides a means of breaking away from stale dramatic conventions and of encouraging improvisation. (p. 974)
Like Pirandello, Ghelderode believes that flesh and blood actors, popular opinion to the contrary, are the ones who destroy a playwright's creation through their inept, stumbling attempts to recreate the dramatist's conception of his characters. The problem is that the actors' own personalities, gestures, faces, voices, and histories are glaring reminders to the audience that what they are seeing is not an embodiment of the playwright's character, but only an imperfect look-alike, a feeble attempt by a man to be someone he is not. Ghelderode treats this problem of the actor's inherent duality of character in Trois Acteurs, un drame. In this play three actors virtually destroy a play in which they are acting because they cannot prevent their own personal complications from becoming inextricably involved with their acting. (pp. 974-75)...
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