Paul Willems Essay - Critical Essays


Although the intersection of Germanic and Gallic cultures enriched his dramatic imagination, Paul Willems became caught in a cultural no-man’s-land when it became “politically incorrect” for Flemish authors to write in French. Language itself was a recurring preoccupation in his drama, and he depicted numerous characters suffering from mutilated speech. However, Willems also played with language, delighting in rhythms, rhymes, puns, and invented words. His poetic dialogue weaves a magical spell to enchant the audience into entering a dream world that coexists with what is called “reality.”

Willems’s work reveals the allegorical tendencies and blend of earthiness and mysticism characteristic of Belgian literature. Other influences cited by critics include German Romanticism, Surrealism, and Magical Realism. Willems, however, refused to ally himself with any literary movement, citing his belief in freedom of thought.

Turning to the theater with Le Bon Vin de Monsieur Nuche, Willems translated into theatrical terms the rhythmic musicality and sensory imagery of his novels. Like Le Bon Vin de Monsieur Nuche, his third play, Peau d’ours, was adapted from a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Initially misled by the whimsy of Willems’s early plays, critics only later recognized the underlying irony and cruelty characteristic of his mature drama. Underneath the humor and fanciful word-play of Willems’s theatrical fairy tales lurked the darkness of the Brothers Grimm, as Willems sardonically watched the world lurch toward a fate described by the name he gave his feline narrator of Nuit avec ombres en couleurs: Cat Astrophe.

Peau d’ours

For Peau d’ours (bearskin), Willems adapted the Grimm tale of a soldier who must wear a bearskin for seven years as a result of a deal with the devil. In Willems’s version, the devil is transformed into a pair of matchmaking woodpeckers, and the soldier’s goal is no longer wealth but purification through love. Certainly, the allegory of a soldier’s soul healed of war guilt helps to explain the popularity of Peau d’ours in postwar Germany, where it underwent more than nine hundred performances.

It’s Raining in My House

Produced by the Rideau de Bruxelles in 1962, the play became a perennial favorite, with...

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