Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
Jean Giraudoux began his writing career with the Paris newspaper Le Matin, for which he wrote many stories. It was a job that introduced him to a number of figures in the literary world. Next, he launched a career as a novelist, but it was not until 1928, with the performance of his play Siegfried, that his name became widely known. He followed up this success a year later with a greater one when Amphitryon 38 was presented. Popular as these plays were, however, Giraudoux was not taken seriously by the intellectual audience until the production of his 1935 play, Tiger at the Gates. The major theme concerns the inevitability of war, and the possibility of another war with Germany was much on the minds of Giraudoux’s French audience—of people throughout the world—in 1935.
Giraudoux’s other employment, as an inspector general of diplomatic posts abroad, did not prevent him from continuing to turn out plays and novels, and his drama Electra (1937), as the title suggests, continued his practice of using ancient Greece for the setting, a distancing device to help his audience see themselves more clearly. In his 1939 play, Ondine, he availed himself of a German legend concerning a water nymph.
A number of Giraudoux’s plays and stories were published and presented posthumously. Critical acclaim waxed throughout the 1950’s and later, and Giraudoux’s plays have been performed many times in all parts of the world. His major theme, the reconciliation of the ideal with the real, has proven popular in decades of rapid social change, decades that have required continual readjustment on the part of those who have had to live through them. One of his favorite devices—putting contemporary sentiments and expressions in the mouths of figures from ancient legends—provides the pleasures of incongruity. This device is well illustrated by Amphitryon 38. The number presumably signifies that the author is aware of the fact that many writers before him have made use of this legend, although there may have been more or fewer than thirty-seven precursors. Gods and mortals alike give the impression that they are acting in roles, rather than being themselves; they take themselves either too seriously or not quite seriously enough; they insist too much on their identities, or they are too offhand with them. They may bear the names and wear the costumes of the gods and heroes of ancient Greece, but they appear to suffer some impairment of memory about who they are and how they should act. Another way of saying this is to point out that they appear to be what they are in truth: contemporary people dressed up as, and pretending to be, ancient Greeks. This incongruity encourages readers to think that, superficial (and amusing) distinctions aside, the ancients were not much different from people today, and there is a human nature whose relationship to the cosmos and to the divine transcends social change. Another effect of this technique is to bestow some of the dignity of the old myths upon the contemporary world, turning what would otherwise be a 1920’s drawing-room comedy into something loftier, an embodied disquisition upon man, woman, and the divine. Giraudoux’s interest in the institution of marriage drives the drama. For a man of his day, Giraudoux was something of a feminist, and Alkmena evinces his feminism. It is necessary to exempt her character from most of the preceding generalities. Seriousness has its home in her, in this play. None of the other characters can match her for depth and variety. She is not without flaws, but these only serve to enhance her credibility; for example, having persuaded Jupiter not to insist on making love with her, she worries that she is losing her sex appeal. Beside her, even Mercury, a glib and witty figure, and certainly Amphitryon and Jupiter, look flat and two-dimensional.
The play concerns the irrational forces that bring about passionate love and lust and that cause wars to be fought, won, and lost. The gods rule over these—or are people’s creations, on whom people lay the blame for their irrationality. As mere mortals, what can people do when taken over by divine madness? What can people do, as sometimes rational creatures, to regulate their lives, to spare pain to themselves and to others, to live at one with the cosmos? The answers mostly lie with Alkmena. She has none of Leda’s giddy lust and vanity; Alkmena would rather not lie with Jupiter. She does not wish for immortality; she has no envy of the gods. She loves her husband, and she wants only their faithfulness to each other. If, nevertheless, she commits adultery with Jupiter, and she contrives affairs so that Amphitryon is adulterous with Leda, and if she is pregnant with Hercules, Jupiter’s son, still, none of these deeds or results are within her capacity to prevent or avoid. In this way, Giraudoux’s play exudes an air of forgiveness, of tolerance and acceptance. Mortals have limits, and ignorance and forgetfulness can prove to be happy failings. Deceit, where it offers and intends no harm, may be preferable to the truth; it can certainly be kinder.
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