Themes and Meanings
Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s ironic horror tale is constructed on the well-known psychological observation that actors pay a heavy price for their talent in portraying the characters and emotions of others. Their concentrated efforts to “think” their way into the skin of someone else drain them of any capacity to live a life of their own. According to this view, actors are tragic figures who, by constantly assuming the identity of others, lose their own identity. The classic case is that of the sad clown, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. In France, at least, this conception originates in an essay of the eighteenth century writer Denis Diderot, who argues that a great actor’s performance is a paradox because the portrayal of strong emotion requires an actor to be cold and dispassionate while performing. If the actor actually experiences the emotion, he will lack the disciplined control he needs to project the emotion accurately.
Villiers’s tale pushes Diderot’s insight to its logical conclusion, suggesting that a lifetime of portraying the emotions of others has left Chaudval unable to experience an emotion of his own. Feeling dehumanized by that fact and desperate to rejoin the human race somehow, Chaudval becomes a grotesque figure, trapped in the paradox of his theatrical mentality and therefore unable to address his problem. The only emotions he knows are those that he has counterfeited. That is why he commits a heinous crime, and the cruel irony that results is that Chaudval is revealed to be an empty shell of a man, a ghost. A sardonic conclusion to which the story inexorably leads the reader is that, in Chaudval, and perhaps in all thespians, the actor has systematically killed the human being in himself. He becomes the victim of his art.