Reflecting their creator’s belief in the self-sufficiency and freedom of the individual, most of the characters of Henry de Montherlant fight to maintain or to acquire liberty. Given this premise, threats to freedom come mostly from the outside, although sometimes from within an individual who is attracted by an easy way out. Such challenges must be met head on, according to Montherlant, for there is no compromise possible. The opposition between the spiritual race of the pure and the intransigent, which he claims as his own, and the ersatz race of compromisers is at the core of his best plays. Those characters with whom he sympathizes are clearly the ones who say no to modest, moderate, middle-of-the-road positions. If, in the process of saying no, they lose a privileged status, or even their life, they will have had a chance to breathe the rarefied, precious air of the Parnassian heights where heroes and heroines dwell in singular splendor.
Queen After Death
It is in Queen After Death that these ideas first crystalize. Montherlant transforms the legend of Inés de Castro into a play of grandeur. Passion and duty clash in strong and weak characters, and one or the other wins according to the virility or femininity of the persons involved. If events have an almost hormonal explanation, it is because once all sentimentality has been purged, the physical reigns paramount. Ferrante, the King of Portugal, according to custom but also in the interest of political expediency, has arranged for his son, Pedro, to marry the Infanta of Navarre. Pedro, however, has already been married in secret to Inés de Castro, who is now pregnant. Faced with his father’s authority, Pedro hesitates enough to give the king the courage to order the death of Inés. The son’s feminine makeup, even more accentuated than that of the two rival women, suggests neither flight, nor any other solution. Ferrante, on the other hand, is not being a bad father. He is fully aware of duty to family and to state, but between the two there is no compromise, and he is willing to sacrifice the first to the second even at the expense of changing from a moral being into a hateful, amoral subperson. Like Ferrante, the infanta accepts her defeat and returns to Navarre in dignity, if in sadness. Inés, on the other hand, like Pedro feminine and sentimental, appears to be a likely victim of Ferrante’s decisiveness, for, after all, in the real world only the fit have the upper hand and deserve to survive.
Even more than Ferrante, Sigismond Malatesta of Rimini, the hero of Malatesta, displays the qualities of the pure and the intransigent. Not merely taking on a son and his wife, as did Ferrante, Malatesta is pitted against Pope Paul II himself, who wishes to remove the hero from his post. None of Malatesta’s friends, least of all Porcellio, his best friend, is willing to help, and so Malatesta, unperturbed, arranges the pope’s assassination without assistance. A poetic duel of words takes place between hero and pope in act 2, and Montherlant is to be given credit for putting valid, human, and humane arguments in the mouths of both, even though the author clearly sympathizes with Malatesta. In the following act, Porcellio betrays his master and poisons him. In the final act, one learns the reason for Porcellio’s betrayal: Once Malatesta had saved his life, and Porcellio, for as long as Malatesta is alive, will owe his life to him. Yet, a free individual cannot owe anything to anyone, for dependence, no matter what its origin, belittles, humiliates, and erases the humanity of people. Porcellio has no choice but to kill his benefactor in order to regain his freedom. The giver must never be forgiven the sin of giving.
Notwithstanding the events, all the main characters admire one another: Malatesta reveres the pope and understands very clearly his political motivation; the pope appreciates Malatesta’s qualities of leadership, which, in fact, are so good that in the long run they might prove dangerous; Malatesta loves Porcellio’s mind, and in his company reveals in discussions of philosophy and metaphysics; and Porcellio, grateful to Malatesta, shares the latter’s delight in the virtuosity of their debates. Were it not that the self-sufficiency of each is endangered by the others, there would be no tragedy. Yet tragedy there must be, for without it there is no purity. It is interesting to note that the minor characters in the play (as in many other plays of Montherlant) are not driven to a tragic ending, for theirs is a stability that does not reach beyond, a complacence based on mediocrity. Isotta, Malatesta’s wife; Vannella, Malatesta’s mistress; and the other minor figures were born to serve, are content in so doing, and wish no more, for anything else would detract from their comatose existence. Malatesta may be temporarily lured, especially by the thirteen-year-old beauty Vannella, but having used his mistress, as is his right, he reasserts his independence.
The Master of Santiago
In The Master of Santiago, Montherlant’s most Christian and most Jansenist play, the dichotomy between contemplation and action is fully explored. All religions, but especially Christianity, must somehow reach a compromise between their sociopolitical functions and the duty of each individual to save his own soul. Don Alvaro, Knight of the Order of Santiago, whose mission is to convert the Indians of the New World, scorns the efforts he directs. He is aware of the compromises involved, of their ultimate futility, and he chooses to isolate himself from the concerns inherent in his post. On a domestic level, he would like to see his daughter, Mariana, give up her love for, and impending marriage with, Jacinto, so that she, too, may be freed from the degradation of living with another human being. In the beginning, she resists, but in the end she is persuaded that the institution of the family is an obstacle to grandeur and to salvation: Is this not the very reason why Catholic priests are not permitted to marry and why members of contemplative orders are closest to God?
Mariana’s conversion to Montherlantean ideals recalls the final attitude of the infanta in Queen After Death, just as the makeup of Don Alvaro presents similarities with that of Ferrante. To be sure, such extreme asocial attitudes as depicted constantly by the playwright may, for many, damage the verisimilitude of the characters;...
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