Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2193
Article abstract: Giraudoux’s plays dominated the French theater of the 1930’s; his work for the stage sustained the aesthetic revolution begun after World War I and anticipated the avant-garde developments of the 1940’s. A prolific essayist, Giraudoux wrote novels and short stories that continued the tradition of highly stylized, imagistic fiction established by Symbolist writers.
Hippolyte-Jean Giraudoux and his elder brother, Alexandre, enjoyed the idyllic childhood experience of growing up in the tranquil province of Limousin in central France. Their father, Léger, was a government surveyor and inspector, and the family moved often. Several towns from Giraudoux’s boyhood appear as fictionalized locales in his writings. His mother, Anne (née Lacoste), was highly cultivated and guided her sons through high school in Châteauroux. Giraudoux received a scholarship to study at the Lakanal Preparatory School in Paris; he was admitted to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1903.
Giraudoux distinguished himself as a well-rounded high school student; his principal interests were classical literature, German, Spanish, acting, and sports. At the École Normale Supérieure, he began to concentrate on German Romanticism, which inspired him deeply. In 1906, with a press card from Le Figaro, he traveled through Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland in the company of Paul Morand, the son of a curator at the Louvre. Before returning to France, Giraudoux taught French to the Prince of Saxe-Meiningen. In 1907, he went to Harvard University as an exchange student. At this time, he apparently decided to pursue a diplomatic career. After receiving le diplôme supérieur in German philology, he began his writing career by contributing stories to Le Matin, a Parisian newspaper that he edited. A collection of essays entitled Provinciales was published in 1909. An assortment of stories, L’École des indifférents (the school for the uncommitted), appeared in 1910 while Giraudoux was preparing to take examinations for the French Foreign Ministry. By 1913, he had risen to the rank of vice consul, and he served on diplomatic missions to northern Russia and the Orient.
Giraudoux became the protégé of Philippe Berthelot, an influential administrator at the Quai d’Orsay. During World War I, Giraudoux was wounded during the Battle of the Marne. He recuperated in Paris and returned to active service as a lieutenant in the Dardanelles campaign. He was wounded again, and an intestinal ailment weakened him considerably. In 1916, he was sent to Lisbon to train Portuguese soldiers, and the following year he joined a mission of French military instructors at Harvard. In the years after the war, he continued to write essays and stories (some based on his war experiences), married Suzanne Boland, and became head of Le Service des Oeuvres Françaises à l’Étranger, a government agency that promoted French culture. Several successful novels contributed to his reputation as an influential figure in French literary circles.
Giraudoux’s prestige was enhanced when Siegfried et le Limousin (My Friend from Limousin, 1923) won the Prix Balzac (the award was split) of 1922. This intriguing novel explores multilevel relationships between France and Germany. The two protagonists—one a German Francophile, the other a French Germanophile—represent characters caught between two abstractions. Prussian nationalism and its accompanying industrialization are weighed against the Romantic ideals of an older Germany as Giraudoux articulated the reciprocal qualities of two cultures. The rarefied diction and libertarian gaiety became trademarks of Giraudoux’s theatrical style.
The novel Bella (1925; English translation, 1927) is a political roman à clef in which the characters re-create the feud between Philippe Berthelot and Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré, who disgraced his rival in 1924 and demoted Giraudoux to embassy secretary in Berlin. Giraudoux’s defense of Berthelot represents his political philosophy regarding the ideal statesman. These political views crystallized in 1935 when he reacted to Adolf Hitler’s rearmament program by writing one of his most famous plays, Le Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (Tiger at the Gates, 1955).
Giraudoux, who often wrote under a pseudonym, reintroduced some of the characters from Bella in a series of intercalated novels and stories. In these works, he examined the contrast between purists, often ambiguous, beguiling women, and pragmatists. The purists invest their daydreams with a false charm that prevents them from realizing their dreams. This theme is developed in his tragedies; the tragic character is torn between self-fulfillment and the world of practical affairs. The only resolution is the middle way between egoism and madness. Giraudoux endowed these distinctions, labeled by critics as a divorce between humanity and destiny, with symbolic resonances suitable to numerous interpretations, as in Eglantine (1927), a novel that analyzed the fundamental incompatibility of Eastern and Western thought.
Giraudoux’s later fiction, written when his success as a playwright was at its zenith, is filled with poetic suggestiveness and picaresque adventures. Combat avec l’ange (1934) attempts to personify peace in the figure of a tormented woman who influences the prime minister of France, modeled on Aristide Briand, the statesman who advocated peace between France and Germany. Choix des élues (choices of the elite), published in 1938, is set in the United States. Giraudoux’s characteristic ingenuity is restricted by the melodramatic scenarios that he attempts to elevate by seriousness of purpose. The neurotic heroine was criticized by Giraudoux’s detractors for being a conventional dilettante. Giraudoux himself never fully shook off his mondain image. He is perhaps best understood as an unpredictable, not enigmatic, writer whose verve and whimsical flair were complemented by the discretion mastered by a polished diplomat. These qualities are manifestly evident in his plays.
In 1926, Giraudoux was introduced to Louis Jouvet, a talented actor, director, and producer interested primarily in innovative theater. Two years before this meeting, Giraudoux had reworked parts of My Friend from Limousin for the stage. Jouvet encouraged further development of this enterprise. With the collaboration of Benjamin Crémieux, a noted critic, Jouvet pared down Giraudoux’s manuscript and directed a successful production entitled Siegfried (English translation, 1930) in May, 1928, at his own playhouse, La Comédie des Champs-Elysées. At this time, the topicality of Franco-German rapprochement was of great interest and the play ran for 283 performances.
Siegfried offers poignant dialogue and solid structure, but it lacks the ebullient magic and effervescent wit that epitomize Giraudoux’s most popular plays. Among these are Amphitryon 38 (1929; English translation, 1938), a reenactment of the Greek myth with several modern twists; Intermezzo (1933; The Enchanted, 1950), a play that analyzes the blandishments of provincial life; Ondine (1939; English translation, 1954), an unabashedly sensual fantasy based on the 1811 novel by Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué in which a water sprite marries a knight but can live on earth only as long as he remains faithful to her; and Électre (1937; Electra, 1952), a powerful modern rendition of the drama by Aeschylus, with a subplot that presents a counterargument to Electra’s implacable revenge against her father’s murderers. In addition to these, Giraudoux wrote five plays that analyzed irreconcilable love affairs from a relativistic perspective. These plays, varying from one to three acts, interpret biblical or classical themes in a modern setting.
Tiger at the Gates is a compelling study of the responsibility of individuals and nations preparing for war. Giraudoux re-creates the atmosphere of the Trojan War as Ulysses and Hector negotiate for peace. Giraudoux introduces the character of Demokos, a demagogue too old to fight, in order to criticize the failure of diplomacy. This play, with its astonishing balance between apparently inconsequential action and forces that shape human destiny, captured the cynical mood of the late 1930’s as Europe moved toward cataclysm, the tiger stalking outside the gates of Troy.
Giraudoux’s other acknowledged masterpiece, La Folle de Chaillot (The Madwoman of Chaillot, 1947), was written in 1943 but published and produced in 1945. General Charles de Gaulle attended the opening performance, which was directed by Jouvet. The philosophic optimism of the play and the assortment of eccentric characters (“the friends of vegetables”) matched the exuberant spirit of France during postwar years. Thus, this modern morality play became part of the permanent repertoire of numerous established theaters. The lucid lunatic of the title, who refers to herself as Countess Aurélie, devises a clever plan to prevent a team of speculators from razing Paris in order to exploit petroleum reserves below ground. The countess tricks these power brokers into entering a trap where they are entombed. A young couple is instructed to kiss, and the world is suddenly saved from apathy and the brutalities of commerce.
When war was declared in 1939, Giraudoux was appointed haut commissaire à l’information under Prime Minister Édouard Daladier. When the Vichy regime was installed, Marshall Philippe Pétain granted Giraudoux a sinecure as curator of historical monuments, but he soon resigned in order to document secretly abuses by German Occupation troops for the Resistance movement. This effort counteracts the opinion that his political views were nebulous. During the war years, he suffered from bronchitis and a chronic stomach ailment. In this weakened condition, he suddenly died on January 31, 1944, from complications of uremia and food poisoning. Rumors spread that the Gestapo had arranged his death, and an article by the poet Louis Aragon in Ce Soir (September 20, 1944) sustained this view. There is little evidence, however, to support the theory.
Jean Giraudoux’s dramas have been favorably compared to the theater of ideas associated with George Bernard Shaw. Jouvet’s lavish productions adumbrated Giraudoux’s debt to Jean Racine, whose verbal precision and principles of foregrounding often produce a cinematic clarity. Giraudoux wrote the screenplay for two highly acclaimed films in which the combination of slow-motion techniques and scenes shot in rapid succession yielded dazzling improvisational effects. This creativity is evident in Giraudoux’s obliquely ironic dialogue and appropriateness of metaphor. Known among friends as a prankster, Giraudoux brought the same sense of frivolity to the stage through which idiosyncrasies were raised to the level of elegance and posturing was reduced to insignificance.
Jean-Paul Sartre concluded that Giraudoux’s use of archetypes of form and character places him squarely among Aristotelian thinkers who traditionally examine disillusionment and conversion. Unlike Aristotle, however, Giraudoux distrusted systems of classification. The social and psychological climate of the 1920’s and 1930’s is accurately reproduced in his works, even in the indirect context and coded language of the metaphysical fantasies. In his political essays, he addressed the major issues of the period with insight and sincerity. He had a unique way of expressing the most fugitive intuitions of the human mind. His imaginative writings revived the freshness of a world exhausted from pejorative habits of thought and conditioned responses. In the final analysis, Giraudoux was a consummate stylist who celebrated the diversity of life.
Cohen, Robert. Giraudoux: Three Faces of Destiny. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. A thematic study of the theater of Giraudoux in which twelve major plays are divided into three tetralogies or “faces”—politics, fantasy, and sexuality. Contains a bibliography.
Inskip, Donald. Jean Giraudoux: The Making of a Dramatist. London: Oxford University Press, 1958. Attempts to evaluate Giraudoux’s accomplishments as a playwright in the larger context of the literature of the 1920’s and 1930’s; thus, Inskip makes connections to Giraudoux’s prose. Full of theatrical anecdotes that illuminate the relationship between Giraudoux and Jouvet.
Lemaître, Georges. Jean Giraudoux: The Writer and His Work. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1971. Sees Giraudoux as idealist, fatalist, and moralist weighted by a growing sense of despair as Europe moved inexorably toward war. Impressively documented but marred by a rhetorical Gallic style that relies heavily on abstractions.
Le Sage, Laurent. Jean Giraudoux: His Life and Works. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1959. This wide-ranging and incisive study by a scholar who compiled an exhaustive bibliography of Giraudoux’s works is concerned with the various forms of the plays and with the basic procedures of Giraudoux’s art. Carefully explores the use of images and articulates Giraudoux’s virtuosity as innovator and tragic poet.
Mankin, Paul A. Precious Irony: The Theatre of Jean Giraudoux. The Hague: Mouton, 1971. Giraudoux’s unpretentious drama of sight and sound is regarded as a willful distortion of realistic images. Compares Giraudoux to mannerist painters and praises his humanism as a realization of human limitations.
Raymond, Agnes G. Jean Giraudoux: The Theatre of Victory and Defeat. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1966. Based on an earlier study, this work looks closely at the hidden agenda in the Siegfried writings (1922-1934) and at the theater during the Occupation.
Reilly, John H. Jean Giraudoux. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Biographically comprehensive but oversimplified. Giraudoux’s characters seem one-dimensional; underlines the number of alienated heroes and heroines.
Tulane Drama Review 3, no. 4 (May, 1959). A special issue devoted to Giraudoux with contributions from distinguished critics who study such things as Giraudoux’s connection to classical tragedy, his comic liveliness and Symbolist imagination, and theatrical improvisation. Includes Jean Anouilh’s whimsical “Letter to Giraudoux” as a literary frontispiece and translations of two one-act plays.
Valencey, Maurice. “Giraudoux.” The End of the World: An Introduction to Contemporary Drama. London: Oxford University Press, 1980. In this one-hundred-page essay, Valencey discusses the five plays that he adapted between 1954 and 1959 when nine of Giraudoux’s plays were produced on Broadway. He emphasizes the architecture of the plays and offers perceptive plot analyses.