Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033
In The Madwoman of Chaillot, Jean Giraudoux orchestrates three of his recurring themes: the inscrutability of woman, the love of humanity, and the abhorrence of materialism. For one who is familiar with all of Giraudoux’s plays, the antiwar theme is implied in the latter. Stylistically, Giraudoux employs two of his favorite devices: the fantastic parable and the duality of character. The resulting impact of The Madwoman of Chaillot is that it possesses a remarkable unity of form and idea, the unifying theme being the writer’s love and faith in the triumph of the human entity in a time of despair. Giraudoux knew something about living in a time of despair.
A very important aspect of The Madwoman of Chaillot involves the time of its composition: The play was written by Giraudoux toward the end of the period during which the Germans occupied Paris (from June, 1940, to August, 1944) during World War II. Giraudoux died in the winter of 1943-1944, months before the Allies’ invasion of Normandy and the Germans’ departure from the city.
Although the play makes no clear mention of the war and there are no direct references to the terrible deprivations suffered by Parisians throughout the Occupation, the play premiered during the first theater season after the liberation of France. Critical responses to this work therefore have frequently been influenced by the knowledge that Giraudoux’s attitude toward his own country’s defeat and the Occupation was far from positive. For this reason, many have continued to see in the play a commentary on France’s ability to resist the fascist oppression of the Nazis. Such an interpretation, which helped make this play a worldwide success, is dependent on an awareness of the period during which the play was written and of the playwright’s sympathies, because the script itself seems curiously quiet about such issues.
The Madwoman of Chaillot offers a blend of fantasy and realism in presenting its setting, characters, and story. For example, Chaillot, which is the area located directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, seems, in the play, a timeless place. There are few references to everyday life, and little appears on stage to suggest any specific part of the actual neighborhood. The play lacks any authentic sense of geography: This Chaillot is a charming, bustling neighborhood filled with funny and interesting people who seem to come and go quite freely. Most of the characters are referred to not by name but by who they are or what they do—the Ragpicker, the Baron, and the Policeman, for example. The majority of the more than forty characters who populate The Madwoman of Chaillot appear to be self-consciously playing their parts in a highly theatricalized environment. Against the fantastical backdrop, only a few characters stand out as genuine individuals, notably the Madwomen, who claim particular Paris neighborhoods as their domains: Mme Constance of Passy; Mlle Gabrielle of St. Sulpice; Mme Josephine of La Concorde; and the Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot.
The play’s theme is that society is redeemed by those it chooses to label insane. The mad are portrayed in the play as charmingly nonconformist, resistant, and enterprisingly clever. The madness of Countess Aurelia, for example, is liberating in its bold honesty and candor. She is allowed to make whatever remarks she wishes—after all, the woman is crazy—but consistently through the play, her comments, even with all their amusing idiosyncrasies, seem to contain the truth. Eccentric and suspended in a sweeter, happier past, the Madwoman of Chaillot becomes a worthy opponent to those forces who would destroy the beauty of Paris and of the life that may be lived there.
The plot to convert the enchanting city into an oil field is led by a group of highly disagreeable men who lust after money. These characters are painted with broad, often stereotypical strokes: They are quite similar and operate as an effective unit. Opposed to these evil, titled plutocrats and vile money-grubbers are the Waiter, the Ragpicker, the Flower Girl, the Street Singer, the Shoelace Peddler—in other words, the many, varied people who inhabit the play’s magical Chaillot. Much of the conflict in the play pits these interesting individuals against the devious, faceless businessmen.
Between these two extremes stands Countess Aurelia, who mediates between the juxtaposed realities of the people and the businessmen. Her attempt to convince Pierre that life is wonderful provides her with her first opportunity to express the play’s view of life—that it is worth living. Later, when the trial begins in the Madwoman’s basement, she is able to add that what is worth living is worth protecting. The scene in which the enemies of human existence, who wish to turn the city into an ugly, moneymaking machine, are lured into the Paris sewers dramatizes the play’s message that if people are willing to fight for what is beautiful, the world will become a better place. No sooner have the villains disappeared than Paris is transfigured.
Although Giraudoux should not be considered a feminist, his play carefully contrasts the materialistic world—led by males—with the sensibilities associated with females. Rather than succumb to the enticements of finances and money, the Madwoman of Chaillot is triumphant in maintaining her values. In this idealized setting, the appreciation of beauty and truth conquers the excesses of capitalism.
As noted above, Giraudoux’s fanciful drama scored a major success when it premiered. It was admiringly received by critics and audiences not only in Paris but also in London, New York, and other major theater centers all over the world. Wherever it was produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it enjoyed long runs and revivals. By the 1970’s, however, audiences seemed to find The Madwoman of Chaillot somewhat dated, even naïve, and literary critics, who had once been interested in Giraudoux, lost interest in him. This play, certainly the dramatist’s best-known work, is still produced in France and elsewhere, but it is often regarded as charming but lightweight fare. Perhaps its sense of whimsy and its rather straightforward way of dramatizing how complex problems might be solved seem too simple for modern theatergoers.
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