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...
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