Aptly described by David Grossvogel as essentially Romantic in spirit, the plays of Michel de Ghelderode are perhaps closer to the nineteenth century ideals of heroism and grotesquerie than are those of any other twentieth century writer. They are very much of their own time, however, in the deliberate irony of their conception and in the author’s careful use of shifting moods and perspectives. The exchange of roles between king and jester in Escurial, for example, bears witness to a distinctly modern sensibility, as does the emotional predicament of Christopher Columbus in the play that bears his name. For Ghelderode, as for many other modern French playwrights, history serves less as context than as pretext, providing the author with a suitable forum for the expression of his personal vision; thus does Columbus undertake his journeys out of sheer boredom, only to finish the play as a statue unveiled by Buffalo Bill. A strong anticlerical streak runs through most of Ghelderode’s plays, somewhat mitigated by a spirituality that nevertheless stops short of true belief; throughout Ghelderode’s theatrical universe, religion is more often honored in the breach than in the observance, as in the emergence of Barabbas as something closely resembling a popular hero. Sensuality, another dominant characteristic, is prominent in nearly all Ghelderode’s plays, most often in its least attractive forms: Gluttony and heavy drinking loom large, as does lust, often incarnated in haglike female characters with such suggestive names as Salivaine, Visquosine, and Vénéranda. Bearing witness to the author’s abiding interest in the plastic arts and in puppetry, the best of his plays are rich both in sound and in spectacle, providing a truly unforgettable experience for actors and spectator alike.
Perhaps the best known and most frequently performed of Ghelderode’s early plays, Escurial produces a memorable theatrical experience quite out of proportion to its brevity. Set in early renaissance Spain, Escurial fully exploits the available resources of sight and sound as an unseen Queen lies on her deathbed, mourned by the impotent, decrepit King and his jester, Folial. Only gradually, against a sonorous background of howling guard dogs, does the spectator come to understand that Folial has been the Queen’s lover and that the King has poisoned her himself. In a tour de force of poetic dialogue that both recalls and transcends the best efforts of Luigi Pirandello, Ghelderode reveals each man as the other’s customarily hidden double, a revelation visually realized as they don each other’s costumes in a paroxysm of mourning and attempted gallows humor, observed only by a silent monk and a suitably ominous headsman. Predictably, the jester will pay with his life for his part in the grim charade, leaving behind him a visibly depleted and still frustrated monarch. Distinguished by the economy of its expression as well as by its highly original style, Escurial is widely recognized as one of Ghelderode’s finest achievements.
Described by its author as “a farce to make you sad in three acts, nine scenes and an epilogue,” Pantagleize differs from most of Ghelderode’s other work not only in its length but also in the author’s unaccustomed choice of modern setting and characters. Of all Ghelderode’s plays, Pantagleize is, moreover, the most unabashedly modern in form as well as in content, recalling German expressionism even as it hovers close to Symbolism.
Written expressly for the Flemish comedian Renaat Verheyen, who died at twenty-six, soon after appearing in the title role, Pantagleize depicts the troubled life and times of a nearly archetypal antihero, a “professional philosopher” whose sustained thought processes have undermined his ability “to understand anything.” Employed as a fashion writer, Pantagleize is also the author—under the pseudonym Machinski—of a well-known anticapitalist pamphlet. In truth, however, Pantagleize cares little about fashion, even less about revolution, and wants more than anything else to be left alone with his increasingly inconsequential thoughts. More or less in self-defense, he has taken to expressing himself in platitudes, of which the most famous—and most characteristic—is “What a lovely day!”
Set “in a city of Europe, on the morrow of one war and the eve of another,” Pantagleize catches and portrays with antic satire the political instability and ferment of Europe in the 1920’s, with both Right and Left held up to ridicule. Pantagleize, anticipating by some twenty years the best efforts of Adamov and Ionesco, is indeed a remarkable and prescient work, marred for modern audiences only by Ghelderode’s use of ethnic stereotypes in the creation of such characters as the jive-talking black manservant Bam-Boulah and the alluring Jewess Rachel Silberschatz. Like Ionesco in Tueur sans gages (pr., pb. 1958; The Killer, 1960) or Adamov in Tous contre tous...
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