Michel de Ghelderode 1898-1962
(Born Adolphe-Adhémar-Louis-Michel Martens) Belgian dramatist, poet, and fiction writer.
Ghelderode's plays have often been described as precursors to the New French theater of the 1950s and the theater of the absurd, but for the most part, his work defies easy categorization. Combining farce, tragedy, medieval morality plays, and imagery from Renaissance art, as well as such modern elements as film and expressionist set design, Ghelderode's plays—which were sometimes intended to be performed by marionettes—are often frenetic displays criticizing and lamenting the grotesqueries of the human condition.
Born in Ixelles, Belgium, in 1898, Ghelderode suffered from ill health as a child. He attended the Institut St-Louis from 1910 to 1914, but a serious illness that left him partially paralyzed forced him to abandon school and most of his favorite activities. Instead, he turned to literature as a source of amusement and creative inspiration. In 1916 he began to write his own works in French. La mort regarde à la fenêtre (Death Looks In at the Window) was produced in 1918, followed by Le repas des fauves in 1919. Ghelderode, however, became discouraged by the public's lukewarm response to his works; he left the theater scene for several years but continued to write. In 1921 and 1922 he was a professor at the Institut Dupuich but resigned because of ill health. The following year he worked as a bookseller. In 1923 Ghelderode earned the post of archives editor in the Communale de Schaerbeek, where he worked in a variety of capacities until 1945. In 1924 Ghelderode married Jeanne-Françoise Gérard. That year he also began contributing to such publications as La Flandre littéraire and La Renaissance d'Occident and wrote plays for the puppet theater Les Marionnettes de la Renaissance d'Occident. Ghelderode began staging plays again in 1925, working with the Dutch producer Johan de Meester; their collaboration lasted until 1930. Although published volumes of his plays made him well known in parts of Western Europe, Ghelderode completely gave up writing plays in 1939. Between 1946 and 1953 he wrote for Le Journal de Bruges. Despite his abandonment of the theater and a life in seclusion with his wife, Ghelderode was highly successful as a playwright. A 1949 production of Fastes d'enfer (Chronicles of Hell), originally written in 1929, caused a huge scandal on its opening night, an event that ensured his popularity. Until his death in 1962, Ghelderode received many honors and awards, and his plays were successfully produced on both the stage and the radio.
Ghelderode's plays have been described as visual interpretations of the tension between nightmare and reality. Strongly influenced by the art of the Renaissance in Europe, Ghelderode based many of his themes and much of his imagery on paintings by Hieronymous Bosch, El Greco, Goya, and Pieter Brueghel the elder, evoking the universal monstrosities of humankind as well as violence and alienation in the modern world. Ghelderode's plays are also known for being noisy and colorful spectacles, using various sound effects to punctuate the grotesque and cacophonous nature of nightmare and the vulgarity of waking life. Throughout his canon, Ghelderode held to several overriding themes: that the little virtue that exists in the world is almost always overcome by vice; that people are repeatedly and tragically seduced by illusions; and that cruelty directs most human actions. Ghelderode's first important play, La mort du Docteur Faust (The Death of Doctor Faust; 1928) is a twentieth-century interpretation of the Faust myth. Its subtitle, “A Music-Hall Tragedy,” indicates Ghelderode's notion of life as an absurd carnival. In this version of the story, Faust leaves his sixteenth-century intellectual world to seek existential answers in a twentieth-century café. There his personality splits into two parts—actor and character—and the Devil, who has been watching the events as they unfold, declares in the end that neither is the true Faust; meanwhile, both Fausts are killed, and a servant dressed in Faust's clothing advances toward Faust's love Marguerite. Christophe Colomb (Christopher Columbus; 1929) is a farce satirizing the title character's search for a new and better world. Escurial (1929) is set in the early Renaissance. A king and his jester play a game that becomes increasingly bitter and sinister as it is revealed that the jester has been the queen's lover and that the king has poisoned her. In Pantagleize (1930), which has a modern setting, Ghelderode bitterly criticized capitalism. The title character, described as a “little man,” becomes swept up in violent events when he inadvertently utters the password signaling the start of a revolution. Fastes d'enfer is a vehement attack on hypocrisy in religion and the barbarism in its followers. In Magie rouge (Red Magic; 1934), set in medieval Flanders, the avaricious main character withholds sex from his virgin wife because he doesn't want to waste his strength, while she plots against him with three thieves. The play ends in a violent and bloody betrayal. La Balade du grand macabre (The Grand Macabre's Stroll; 1953), a play that strongly resembles the paintings of Bosch, is a farce that features a character who claims to be Death incarnate. Announcing that the end of the world has come, he locks a pair of lovers in a tomb, insisting that they will have to repopulate the earth, and then goes on a drinking binge with friends. By the end of the day it becomes clear that the world will not end; the lovers are released, and everyone goes on as before, suggesting that even the threat of death is ultimately impotent and absurd.
Although not widely embraced because of their pessimistic tone and absurdist plots, Ghelderode's plays have earned the admiration of many theater critics, professionals, and audiences around the world, who cite his poetic expression of esoteric themes as a major attraction to his work. Additionally, Ghelderode's use of influences ranging from paintings to folklore to Gothic literature lends a sense of romanticism to his otherwise grim subject matter. Despite the acclaim and awards he received in the last years of his life, Ghelderode himself insisted that his works were intended to attract popular, not critical, attention.