Michel de Ghelderode Ghelderode, Michel de - Essay

Adémar-Adolphe-Louis Martens


(Drama Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

La mort regarde à la fenêtre [Death Looks in at the Window] 1918

Le repas des fauves 1919

La farce de la Mort qui faillit trepasser [published in 1952] 1925

Oude Piet [published in 1925] 1925

Images de la vie de St François d' Assise [Images of the Life of St. Francis of Assisi; published in 1928] 1927

Barabbas [published in 1932] 1928

*Don Juan, ou Les amants chimériques [Don Juan, or The Chimerical Lovers] 1928

La mort du Docteur Faust [The Death of Doctor Faust; published in 1925–26] 1928

Christophe Colomb [Christopher Columbus; published in 1927] 1929

Escurial [published in 1927–28] 1929

Pantagleize [published in 1929 and 1934] 1930

Trois acteurs, un drame [Three Actors and Their Drama] 1931

Le siège d'Ostende [The Siege of Ostend] 1933

*Les femmes au tombeau [The Women at the Tomb] 1934

Mademoiselle Jaïre [Miss Jairus; published in 1942] 1934

Magie rouge [Red Magic; published in 1935] 1934

Le mystère de la passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ [The Mystery of the...

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Micheline Herz (essay date 1962)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tragedy, Poetry and the Burlesque in Ghelderode's Theatre,” in Yale French Studies, No. 29, 1962, pp. 92-101.

[In the following essay, Herz asserts that Ghelderode uses burlesque in his plays to emphasize the ambiguity of the human condition.]

At every level, including the level of appearance, Michel de Ghelderode's theatre abounds in burlesque elements. There is nothing glorious about his men, nor about his women either. However upsetting some people may find this, it is clear that Ghelderode himself, as manifested in his plays, reveled in such an atmosphere. Monsters and misshapen beings accost us at every turn. Women, apart from a few saints and other...

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Samuel Draper (essay date 1963)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Michel de Ghelderode: A Personal Statement,” in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall 1963, pp. 33-38.

[In the following review, Draper presents a personal portrait of Ghelderode to gain greater understanding of his work.]

The masks Ghelderode wore for the world were in many ways unfortunate because they alienated him from his contemporaries. His weird poses frightened many admirers away, denying them the happiness of knowing Ghelderode personally. That Ghelderode's art has a secure place in modern dramatic literature is almost universally agreed. That he was an affectionate, exemplary friend, a lovable man, that he possessed a droll sense of humor,...

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Auréliu Weiss (essay date 1963)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Theatrical World of Michel de Ghelderode,” in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall 1963, pp. 51-61.

[In the following essay, Weiss presents an overview of major themes in Ghelderode's plays.]

The recent death of Ghelderode has awakened renewed interest in his drama. One of the most astounding figures in the contemporary theatre (a theatre full of astounding figures), his work is characterized by such bizarre aspects as fetishism, living dead men, leaps through time, devils, sorcerers, ghosts, grinning buffoons, legendary heroes stubbornly destroying their legend, historical characters denying the facts of their history, philosophical drunkards, and...

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George Wellwarth (essay date 1964)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Michel de Ghelderode: The Theater of the Grotesque,” in Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama, New York University Press, 1964, pp. 98-113.

[In the following essay, Wellwarth examines typical aspects of Ghelderode's grotesquerie.]

Among modern dramatists Michel de Ghelderode stands by himself. If we must have a classification for him, then he can most nearly be compared to that group of novelists who have concentrated on the creation of a fictional world of their own, a microcosm in which to reflect their view of human behavior in the world as a whole. Like William Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County, Charles Dickens with...

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Helen Hellman (essay date 1965)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Fool-Hero of Michel de Ghelderode,” in Drama Survey, Vol. 4, No. 3, Winter 1965, pp. 264-71.

[In the following essay, Hellman examines Ghelderode's use in his plays of the Renaissance buffoon character.]

Michel de Ghelderode frequently affirmed in his plays, prefaces, letters, notes and conversations that he was the heir of Brueghel, Bosch and Erasmus. He appeared to have inherited their vision of man's folly and wisdom which prevailed during the Renaissance. Like them he stressed the folly, rather than the sinfulness of human conduct, always recognizing, however, the dual aspect of man's nature. He was a cruel moralist and critic of human conduct, and...

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Helen Hellman (essay date 1967)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hallucination and Cruelty in Artaud and Ghelderode,” in French Review, Vol. 41, No. 1, October 1967, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Hellman examines elements of the nightmarish and grotesque in the plays of Antonin Artaud and Ghelderode.]

C'est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent!

—Charles Baudelaire

I have chosen the domain of sorrow and shadow as others have chosen that of the glow and the accumulation of things.

—Antonin Artaud

Cette création vôtre tournait sur son axe...

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Hollis T. Landrum (essay date 1974)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ghelderode's War of the Words,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, April 1974, pp. 273-83.

[In the following essay, Landrum examines modern language as a barrier to experiencing reality in Ghelderode's plays, arguing that the playwright has much in common with absurdist dramatists.]

“There would almost seem to be virtue in silence, if they could only be silent.”1 Thus John Killinger describes the confused state of characters in absurdist literature. The statement is equally applicable to the characters created by Michel de Ghelderode. Although this playwright is not ordinarily identified with the theatre of the absurd, Robert Brustein...

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Paul M. Levitt (essay date 1975)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ghelderode and Puppet Theatre,” in French Review, Vol. 48, No. 6, May 1975, pp. 973-80.

[In the following essay, Levitt suggests philosophical and aesthetic reasons for Ghelderode's propensity for using puppets in his plays.]

It should now be obvious that Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962) is among the masters of modern theatre. If it was not obvious to his own contemporaries and is still not so obvious as it should be today, it is partly for the reasons that he lived as a recluse, eschewed realism in drama, and ideologically, as well as in practice, propounded an unpopular genre: puppet theatre.

Throughout his life Michel de Ghelderode was...

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Gillian Farish (essay date 1978)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Michel de Ghelderode: The Theatre of the Swerving Dream,” in University of Windsor Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1978, pp. 5-23.

[In the following essay, Farish examines the states of dreaming and waking in Ghelderode's plays.]

The search for truth among the rubble of reality and the debris of dreams is not new to the theatre nor is the effort to reconstruct the past and forecast the future from totems that have survived intact among such ruins. The fascinating aspect of this search is that no matter how the artist conceives the rubble, debris and totems, the truths which emerge are original in that they are discovered again and again. Thus, although the...

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Renée C. Fox (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Les Roses, Mademoiselle’: The Universe of Michel de Ghelderode,” in American Scholar, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer 1994, pp. 403-19.

[In the following essay, Fox provides a personal reminiscence of Ghelderode's life and career.]

“Come preferably at five o'clock,” Michel de Ghelderode had written to me. “The light changes then.” And so it was late in the afternoon when I left the Brussels apartment where I was living in July 1961 to make my first visit to the renowned Belgian playwright, poet, storyteller, and writer of letters. My taxi moved swiftly down fashionable Avenue Louise, past the baroque Palace of Justice, and through the Place Royale of...

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David B. Parsell (essay date 1997)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Renaissance Revisited,” in Michel de Ghelderode, Twayne's World Authors on CD-ROM, 2000, pp. 1-33.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1997, Parsell discusses Ghelderode's Renaissance and late-medieval themes in his plays.]

Left to his own devices even as he remained nominally under contract to the declining VVT [Flemish Popular Theatre], Ghelderode returned in search of material to the time frame of his two previous “personal” efforts, Christopher Columbus and Escurial. Freed from any constraint of having to deliver a “message” the playwright's imagination actively sought, and readily found, in the late Middle Ages...

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Criticism: Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Michel de Ghelderode,” in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall 1963, pp. 39-50.

[In the following interview, Draper and Ghelderode discuss the latter's career, influences, and artistic vision.]

[Samuel Draper]: Where can we begin? Anywhere you like. I am ready to listen.

[Michel de Ghelderode]: Yes, yes. When I have a sensitive listener, I will talk well. Very well, indeed, in a French which most people find too elegant, too explicit, too regal if you will, in a French that has become superannuated. I went to high school at the Institut Saint Louis in Brussels. My education was extraordinary. Those...

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Criticism: The Death Of Doctor Faust

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Faust and Anti-Faust in Modern Drama,” in Drama Survey, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1966, pp. 39-52.

[In the following essay, Cole discusses The Death of Doctor Faust as a modernist interpretation of the Faust myth.]

Damned or redeemed, tragical or travestied, noble, foolish, or darkly sinister, Faust has been a recurrent figure in European drama for nearly four centuries. Marlowe's tragic hero of the Elizabethan age, though transformed into a vehicle for burlesque and pantomime farce in the eighteenth century, was reincarnated with new grandeur by the life-long work of Goethe, who more than any other artist is responsible for endowing Faust with mythic...

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Criticism: Escurial

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Michel de Ghelderode's Escurial: The Alchemist's Nigredo,” in Stanford French Review, Vol. 2, No. 3, Winter 1978, pp. 405-17.

[In the following essay, Knapp discusses the alchemical principle of nigredo as Ghelderode used it in Escurial.]

Alchemy, frequently referred to as the “black art,” requires a condition of nigredo before illumination or rebirth can ensue. In Escurial (1927), only the first stage of the alchemical process is experienced: nigredo with its accompanying phase of mortificatio. No renewal follows. No purification comes into being. There is no cleansing operation. Darkness hovers over...

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Criticism: Red Magic

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ghelderode's Red Magic: Gold and the Use of the Christian Myth,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 11, No. 4, February 1969, pp. 376-81.

[In the following essay, Fraidstern analyzes the ways in which Red Magic differs from Ghelderode's other plays, which draw heavily on ancient themes and legends.]

The vision of Michel de Ghelderode derives its theatrical vitality from the playwright's absorption in the anhistorical memories of the folk or the popular imagination, “about what the world was like before the appearance of homo sapiens. Through the primitive legends, poetry, and dream are revealed to us the existence of former human kinds, come from the...

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Criticism: The Splendors Of Hell

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Splendors of Hell: A Tragic Farce,” in Renascence, Vol. 20, No. 1, Autumn 1967, pp. 30-38.

[In the following essay, Hellman discusses elements of The Splendors of Hell that outraged audiences at the time of its first performances, arguing that Ghelderode uses the play's profane aspects to emphasize a sense of faith.]

The play Splendors of Hell is interesting from a biographical point of view because its success in Paris in 1949 brought wide public attention to the Belgian playwright, Michel de Ghelderode, who until then had lived in relative obscurity. Although he had chosen the life of a recluse, this somewhat belated success, and the...

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Criticism: La Balade Du Grand Macabre

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “ Michel de Ghelderode's La Balade du Grand Macabre: The Triumph of Life,” in Before His Eyes: Essays in Honor of Stanley Kauffmann, edited by Bert Cardullo, University Press of America, 1986, pp. 51-55.

[In the following essay, Piette argues that Ghelderode achieves his greatest thematic unity in La Balade du Grand Macabre.]

Death is omnipresent in Michel de Ghelderode's theater, a recurrent theme that often betrays his inclination toward the gloomy and the gruesome. American audiences are probably more familiar with the dark and biting irony of Pantagleize, set, in 1929, “on the morrow of one war and the eve of another” and intended by...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Ghelderode, Michel de. “To Directors and Actors: Letters, 1948-1959.” Tulane Drama Review 9, No. 4 (Summer 1965): 41-62.

Collection of letters written by Ghelderode to various people in the theater community, most discussing interpretation of his plays.

Gilman, Richard. “Official Mediocrity.” In Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961-1970, pp. 295-98. New York: Random House, 1971.

Offers a negative assessment of an American Repertory Theater's production of Pantagleize.

Merivale, P. “Endgame and the Dialogue of King and Fool in the Monarchical...

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