Michel de Ghelderode Ghelderode, Michel de (Vol. 6) - Essay

Adémar-Adolphe-Louis Martens

Ghelderode, Michel de (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ghelderode, Michel de 1898–1962

Ghelderode was a Belgian dramatist who wrote in French. It has been said that his remarkable plays "form a great fresco of a medieval Flanders, ruled by the Flesh and the Devil."

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 his nineteenth century London, or James Joyce with his Dublin, Ghelderode has created an enclosed world that reflects and comments upon the larger world outside. Ghelderode's world is medieval Flanders, and his view of the world can best be described as savagely grotesque. His plays are sadistic caricatures shot through with a ribald scatological humor which reminds one of the pictures of his countrymen Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel and of the anonymous woodcuts of the danse macabre. Indeed, Ghelderode has specifically set some of his plays in a fictitious "Breughellande" where the painter's grotesque and ribald creations come to life. In all of his plays, with the exception of those written on specifically Biblical themes and set in the Holy Land, there is this quality of the painted, frozen grimace suddenly animated. Several of Ghelderode's plays are actually written for marionettes, and in these the sense of moment-to-moment transformation from still picture to moving picture is intensified. The marionettelike quality is retained in Ghelderode's plays for actors, which give the impression less of continuous movement than of a series of static tableaux in which the characters switch from one bizarre position to another, their faces seemingly permanently stretched into a sort of hysterical frozen rictus, their bodies reminding us more of Bosch's semihuman, basilisklike creatures than of human beings. Figures based upon a concentrated exaggeration of one particular physical trait recur constantly….

Demonism and Rabelaisianism are undoubtedly the two keynotes of Ghelderode's work: his plays combine the perversion of religious or political functions with scatological farce. Although the scatology often seems to be dragged in with willful vulgarity, it is really an extremely effective (because shocking) way of showing the author's disgust with the manner in which the world and the people in it have worked out. This element, too, Ghelderode seems to have got from Breughel, whose pictures, even the most idyllic ones, are full of hidden little scenes of defecation, urination, and animalistic fornication.

George Wellwarth, "Michel de Ghelderode: The Theater of the Grotesque," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 98-113.

When one first discovers the theatre of Michel de Ghelderode, he gets the strange feeling that somehow this remarkable Belgian playwright doesn't belong to our times…. But this is misleading, for his apocalyptic visions so much like those of the Flemish painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel whom he so greatly admired and by whom he was profoundly influenced, strike like lightning to the core of our twentieth-century nightmares. In fact, the theatre is just now beginning to catch up with him.

Most of Ghelderode's plays derive from the dark yet coldly sensual world of Flanders. Pantagleize is a notable exception and that perhaps explains why it was the first of his plays to be given a major production in America. It's a play that transcends both history and nationality; it is of all times and places and hence will always strike audiences with its disturbing modernity. (pp. 296-97)

No playwright in the twentieth century was more conscious of what a heavy burden destiny can be than Michel de Ghelderode, and one of the continuing themes in his large body of work is man's abiding desire "to escape" from the bonds of the historical present into some kind of eternal mythic existence. (p. 298)

Pantagleize is Ghelderode's drama of the destiny of Everyman. When the play opens, Pantagleize has no real identity in the society in which he lives. He is, as Ghelderode describes him in the program note to the first English production of the play, "unfit for anything except love, friendship, and ardor—a failure, therefore, in our utilitarian age, which pushes out onto the fringe everything that is unproductive, that does not pay dividends!" Pantagleize is vaguely uncomfortable that he does not have a sense of his own destiny, but he has accepted this fact and is really quite relieved that he is free of such a burden…. Everyman [tries] persistently to avoid making … choices; he much prefers to live quietly and peacefully, the friend of all men, the enemy of none. And yet life as it is lived denies the possibility of such neutrality. Flesh-and-blood men are always partisan; living is the taking of sides. And the great insight of Ghelderode's play is that neutrality is, in fact, the taking of sides by default. Pantagleize has no intention of getting involved with the revolution, or with anything else for that matter. But his innocent remark "What a lovely day!" starts a chain of events which enmeshes him inextricably in the revolution and leads to his death. In the process, however, this Chaplinesque character begins to live: He falls in love, he enjoys the power and prestige of being a leader of men, he is exhilarated as he participates unwittingly in desperate adventures, and he is confused as he faces the final judgment and death. Using the technique of a kind of modern baroque amplification to create a burlesque of man's condition, Ghelderode shows us that the contemporary Everyman does not choose his identity, rather it is thrust upon him. But strangely enough, when this occurs Pantagleize manifests a rich and warm humanity. (pp. 298-99)

Pantagleize is a lament. Like us all, [the hero] discovers he really doesn't want to have a destiny, for finally the destiny of each of us is to die. But this play, like all the dramas of disengagement and escape, presents an ambiguous picture of the human condition. We may indeed, and for good reason, seek to escape being identified in history by our own unique destiny. But in that one day in which Pantagleize's destiny was fulfilled, he revealed the richness, the joy, the pain, the sadness, and the ludicrousness of each man's destiny, and in so doing he affirms the humanity of us all. (pp. 299-300)

Robert W. Corrigan, "Engagement/Disengagement in the Contemporary Theatre" (abridged versions originally published in anthologies edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 1962, 1968), in his The Theatre in Search of a Fix (copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Corrigan; used with permission of Delacorte Press), Delacorte Press, 1973, pp. 269-300.