Michel de Ghelderode

by Adémar-Adolphe-Louis Martens

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Michel de Ghelderode is known and remembered primarily for his singular, often highly unconventional approach to drama. During the course of his career, however, he also produced several volumes of essays and short stories as well as poetry, most of the latter supposedly written by a fictitious undertaker named Philostène Costenoble.

Achievements

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Described by one drama critic as “our man in the sixteenth century,” Michel de Ghelderode worked for years in solitude and near-isolation toward the perfection of his intensely personal dramatic art. Only after World War II, with the author approaching fifty years of age, did the assembled corpus of his plays even begin to attract critical attention outside his native Belgium, in part as a result of developments in world drama that had rendered Ghelderode’s work suddenly “fashionable.” The now famous “Ostend Interviews” (1951), broadcast first in Belgium, then in France, and later published, brought belated but well-deserved recognition to a highly original practitioner and theoretician of the drama. Even so, Ghelderode died at the age of sixty-three in relative obscurity, achieving only after death the full measure of esteem that had somehow eluded him in life. A final posthumous irony came with the revelation that, had Ghelderode survived until the fall of 1962, he would in all likelihood have received that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

More heavily influenced by the plastic arts than by the work of other playwrights past or present, Ghelderode’s dramaturgy nevertheless closely approaches the goal of “total theater” long sought by Antonin Artaud and others. Ghelderode’s plays, set for the most part in late medieval or early Renaissance Flanders, combine evocative poetic language with the scenic powers of Pieter Brueghel, Jan Vermeer, or Ghelderode’s older contemporary James Ensor. Drawing as well on the long and honored tradition of puppetry, Ghelderode bodies forth in his work a resolutely antinaturalistic, often grotesque, yet ultimately realistic personal vision of human nature that has much in common with the later deformations wrought by Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, and Eugène Ionesco. It would be misleading, however, to consider Ghelderode as a simple precursor of absurdist drama; his work remains essentially unique, with few visible models and even fewer followers.

Deeply rooted in the folklore and traditions of his native Flanders, Ghelderode’s dramaturgy is both elemental and spectacular, peopled with gross characters and overshadowed by the prospect or proximity of death. Often satiric, with near-caricatures of rulers, bureaucrats, and clergymen, his plays ultimately portray the futility of all human endeavor, meanwhile highlighting humanity’s heroic efforts to prevail against the inevitable. Rich in sound as well as in color, and frequently specifying musical instruments and sound effects, Ghelderode’s better efforts create and sustain a mood that threatens to envelop the spectator within the author’s vision, establishing for the duration of the play a substitute world with its own rules and patterns, postures and masks. Long a devotee of marionette theater, Ghelderode proved quite skillful at adapting the techniques of puppetry to the live stage, thus underscoring the helplessness of his characters’ attitudes.

During some thirty years of sustained dramatic activity, Ghelderode wrote more than fifty plays, some of them little more than fragments and a good number intended for broadcast production rather than for staging. Writing always in French, he authorized Flemish translations for many of his works, thereby lending considerable support to the Flemish Popular Theater (Vlamsche Volkstonneel), which in turn contributed heavily to his early reputation. Scarcely influenced by the requirements of fashion, Ghelderode freely ignored the accepted standards of structure, playability, or length. Few, if any, of his plays last longer than one hour in performance,...

(This entire section contains 740 words.)

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and fewer still are divided into acts and scenes. His intensely poetic style, often bordering on grandiloquence in his efforts toward characterization, frequently produces soliloquies that suffice to tax the memory of any actor. Still, the best of Ghelderode’s plays have managed to survive him and will doubtless continue to hold interest for audiences.

In English-speaking countries, Ghelderode’s dramatic reputation owes much to the work of David Grossvogel, whose study Twentieth Century French Drama (1967) included a substantial chapter devoted to the previously neglected Belgian playwright. Mindful of Ghelderode’s eccentricities and limitations as a dramatist, Grossvogel nevertheless hailed him as a highly original writer of no mean achievement, worthy of inclusion alongside such major figures as Paul Claudel, Jean Giraudoux, and Jean-Paul Sartre. During the years to follow, both before and after Ghelderode’s death, his work found considerable favor with university drama groups throughout the United States and Canada, aided by two volumes of his collected plays in English translation by George Hauger. Today, Ghelderode’s singular reputation as a valued “playwright’s playwright” remains secure, both in Europe and abroad.

Bibliography

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Cardy, Michael, and Derek Connon, eds. Aspects of Twentieth Century Theatre in French. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Provides background of developments in French language theater in the twentieth century. Bibliography and index.

Drake, Sylvie. “Good-Natured Fun with Columbus: Michel de Ghelderode’s Little-Known Version of the Explorer’s Vision Portrays a Gentle Creature Who Is ‘Haunted by the Horizon.’” Review of Christopher Columbus by Ghelderode. Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1992, p. 21. This review of a performance at Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood, California, directed by Florinel Fatulescu, provides an interesting perspective on this play.

Grossvogel, David. Twentieth Century French Drama. 1958. Reprint. New York: Gordian Press, 1967. Contains a chapter on Ghelderode that served to introduce the dramatist to English-speaking audiences.

Parsell, David B. Michel de Ghelderode. New York: Twayne, 1993. A basic biography of Ghelderode that covers his life and works. Bibliography and index.

Willinger, David, and Jeanine Parisier Plottel, eds. Theatrical Gestures: From the Belgium Avant-garde. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1987. This look at avant-garde drama in Belgium contains a discussion of Ghelderode.

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