Ring around the Moon

by Jean Anouilh

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Role of Class Conflict

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Behind the thinner, lighter veil of Jean Anouilh’s charade, Ring Around the Moon, lies two sorts of class conflict. First, is the friction between the older aristocracy (‘‘old money’’) and the emerging and usurping industrialist bourgeoisie (‘‘new money’’). The second is the tension between both of these wealthy groups and the working class. The characters belonging to each camp are as follows: in the aristocracy, the Desmermortes side composed of Hugo, Frederic, Lady India, and Madame. In the wealthy bourgeoisie, the Messerschmanns: Messerschmann, Diana, and though not part of the family, Romainville, because he runs Messerchmann’s pig-iron company. Also in this class are many of the unnamed and unspoken guests at Madame’s ball who, Diana states, work for Messerchmann. The last group, the working class or poor, includes Isabelle and her mother. All other characters fall somewhere between these camps since they are attached to the upper classes: Joshua and Capulat to the aristocracy, Patrice to the industrialist bourgeoisie.

The core conflict between old and new money erupts in the imminent marriage between Frederic (old) and Diana (new). Frederic, the ‘‘good’’ twin, cares little for class. But he is betrothed to the wealthy Diana. This is probably no mere coincidence since, usually, the moneyed classes are as segregated as the poor, self-segregation ensuring preservation of wealth and a sense of superiority. It is not clear what Diana is after by settling for Frederic when she really wants Hugo, but Diana’s motivation might be her desire to marry into wealth, even if it means losing her happiness. But whether Diana marries old or new money seems of little concern to her. Nor does it concern Messerschmann since, after all, he has taken Lady India (old money) as a mistress. But it might be that the two Messerschmanns’ do care, and con sciously or unconsciously, pursue the old-moneyed Desmermortes to gain sophistication through association with ‘‘class,’’ ‘‘breeding,’’ and education. Through linkage with the Desmermortes the Messerschmanns might be able to have their wealth and eat it too.

The aristocratic Desmermortes, on the other hand, want little to do with the bourgeois Messerschmanns. Madame Desmermortes is humiliated by news that Messerschmann is ‘‘keeping’’ (paying for) her niece, Lady India. Madame exclaims: ‘‘She is a Fitzhenry! And through me, a Desmermortes. If only your uncle Antony were alive it would kill him.’’ Desmermortes money has been transmitted by inheritance from generation to generation and is therefore ‘‘purified’’ by being kept within the family. Messerschmann’s money, however, is recently gained through business, himself having been a member of the lower classes only ‘‘yesterday.’’ Madame’s humiliation over these matters is of less concern to Hugo with his narrower criteria for upper-class superiority. Hugo is less concerned with family than with breeding. For Hugo, money is not to be pursued or displayed as ‘‘mere’’ wealth, but instead, used for the sake of racheting up one’s civility, culture, and refinement. Hugo’s complaint about mixing blood and money with the Messerschmanns apparently has less to do with them having it (after all, Hugo is rich), than with the way they deploy it. Although not fleshed out, Hugo’s ‘‘healthy’’ contempt of money likely comes from the fact that he takes it for granted. Contempt for wealth (but not for breeding) Hugo likely thinks, is beyond the understanding of the bourgeoisie who continue to worship money like the lower classes, whom these Messerschmanns still are in disguise. And so, Hugo thinks, how dare Frederic stoop to Diana; how dare Lady India allow herself to be had by that mere businessman, Messerschmann.

And who does Hugo blackmail? Romainville, that second-tier wealthy...

(This entire section contains 1492 words.)

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bourgeois connected to Messerschmann, and Patrice, Messerschmann’s secretary engaged in an affair with Hugo’s aristocratic cousin, Lady India. Hugo’s blackmailings are not mere means to break up the ill-fated Diana-Frederic love match, but ends, battles fought against those economic upstarts, the Messerschmanns, and their lackeys, Romainville, and Patrice. It is no coincidence Anouilh calls for battle music during the scene in which Hugo blackmails Patrice.

Finally, in the war between the upper echelons, there is Lady India, the peacemaker. Like Hugo, she takes wealth for granted. But unlike Hugo, Lady India does not manifest contempt for the bourgeoisie. After all, she is Messerschmann’s mistress. But she is attracted to danger, specifically to ‘‘slumming,’’ associating with the lower classes. This is at least part of her attraction to a mere secretary (Patrice). At the ‘‘further reaches’’ of danger, Lady India is not just attracted to the poorer classes, but to poverty itself. She believes so strongly that she would like to be poor, that she falls hard for Messerschmann when it looks like he is financially ruined. Lady India, unlike the play’s other major characters, is in conflict with no one. She is the bridge not only between the upper classes, but also between upper and lower classes. While this might cast Lady India as the play’s heroine—great bridger of all gulfs—Anouilh portrays her as a fool, in love with the state of poverty only because she has never visited. Thus, her poor sense of economic and social geography.

The battle between upper and lower classes involves both major and minor characters. For example, Joshua, Capulat, and Patrice partially escape inclusion in the working or poorer classes because they are attached to the upper classes, not just by working for them, but by living with them. Just as house slaves had more status than field slaves, so do Joshua, Capulat, and Patrice as ‘‘house slaves’’ have status over Isabelle and her mother, the ‘‘field slaves.’’ There is, however, one last division among the lower classes. As Anouilh divided the upper classes into old and new money, he divides the poorer, working class into the envious (Isabelle’s mother) and the complacent-if-not-contemptuous (Isabelle). Isabelle’s mother shares features with both branches of the upper classes. With the aristocracy, she shares a love of breeding, as evidenced by having studied piano at a conservatory. Further, she has enabled Isabelle to study ballet, both of these, piano and ballet, being aristocratic pleasures. She also once belonged to the bourgeoisie: ‘‘Always remember, Isabelle, your grandfather was the biggest wallpaper dealer in the town. We’ve even had two servants at the same time.’’ Isabelle’s mother aspires to both branches of the upper class, if not for herself, then for her daughter. Isabelle’s mother does not call her objects of aspiration old or new money, aristocracy or bourgeoisie, but sums them up with ‘‘beauty’’ (more often referring to old money rather than new) and ‘‘luxury’’ (more often referring to new money rather than old). Isabelle’s mother is not particular. She would be happy with either Romainville or Hugo as an upwardly mobile catch for Isabelle.

Isabelle, unlike her mother, aspires to love more than money. She does whatever chore needs doing, and doesn’t dream of being rich so that, someday, servants will do it for her. Her mother’s unabashed upper-class aspirations embarrass Isabelle who is not attracted to Hugo because of his wealth, but because he is handsome and confident. Money is nowhere apparent in her aspirations. Even Isabelle’s ballet dancing seems a product more of her mother’s aspirations than her own desires. Isabelle’s disinterest in money turns to hostility in the memorable scene where Isabelle refuses offers of money from Messerschmann and from Hugo, and where she and Messerschmann tear up his stacks of bills. While Messerschmann tears up the currency because he resents money’s loss of power, its death if you will, Isabelle tears it up to render it powerless, kill it. But neither Messerschmann nor Isabelle are made happy by such destruction. Isabelle remains unhappy because tearing up money does not help the poor. Moreover, Hugo does not care for her, and has only used her in his botched charade against upper class vanity, showing his contempt, as well, for the lower classes and those recently escaped, namely Messerschmann. And so through the insensitive and repellent actions of both old and new money (Messerschmann, Hugo, and Diana all display open class contempt), Isabelle finally ceases an outlook of quiet humility and satisfaction, becoming contemptuous of the rich. Revenge, however, is not open to one such as Isabelle, who can only separate herself from what is everywhere repellent by attempting suicide. When rescued, Isabelle becomes Anouilh’s official hero by rewarding her more than any other character: only Isabelle moves up a few notches on the economic and social scale. But the other characters make out pretty well too: no matter what kind of folly absorbs them, Anouilh forgives them by letting them keep their money and status. He is forgiving . . . unlike the world he assaults.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001. A playwright and poet, Chris Semansky teaches literature and writing at Portland Community College.

Literary, Biblical and Mythological References

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Biblical, Mythological and Folkloric References in Ring Around the Moon
The dialogue of Anouilh’s play Ring Around the Moon includes several references to folk, biblical, mythological, and English literature. A greater understanding of the sources of these references helps to illuminate the thematic concerns which run throughout the play.

Calliope. In Act I, Scene 1, Hugo discusses his twin brother Frederick with Joshua, the elderly butler. Joshua is informing Hugo that Frederick, who is in love with Diana, has spent the past five nights sleeping in the rhododendron bush outside of her bedroom window. Joshua explains to Hugo that he has slept in the rhododendron bush ‘‘beside that statue they call Calliope, a classical character, sir.’’ In Greek mythology, Calliope is the primary of the nine Muses. The Muses are a group of goddesses, all sisters, daughters of Zeus, who were originally considered to be the patron goddesses of poets and musicians. They later each became associated with different branches of the arts and sciences, and statues of the various muses were popularly sculpted holding various objects indicating these associations. The name of Calliope means ‘‘she of the beautiful voice.’’ Calliope is considered the muse of heroic or epic poetry, and sculptures often depict her with a writing tablet in her hand. She is considered to be the mother of Orpheus, the musician who played the lyre.

Croesus. Later in Act I, Scene 1, Hugo, in talking to Mademoiselle Desmortes, describes Mr. Messerschmann as being ‘‘as rich as Croesus.’’ Croesus was a king of ancient Lydia, who reigned from 560 B.C. to 546 B.C., and was known for his great wealth. Main events during his reign include the conquest of the Greeks on mainland Ionia, and subsequent defeat by the Persians. The name of Croesus continues to be associated with extensive wealth, and he was known for bestowing lavish gifts upon the oracle at Delphi, which appears in many Greek myths. While Croesus was a historically real person, his reputation and fate have taken on mythical status in the writings of ancient Greek historians. Some say that upon defeat by the Persians he tried to burn himself alive, but was saved from death by his captors; some say he was condemned to death by fire, but was saved by the god Apollo; and some say he was made a government official for the defeating nation. One of the prominent myths about Croesus, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, is that he met with Solon, an Athenian law-maker, who lectured him on the virtues of good fortune, rather than wealth, as a source of happiness.

Reference to Croesus is significant because it indicates a central theme of Anouilh’s play: wealth and poverty. Except for Isabelle, her mother, and the various servants, the central characters of the play are wealthy beyond all measure. The arrival of Isabelle and her mother into this world of rich socialites initiates a tension between rich and poor, and incites debates among characters over wealth and poverty. Messerchsmann is compared early on to Croesus, and this comparison is echoed toward the end when he realizes that wealth is not a source of happiness. Isabelle’s role in this realization is comparable to the role of Solon, in that she provides Messerchsmann with a similar insight.

Helen of Troy. In Act I, Scene 2, Hugo tells Isabelle that the dress she has been given to wear ‘‘makes you look like Helen of Troy.’’ Helen of Troy, in ancient Greek mythology, was a daughter of Zeus, and was the most beautiful woman in Greece. According to legend, she was the impetus behind the Trojan War, which explains references to her as ‘‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’’ Isabelle’s enchanting beauty is central to her role in Anouilh’s play. It is agreed by all that she is the most beautiful presence at the ball, and her arrival is the catalyst which effects a change in the dynamics of the wealthy socialite world into which she has been thrust.

Cinderella In Act I, Scene 2, there is an exchange between Isabelle’s mother and Hugo, in which the Mother refers to herself as ‘‘poor little Cinders.’’ She is of course referring to the fairy tale Cinderella, in which the abused and neglected stepdaughter is visited by a fairy godmother who grants her the opportunity to dress in finery for a ball, at which she dances all night with the Prince himself. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, this folktale dates back as far as the 9th Century AD, and has appeared in over 500 different renditions. In Anouilh’s play, Hugo asks Isabelle’s mother if she would like supper brought to her in her room, to which she replies, ‘‘Just a crust, a crust and a glass of water for poor little Cinders.’’ Isabelle’s mother is an impoverished woman continually attempting to push her daughter on any rich man who comes her way. She is a selfish woman who embarrasses Isabelle, and continually laments her own poverty and lost youth and beauty. In comparing herself to Cinderella, the abused and neglected stepdaughter, the mother expresses a self-serving self-pity. Meanwhile, it is Isabelle who shares the role of Cinderella in Anouilh’s play. She is a poor, beautiful, yet humble, girl who needs only to be dressed up in the finery of the rich to become, like Cinderella, the belle of the ball. And, by the end of the play, she does, in fact, find her prince charming in the form of the wealthy Frederick, the twin brother of Hugo (although she at first believes herself to be in love with Hugo).

English literatureRobinson Crusoe. In Act I, Scene 2, the wheelchair- bound elderly woman Mme. Desmortes makes reference to the classic English novel Robinson Crusoe (1722), by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731). Robinson Crusoe is the story of a castaway on a deserted island who must make do with limited resources in order to survive harsh and solitary conditions. In Anouilh’s play, the excessively wealthy and privileged Mme. Desmortes compares herself to Robinson Crusoe when she is momentarily stranded in her wheelchair without a servant to escort her, and without a nearby ‘‘bell-rope’’ she could use to summon a servant.

Mme. Desmortes: ‘‘Really, how marooned one is away from a bell-rope. I might be Robinson Crusoe, and without any of his initiative. If only one’s governess, when one was a girl, had taught one something practical like running up a flag or firing a gun.’’

When a butler, Joshua, appears, she continues the comparison of being lost at sea, remarking, ‘‘Thank Heaven I’m on some sort of navigation route.’’ She commands Joshua to ‘‘Put into land for a moment, my dear man, and rescue me. I was washed up here fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t seen a living creature since.’’

Mme. Desmorte’s extended comparison of herself to Robinson Crusoe not only establishes her character as extremely witty, with a keen, ironic sense of humor, but also demonstrates her ability not to take herself too seriously, as expressed by her tendency to jokingly exaggerate her circumstances. This reference also continues a theme of water imagery which runs through the play.

Byronic Poetry. In Scene 1, Act III, Hugo launches into an extended discourse in conversation with Isabelle, who listens attentively. Hugo has been using Isabelle in a scheme to distract his brother from his unrequited love of Diana. He explains that he is going to invent a lofty and romantic past for Isabelle, which he will use to deceive the guests at the ball as to her origins. Hugo muses that he will tell everyone that ‘‘you’re the wonderfully wealthy side-issue of a Portuguese princess and an Admiral, an Admiral who wrote Byronic poetry and was drowned at sea.’’ The idea of the Admiral drowned at sea picks up on the water imagery which runs throughout the play, such as in reference to the fictional character Robinson Crusoe. Hugo’s mention of ‘‘Byronic poetry’’ refers to a style of Romantic poetry by the infamous English poet, Lord Byron (1788–1824). Byron is best known for his extended poem Don Juan (1819–1825), which is a satiric recounting of the adventures and exploits of a young man. In one segment of the poem, Don Juan becomes a castaway on a Greek island after surviving a shipwreck. The reference to Byron thus indirectly echoes Anouilh’s theme of water imagery in the play.

Biblical storiesSamson. In Act III, Scene 1, the rich man Messerschmann has a conversation with the old butler, Joshua, in which Messerschmann mentions the Biblical myth of Samson. Samson is a figure from the Old Testament whom some scholars consider to be purely mythical, but whom others consider to be a historically real figure. The story of Samson is that his parents were told before his birth that he was to be a Nazarite, a person chosen by God to abstain from liquor, avoid contact with dead bodies, and never shave or cut his hair. Samson was known for his incredible physical strength, but his downfall was always his passion for Philistine women. The most famous story about Samson is that he was seduced by the Philistine Delilah, who tricked him into revealing the secret of his incredible strength: his long hair. As he slept Delilah cut his hair, depriving him of his strength so that he could be captured by the Philistines, blinded and forced into slavery. Samson’s final act, although blinded and enslaved, was to use his strength to tear down the Philistine temple, where the worship of false gods was carried out, destroying both the Philistines and himself in the process. This act is seen as his final return to the service of the Jewish god Yahweh for which his life was originally intended.

In conversation with Joshua, Messerschmann recounts the tale of Samson, comparing himself to this mythical figure.

M: ‘‘You must have read your Bible when you were a little boy? J: Here and there, sir, like everybody else. M: Did you ever come across Samson? J: The gentleman who had his hair cut, sir? M: ‘‘Yes; and he was very unhappy. Jeered at, my friend, always jeered at by everybody. They had put his eyes out. They thought he was blind, but I’m sure he could see. J: Quite possible, sir. M: And then, one fine day, unable to stand it any more, he got them to lead him between the pillars of the temple. He was very strong, terribly strong, you understand? He twined his arms round the pillars’’ (he puts his arms around Joshua) like this.

Messerschmann continues, ‘‘And then he shook them with all his might.’’ He was so strong the entire temple crashed down on to the two thousand Philistines who were there praying to their false Gods and thinking Samson no better than a fool.’’ Joshua points out that, ‘‘it fell on him, too, sir,’’ to which Messerschmann replies, ‘‘But that wasn’t of any kind of importance.’’ Messerschmann then explains to Joshua that he will be ‘‘putting through an overseas telephone call’’ that night. Messerschmann tells Joshua that he will be doing this, ‘‘Like Samson. With my eyes tight shut.’’

This conversation between Messerschmann and Joshua occurs late in the play, just after an extended exchange between Messerschmann and Isabelle, the impoverished young dancer whom he has invited to his home with the intention of making her his mistress. Messerschmann is like Samson in that his lust for women has been the cause of his moral depravity. Through his conversation with Isabelle, he comes to realize that his wealth is no source of happiness, and he rashly decides to make a financial decision that will undoubtedly impoverish him. Messerschmann’s intention is to alter his financial situation with a single phone call. Like Samson tearing down the temple, Messerschmann plans to perform a final act of moral good by symbolically tearing down the temple of wealth in which he and his fellow socialites worship the false gods of money and luxury. Messerschmann performs this act ‘‘blindly,’’ like Samson, meaning that he does not stop to consider the consequences of such as brash act as turning himself from a rich man into a poor man. And, like Samson, he may bring on his own ruin in the process of performing an act for the cause of a greater good.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

Revival Through the Actors

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Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon is a real heartbreaker—but for all the wrong reasons. Christopher Fry’s adaptation of Anouilh’s comedy has not often been staged since its original London and Broadway productions in 1950, and it’s easy to see why: The play is uncommonly delicate, a poetic mixture of farce, romance and comedy of manners that must also accommodate a whiff or two of mortal thoughts (it was written in the shadow of World War II). Fry subtitled his sparkling adaptation A Charade With Music, and indeed it has the sweeping rhythms of a dance—not for nothing is the play’s heroine a ballerina. Unfortunately, what’s onstage at the Belasco Theater more often than not has two left feet. Gerald Gutierrez’s largely miscast production betrays the play’s gossamer sensibility; what should taste like a spun-sugar confection goes down more like chewy taffy.

The disenchantments begin even as the curtain rises on John Lee Beatty’s set, a rather literalminded reworking of Oliver Messel’s famed London original. Beatty’s garden gazebo manages the signal feat of seeming both flimsy and oppressive. The airiness that is the soul of the play is lost—the characters cavort in this chamber like trapped moths. (The play cries out for the liberating imagination of a Bob Crowley.) The young British actor Toby Stephens plays the central roles of the twins Hugo and Frederic, and here, too, delicacy is lacking. Stephens comes from sturdy theatrical stock—he’s the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens—and he’s definitely an actor in the grand English tradition. As such, he does not have a natural, light touch, as anyone who saw him in the Almeida Theater Co.’s recent Racine plays at BAM could attest (and surely the producers did).

Stephens does have an authentic upper-crust charm, and is amusingly snippy as the heartless Hugo, whose scheme to wean his twin brother from his love for Diana Messerschmann (Haviland Morris)— who in turn loves Hugo—sets the carousel of the plot in motion. But as the lovesick Frederic, he’s really just Hugo sulking—there’s no soul in his Frederic, no romance. His performance is professional but artificial, and more artifice is the last thing this sweet piece of whimsy needs.

The play is set in 1912 France, at the chateau of the twins’ aunt Madame Desmermortes (Marian Seldes), an imperious woman whose reliance on a wheelchair hasn’t kept her from ruling her little fiefdom with an iron fist.

Guests at the chateau include Diana’s father, Messerschmann (Fritz Weaver), a Jewish business magnate who controls the destinies of his fellow visitors; Lady India (Candy Buckley), Messerschmann’s mistress and Desmermortes’ niece; and his secretary Patrice Bombelles (Derek Smith), who also happens to be India’s lover.

Hugo has invited to the chateau a beautiful ballerina from Paris, Isabelle (Gretchen Egolf), in the hopes that by turning her into the belle of the ball he can turn Frederic’s head, curing him of his hopeless love for Diana. But the sensitive Isabelle, as fate would have it, falls instantly for Hugo himself, and it takes some sorting out before she is united in bliss with the equally sensitive Frederic.

With everyone either in love, trying to get out of it or observing it with variously cynical, practical or sentimental attitudes, the play is a comic poem on the vagaries of romance. It also contains wry reflections on the elusive nature of happiness: Diana’s riches can’t win her the love of Hugo and her father’s constitution is so poisoned by the excesses delivered by his wealth that he has been relegated to a diet of unsalted, unbuttered noodles.

But the subtle strains of melancholy and the affectionate tone that suffuse the comedy mostly are muted here. Emblematic of the production’s clumsiness is the bull-in-a-china-shop performance of Joyce Van Patten as Isabelle’s mother. Her character is supposed to be silly and pretentious, but Anouilh observes even her with a measure of sympathy. You’d never guess it from this production, which turns her into a crass buffoon with an American accent.

Indeed all the characters in Ring Round the Moon are dusted with poetry, even the most fiercely pragmatic or comically cynical. And yet virtually none of the performers in this production give lyrical or graceful performances. The fault is the director’s; Gutierrez plays the comedy too heavily and lets the tender essence of the play evaporate.

Morris’ Diana is a flat, shallow interpretation of a character whose haunted depths are revealed in a striking monologue in the second act, when she recalls a traumatic childhood experience of anti- Semitism; this feeling should infuse the rest of the performance, but it doesn’t. The pathos of Messerschmann himself is only hinted at by the gruff Weaver. Buckley’s India, replete with tonguein- cheek English accent, isn’t even convincing as a small-L lady, and her business with Smith’s Patrice is overcooked.

The beautiful Egolf has a graceful, willowy presence and comes very close to capturing the ethereal spirit of Isabelle. But the role requires an actress who can suggest infinite feeling with the subtlest of inflections, and Egolf ultimately cannot (merely to look at a photo of Claire Bloom in the original production is to be enchanted).

The estimable Seldes is gloriously entertaining as she dishes out Desmermortes’ eloquently phrased, Lady Bracknellesque put-downs, but she is not entirely right for the role. Her astringent delivery of the part’s waspish witticisms ultimately obscures the essential goodness of the character. (Irene Worth was to have played it, with Seldes gallantly doing one performance a week, but Worth had to withdraw because of a stroke.)

While Simon Jones strikes just the right, straightforward note in his small role, it’s really only Frances Conroy, as Desmermortes’ companion, who manages to walk the fine line between tender feeling and high comedy that runs through the play. Her overwhelmed effusions about the young lovers’ fates are both brilliantly funny and tinged with a real pathos. She isn’t onstage for long, but Conroy makes the most of her time.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the production itself. This revival of a lovely play about romantic opportunities seized is a theatrical opportunity lost.

Source: Charles Isherwood, ‘‘Ring Around the Moon,’’ (review) in Variety, Vol. 374, Issue 11, May 3, 1999, p. 94.


Critical Overview