Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1321
Jean Anouilh likes to divide his plays into three categories of material and treatment, and to date he has maintained a fairly even balance of productivity among the classifications he has designated. Included in his pieces noires, as he calls his more somber dramas, are those based on themes taken from classic Greek sources or from history: LEGEND OF LOVERS, the retelling in a modern setting of the Orpheus and Eurydice story; ANTIGONE, a thinly veiled allegory of France during the German occupation; MEDEA, and THE LARK, which deals with the martyrdom of Joan of Arc. On the evidence of these plays it would be possible to make out a good case proving that Anouilh is the leading tragic dramatist of his generation in France; however, he is better known in this country and in England for his pieces roses and pieces brillantes, his lighter works of tender feeling, artifice, and wit which do not fall into any of the conventional classifications of drama. Neither comedy, farce, fantasy, nor romance, they contain elements of all four. RING ROUND THE MOON, listed among the pieces brillantes, is a typical example.
RING ROUND THE MOON is the title given by Christopher Fry to his adaptation of Anouilh’s L’INVITATION AU CHATEAU. Although this version in English has considerable merit and unmistakable charm in its own right—a Cinderella theme treated in the manner of Oscar Wilde—Fry has caught little more than the mannered grace and brittle style of the original. His treatment, aptly described as “A Charade with Music,” is a work of surface brilliance, poetic overtones, and sly wit, and as an engaging divertissement it provides an entertaining evening in the theater. Anouilh’s play, on the other hand, is more serious in its ironic implications, depth of feeling, and insight into the muddled human situation, matters presented against a background that seems always on the point of dissolving into the make-believe atmosphere of a fairy tale.
This effect is characteristic of Anouilh’s art, for he holds that the primary business of the theater is to create an illusion and a mood. The world of his plays is a moon-struck region of imagination and invention in which the logic of things as they happen is seldom the daylight logic of the actual or the commonplace. In spite of the fact that this world is as circumscribed and meticulously detailed as Proust’s, it lends itself to effects of unabashed theatricality appropriate to a Cloud-Cuckoo-Land in which the fantastic becomes the real, art is also artifice, and no clear line divides the rueful from the comic. Since Giraudoux no writer has been more successful in combining the irresponsible with the serious, the improbable with the real. Such stock situations as the confusion of identical twins, contrived or ridiculous misunderstandings between lovers, affections abruptly transferred, and the play within a play abound in Anouilh’s dramas because he dares to be original in an old-fashioned way. He works within a stage tradition that goes back through the comedy of manners and the commedia dell’ arte to Plautus, Terence, and Menander.
A twofold theme of deception and self-deception provides the dramatic motivation in RING ROUND THE MOON. The setting is the fifteenth-century chateau of Madame Desmermortes, the time those almost forgotten days before World War I when everyone had plenty of money—except the poor—and there was an international society, when aristocratic elderly ladies had genteel companions and wealthy elderly men had traveling secretaries, and when fabulous balls were common. An assemblage of guests has gathered at the chateau for such a gala occasion. They include Madame Desmermortes’ nephews, Hugo and Frederic; Messerschmann, a millionaire industrialist of obscure origins; Diana, his daughter; Romainville, a patron of the arts; Lady Dorothy India, Madame Desmermortes’ niece and Messerschmann’s mistress, and Patrice Bombelles, the millionaire’s secretary, with whom Lady India is involved in a secret love affair.
Hugo and Frederic are identical twins, alike in every respect except that Frederic has a heart and Hugo does not. Frederic is engaged to Diana, who is as heartless as Hugo and obviously the wrong person for Frederic to marry. Unable to see reason, he has followed a blind path wherever love has led; his latest folly is sleeping in the rhododendron bushes under Diana’s window. Not realizing that he himself is in love with Diana, Hugo is determined to end his guileless brother’s romance. To this end he hires Isabelle, a dancer in the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera, politely blackmails Romainville into passing her off as his niece, and introduces her as a guest invited to the ball. For a fee and the dress he has provided, Isabelle is to make herself the center of attention, so much so, in fact, that Hugo will appear to be in love with her. At the same time she is supposed to make Frederic think that she is in love with him in order to draw that young man to her and away from Diana.
Even before the ball matters begin to go awry. To the consternation of Madame Desmermortes’ proper butler, Isabelle’s vulgar mother also arrives and is recognized by Capulat, Madame Desmermortes’ companion, as an old school friend. To explain her presence, the mother tells Capulat that Hugo and Isabelle are really in love and that the young man has brought the girl to the ball under the pretense that she is Romainville’s niece in order to conceal her true identity. Informed of this circumstance by her companion, Madame Desmermortes decides to take a hand in the masquerade; she dresses Isabelle’s mother in finery and introduces her as prominent in society.
From these materials Anouilh has constructed a plot in which irony and nonsense are only a part of the thematic design, not the ultimate effect of the play. With compassion and insight he shows in brief glimpses the reverse side of the illusions by which humanity lives, for his real theme is the isolation of the lonely and the loving and the attempts of men and women to find understanding among themselves, happiness in money or in love. Messerschmann and Isabelle stand on a common footing when the millionaire, urged on by his jealous daughter, offers Isabelle money to leave the ball, and the dancer refuses. They end by tearing up the money in an angry, despairing rejection of material values. Then Messerschmann, remembering his peace and contentment in the days when he was a tailor in Cracow, goes off to break the Bourse and so lose his great fortune. His failure—for his flurry on the exchange more than doubles his wealth—is as ironic in its consequences as Isabelle’s pretended suicide when, according to Hugo’s plan, she throws herself in the lake on the chateau grounds; it is Hugo, not Frederic, who pulls her out, and it is to heartless Hugo that she turns in the misery of not being loved.
In the end worldly, shrewd old Madame Desmermortes sets these confused matters straight. Frederic discovers the true nature of Diana and finds in Isabelle an innocence and gentleness of heart to match his own. Hugo realizes that he has secretly wanted Diana all the while, after Madame Desmermortes makes him see that they were really made for each other. Even Messerschmann’s future holds a promise of happiness. Believing that he has lost all his money, Lady India forgets Bombelles and swears that she will follow Messerschmann to Siberia if need be.
As stylized as a quadrille, touching even in its absurdity, Anouilh’s play reveals not only the human capacity for error, self-deception, cruelty, and guilt but also man’s striving toward goodness and love, within the confines of a limited but imaginatively conceived world in which illusion and reality stand back to back to shape a metaphor of life.
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