Tiger at the Gates

by Jean Giraudoux

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Critical Evaluation

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Beginning with the production of his first play, Siegfried, in 1928, Jean Giraudoux dominated the French stage for the next three decades. Tiger at the Gates, with its witty, sparkling debate, illustrates the reason for his prominence. It presents a subject long of great importance to Giraudoux, not only as a writer but also as a career diplomat: the relationship between France and Germany. In an early novel, later made into his first play, Siegfried, he dramatized the necessity to reconcile the German and French peoples after World War I.

Unfortunately by 1935, when Giraudoux wrote Tiger at the Gates, such a reconciliation seemed increasingly impossible. As does Hector, he felt that it was vital to make every effort toward peace to avoid the devastation and destruction of another war. This play, like most of his dramas, centers on one main issue: in this case, war versus peace. Despite its single-mindedness in theme, the play operates on many different levels. As he frequently did, Giraudoux turned to the classics for his plot. It is first a retelling of the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611). It is also a comment on the political situation in Europe in 1935. Finally, it is an abstract philosophical discussion about the nature of war and peace and about those qualities in human nature that direct persons and nations to choose one or the other.

Unlike the Iliad, which opens in the tenth year of the Trojan War, Tiger at the Gates is set immediately before the war begins. The conflict in the play is not the war but the issues that cause war. The prowar and antiwar positions are clearly and quickly drawn. On one side is Andromache and most of the female characters in the play. The women are antiwar. They would not lose their husbands and sons for the sake of Helen. Hecuba vividly describes her vision of war: “When the baboon is up in a tree with its hind end facing us, there is the face of war exactly: scarlet, scaley, glazed, framed in a clotted, filthy wig.” Hector, just returned from war, joins their side. He experienced the bloodshed of war. The opposing view is presented by the poet, Demokos. He finds war an inspiration. King Priam adds that only by fighting death are men truly alive; even Hector reluctantly agrees with them on this count. Demokos insists that war must be flattered and adored in order to gain its goodwill. To ensure this, he plans a war song comparing the face of war with the face of Helen. He is joined by all the old men of Troy who would sacrifice anything for another glimpse of Helen.

The play uses minimal action to develop this debate; it is primarily composed of dialogues between the representatives of war and of peace. While Hecuba and Demokos may provide the most vivid definitions of war, each new dialogue brings another insight into the causes of war or the reasons for peace. In the opening scene, Andromache, who is pregnant, insists there must be peace to protect her husband and unborn child. Her faith in Hector’s ability to solve the problem is countered by Cassandra’s warning that Troy is too complacent; its arrogant self-confidence antagonizes fate. The crowd of Trojans is willing to accept war for national honor. If Ulysses returns Helen, swearing her virtue is intact, this will be a terrible blow to Trojan masculinity.

Ulysses, while agreeing to work for peace, presents the economic reasons why wars occur. The cunning diplomat shocks Hector when...

(This entire section contains 945 words.)

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he tells him of the dangerous message Troy’s golden fields and temples send to the Greeks trapped on rockier soil. When Hector insists Greece will be ashamed forever for using Helen as a pretext to take Troy’s wealth, Ulysses simply responds that the Greeks will lie, denying all responsibility. However, he is willing to try peace because Andromache’s eyelashes dance like Penelope’s do. Peace and the future of Troy may rest on as slender a thread as an eyelash.

Giraudoux’s use of language has often been compared to Impressionism in art. Although his staging may be static, his words dance. Tiger at the Gates is filled with brilliant images, such as Helen’s description of men as being “as pleasant as soap and a sponge and water.” He often makes serious points with witty epigrams. Ulysses notes that “one of the privileges of the great is to witness catastrophe from a terrace.”

Giraudoux blends this wit with irony throughout the play, building toward the tragedy. The French title, La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (the Trojan War will not take place), provides an example. While Hector and Andromache work desperately to ensure peace, the audience and almost all of the other characters know that these two will fail. For readers familiar with the Iliad, many lines have extra poignancy. When Hector asks Helen to visualize the body of Paris dragged behind a chariot, this portends Hector’s death in the Iliad. In an ironic twist Giraudoux never planned, it also foreshadows the Nazi occupation of Paris. The final irony is that it is the peace-loving Hector himself who causes the war with one foolish act of violence. Alive, Demokos can never match Hector’s influence, but in killing Demokos, Hector destroys Troy. Cassandra predicts this in the first scene. When she shouts that the tiger arrives, Hector enters. Critics debate whether the play implies that war is inevitable. Peace, however, nearly wins in the play; Giraudoux believed that everyone must work unceasingly toward peace. In the end, Hector proves able to control everyone except himself.