The Madwoman of Chaillot
by Jean Giraudoux (adapted by Maurice Valency)
November - December 2005
There aren't many plays about serious issues that after over a half century retain the kind of frothy brio and sheer fun that Jean Giraudoux's final masterpiece, The Madwoman of Chaillot, offers. That's not entirely because, at the time it was written, during the Second World War, western civilization was caught up in the most brutal, devastating disasters humanity had ever known, but it surely adds to our feeling that there's something special about the Countess Aurelia in her subterranean apartment, defending a society where spending your time at a café in the sunshine is perfectly okay. And any play written in the midst of such a cataclysm whose most memorable line is "Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can't set it right in the course of an afternoon" has staked a claim to an entirely new, and possibly refreshing, way of looking at human evil.
Doing this play in the dawning years of the twenty-first century invites us, as John Ball observes in his director's note to the play, to think about it as a "timely theatrical rallying cry." Now, as sixty years ago, those who will sacrifice anything for the miracle of oil and the money it generates seem to have us all in thrall, and perhaps more than ever we need a madwoman to set things right. In the words of the ragpicker, "Countess, little by little, the pimps have taken over the world."
Another reason, of course, that one might choose to put the play on as a final production in a university course is that it offers the opprtunity for a large cast -- by my count, eighteen actors playing 35 roles -- to experience a startling range of characters and situations.
Such a production can often involve a peageant-like display of lots of people on stage waiting for their lines to come up. It was clear from the opening, however, that John Ball's direction had given everybody on stage some reason for being there, one that we could see; if the trick of ensemble acting is to direct our attention to one interaction while providing a realistic context which, at the same time, doesn't distract us, this production clearly had the moves down. The terrace of the Chez Francis café was populated by dozens of entrances, exits, and mimed conversations while we followed unerringly the main course of the action, as we discover that the man sitting silently brooding at a table is actually a prospector, discovering that there's oil to be had below the city. Some of our ability to follow all that against the background of all that Parisian gaiety was due, as well, to the fact that so many of the actors spoke clearly and projected to the back of Memorial Hall.
Giraudoux's play is often characterized as one "offering hope" during the occupation of France by the Nazis. It's a strange kind of hope: in the first act, set entirely in the sidewalk café, we (and Aurelia, the area's resident madwoman, the -- perhaps self-styled -- Countess) discover that a phalanx of soulless, profit-driven madmen (the Prospecter, The President, and The Baron) are about to demolish the district -- the entire city of Paris -- in search of the oil they've discovered underlies it. We also see the texture of the life centered on the café, a kind of carefree, colorful bohemian life that one thinks Puccini's characters would have liked to live, had winter never come and food been unnecessary and tuberculosis a myth. A life much to the liking of the flower children of the late sixties and seventies (indeed, of the time when I last saw a production of the play).
In the second act, which takes place in the cellar apartment (wonderfully realized, as was the rest of the set and the fine lighting, by the ever-reliable Mike Johnston), of the "Countess" Aurelia, a plan is developed. It involves a miraculous door in her floor, leading down into an endless maze of sewers (ah, we all know about the sewers of Paris) and the helps of the neighbouring madwomen (each hailing from her own district), who have to be convinced of the seriousness of the matter. It becomes clear, if it hadn't been before, that the play is prescient not only in its skepticism about capitalist money-grubbing, but also in its feminism. "But I don't understand, Aurelia," protests Gabrielle, the Madwoman of the neighbouring district of St. Sulpice, "Why should men want to destroy the city? It was they themselves who put it up." Sure enough, the plan works like a charm; not only the oil-seeking capitalists, but the phalanx of press agents following them, are lured down into the endless maze of the sewers in pursuit of the oil, never to be heard from again, leaving the Countess to tend to her cats. "My poor cats must be starved. What a bore for them if humanity had to be saved every afternoon. They don't think much of it, as it is."
Clearly, if we're to wait for the madwomen or the flower children to rescue us from Enron and Exxon and their ilk, we'll wait a long time. If this is hope it's pretty thin stuff. In fact, though, I think what Giraudoux wanted to offer us was not hope, so much, but something to hope for: a world in which it makes sense to sit at a café in the sunshine and listen to the talk and the music and care for our imaginary dog.
And Theatre UNB and English 2170 gave us a good deal of that sense of a life which, though it was only a nostalgic memory even for Giraudoux in the forties, seems colorful and pleasant and even joyful. Most of this was accomplished through the ensemble playing; as is always to be hoped in large-cast shows, it's really the ensemble that's the star, and picking individual performances out runs the risk of slighting those whose contributions weren't quite so central. Still, it's worth saying that Caroline Crompton's Madwoman of Passy was a wonderfully entertaining, vivid caricature, that Justin Read's Ragpicker was clear, firm, and powerful, and that Elizabeth Whittingham was extraordinarily clear and convincing as Aurlelia (although I was often troubled by her unfixed gaze: whether it was part of her view of the character or something else, I often found myself wondering who, or what, she was looking at).
The Madwoman of Chaillot has been attacked as a bit of fluff, and one imagines that it may have seemed especially so in postwar Paris -- but its vitality gives the fluff a bit of life, and reminds us that there's rather more to existence than technology, energy and politics. There's a glass of wine in the sunshine and a feather boa, too.