The Madwoman of Chaillot
4 - 11 February 2012
A delightful escapist comedy that has surprising relevance to our current times.
Sat 7:45pm, Mon 7:45pm, Tue 7:45pm, Wed 7:45pm, Thu 7:45pm, Fri 7:45pm, Sat 2:45pm, Sat 7:45pm
Written in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, the play is a delightful escapist comedy that has surprising relevance to our current times.
A powerful corporation is set to dig for oil believed to be beneath the streets of Paris in the Chaillot region, much to the alarm of Countess Aurelia, who lives for the beauty of life.Upon consultation with three other eccentric wise women a court hearing is set up with the street people and vagabonds to establish the guilt of the President, the Baron and the Prospector (in absentia). Duly convicted, justice is served and beauty and individualism are restored to the world.
New York Drama Critics Circle (for the premiere 1948-50 production) "One of the most interesting and rewarding plays written in the last 20 years...pure gold with no base metal...and having an enveloping and irrestible humour".
The play ia a kind of poetic and comic fable. Set in a cafe terrace of Chez Francis and the Countess' Cellar - 21 Rue de Chaillot.
Countess Aurelia, the madwoman of Chaillot, who lives eternally in the moment when life was loveliest, is outraged when she discovers that a syndicate of corrupt businessmen is preapring to drill for oil beneath the streets of Paris. Realising that ordinary justice will not serve, she plans and carries out an alternative annihilation with the help of her eccentric friends and people of the street.
The French playwright and journalist Jean Giraudoux wrote The Madwoman of Chaillot in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France. He was one of many artists and intellectuals who stayed in Paris until the liberation – Picasso, Piaf, Sartre and Camus included.
On the surface the play is pure fantasy - an enchanting mix of whimsy, farce and outrageous eccentricity supplied by the array of street people (jugglers, singers and The Ragpicker), led by the madwoman, Countess Aurelia. She discovers a plot hatched by an evil army of newly arrived pimps, prospectors, money barons and bureaucrats, who want to dig up and destroy the streets of Paris to retrieve the oil which they believe lies hidden beneath. The Countess, with her equally mad aristocratic friends, lives in the past.
They all engage in private fantasies of their own; Constance with Dickie, her canine companion, Gabrielle who converses with inanimate objects and Josephine, who puts the pimps on trial in their absence. Along with their impoverished street chums they are persuaded by the all-seeing Ragpicker that the fate of humanity is at risk.
“Little by little the pimps have taken over the world. They don’t do anything, they don’t make anything – they just stand there and take their cut.”
The Countess’s cellar holds the key where the plot rather chillingly reaches its climax.
On a deeper level, the play is an allegory, and not just for the Nazi occupation. Giraudoux believed the pimps and their like were destroying France, with their insistence on efficiency, sterility, neatness and wealth, to the detriment of individuality, artistry, history and culture.
“How can you bear to live in a world where there is unhappiness? Where man is no longer his own master? If these men are the cause of all the trouble, all we have to do is get rid of them.”
The play also has an uncanny resonance for the 21st century – the greed of bankers, the destruction of the earth’s resources and war for oil, and the constant encroachment of power and the powerful on individual freedom.
Alison Grant Production Director
The Madwoman of Chaillot is a satirical fable written in 1942 by French playwright and journalist Jean Giraudoux during the Nazi occupation of France. It was first performed in Paris in 1945 after the writer’s death.
Theatre Arts magazine described the play as, “one part fantasy, two parts reason.” The New York Drama Critics’ Circle hailed the 1948–50 production as, “one of the most interesting and rewarding plays to have been written within the last twenty years”, “pure gold, with no base metal”, and having, “an enveloping and irresistible humour”. Giraudoux uses the convention of the classical unities where, broadly speaking, the action follows one central storyline, in a single physical space, with the action taking place over no more than 24 hours. This structure serves the non-naturalistic style of the play well and provides an appropriate engine to drive the plot to a moralistic end.
Opening in a seemingly idyllic Parisian square, corporate executives of Paris are making plans to dig up the city to plunder its oil. The Madwoman of Chaillot – The Countess Aurelia – is told of this looming disaster and resolves to fight back and rescue humanity from the scheming and corrupt developers. She enlists the help of her fellow outcasts: the Street Singer, The Ragpicker, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and various other ‘common’ people. One by one the greedy businessmen are lured by the smell of oil to a, literal, bottomless pit. Peace, love, and joy return to the world.
In this production there was a creditable feeling of engagement from the actors. Although many of the large cast had few lines they contributed with energy and complete commitment to the action as befits their central role in the play. The set, designed by Gerry Cortese, drew applause from the audience having been transformed, in the second half, from a colourful Parisian café exterior into the flamboyant underground chamber of the Countess complete with a hidden trap door leading down to the bowels of hell. The standard of the costumes (in particular for the women) by Gloria Mercer, Alison Soudain and Pearl Bates was high and mixing eras in their design helped to illustrate the timeless element of this fable.
In such a truly ensemble production it seems inappropriate to mention individual performances. However Dilly Barlow played The Madwoman of Chaillot as a beautiful, at times coquettish, bird of paradise and must be singled out for her detailed, intelligent performance that never lost pace. Jennifer Henley as Constance and Christine Murphy as Gabrielle were beguiling in the fantastical and crucial (if rather extended) scene when Aurelia and her ‘madwoman’ friends illustrate with pathos and humour what is essentially a debate on what is madness and what is sanity. This richly imaginative scene reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland serves as an engrossing illustration of the central theme of the play - humanity and its potentially life enhancing imperfections versus the corporate need for tangible profits and product.
Ellie Woodruff-Bryant as Irma, looking like she had just stepped out of a French impressionist painting, was poised and moving in her speech about expressing love.
On a directorial level the production would have benefited from a broader, less naturalistic style of playing. This would have helped the actors to bring out the rich humour and satirical nature of the piece more fully and further build the highly dramatic moments needed to make an audience suspend their disbelief.
The plays of Dario Fo and his use of the commedia dell’arte style are close cousins to the this piece. On the wings of absurd comedy and satire an important message can hit home while keeping the pathos intact. However, the structure of this play is very difficult and to have pulled it off this successfully is a tribute to the commitment, hard work and care of the director Alison Grant and her actors.
It is easy to see why the director chose to revive this play. Listening to audience members during the interval and post show, it was clear they were struck by its relevance in these days of banker and corporate greed. On a deeper level Giraudoux explores the intrinsic importance of creativity, and the acceptance of human diversity as a force for good. The gallery of street entertainers, ‘common’ people, and the ‘madwoman’ Aurelia and her friends create the downfall of the prospectors, magnates and bureaucrats and are symbolic representations of all that is free flowing, spiritual, inspirational and human.
It is gratifying that LLT produces plays such as this at a time when the West End exists mostly on tribute plays, musicals and dance shows.