Sunday, May 8, 2011


Jean Giraudoux's political comedy, "The Madwoman of Chaillot" has largely  been forgotten today and that's a shame. Written during the Second world War- but performed only after the end of both the war and the death of its playwright, it is a perfect example of the light touch of the French. The child-like innocence of the storyline reminds me a bit of French filmmaker Jacques Tati.

Of Giraudoux's play writing, one critic writes:

His dramatic style is characterized by ah extraordinarily original imaginative gift coupled with a devastating sense of the absurd and a seemingly inexhaustible fund of eloquence. The Madwoman of Chaillot, for example, is a kind of fairy tale that affords an entirely rational view of the world in terms of a fantasy bordering on madness.

Actress Anne Jackson, (shown in character in the photo) has played the title role and  says this about the play:

One of the things that makes Madwoman so wonderful and so much fun is that it is as if it were written yesterday. It is so obviously up to date on everything that is going on in our country - ecologically, politically, morally. It just is filled with wonderful allusions to these awful things.

(Incidentally, Jackson made that statement weeks before the September 11th 2001 attacks and the statement is probably more true to today than when she made it.)

Here's one example of the play's uncanny and timeless relevance: Having come up with a solution to rid the world of evil doers, the Countess is still a little doubtful about certain points. So she consults her friend, Josephine, another madwoman, who represents the dignified, well-reasoned insanity of our Justice system. Aurelia asks Josephine,


"If you could get all the world's evil people in one room,  and suppose you had a way of getting rid of them, would you have a right to do it?"

"Well, why not?"

Her friend interrupts. "But so many people?"

"The more of them there are, the more legal it is." The judge sips her tea. "I suppose the criminals have had a fair trial, of course."

"A trial?"

"Why, of course, You can't possibly kill anybody without a trial." She laughs. "That's elementary."

Somebody obviously forgot to tell George Bush when he opened Guantanamo, I guess.

That's only one example but I don't wish to spoil the play. This is a work that was originally designed as a parody but has since become reality. You have greedy corporations willing to destroy the world for the sake of oil and the power and profit it brings, stock manipulations on a grand scale and the world divided among the have's and those that wait on them.

And in that world exists the Countess, who resides happily in her child-like innocence, filling her time with the routines of the day, like feeding the strays and watering the public plants. The play begins when these worlds bump into one another. Most of the characters are broadly drawn but, because of the dreamy quality of it all, it really works.

In 1969 the play was made into a film , directed by Bryan Forbes. Although the cast was filled with top-billing actors like heavy-weight Katharine Hepburn, the intense and frightening Yul Brynner, rational but disconnected Edith Evans, the oily Donald Pleasence and Danny Kaye.   I admit that Kaye was never one of my favorite actors but he really impressed me in this particular film, especially his final scene which is breathtaking. The young and handsome Richard Chamberlain never looked better, I think. 

Alas, the film was not a great success. The first half is much better than the second, which tends to get bogged down slightly with too many self-indulgent scenes. Furthermore, the  screenplay broadens the scope of the evil in the world and perhaps this tends to dilute the plot a little. Another problem is, I suspect, most people do not really care much about the Countess' past love life. Many people thought Hepburn was miscast. Still others refuse to accept a story that is neither absolute fantasy or a depiction of reality.  Still, at the end of the day, a flawed masterpiece is better than most of the garbage you see getting top billing nowadays.

In this, one of my favorite scenes from the film, Countess Aurelia explains her exceedingly practical method for dispelling unhappiness. ("And that's only the morning! Wait til I tell you about the afternoon.")

In this scene, Countess Aurelia learns that world is not as happy and idyllic place as she has come to believe. ("Is this true, Roderick? Did you know about it, Erma?")

Don't worry; none of these scenes would spoil the film because there is so much more than this. If you can find a way to see the play- there are revivals from time to time, thankfully- don't miss the chance. Failing that, the film is also worth your time too.


  1. i always welcome good movie suggestions. and given the very little probability that i will ever see it on the stage, i will stick with the movie plan. so i added it to my watch list. the thing is, with this pace im watching movies for myself, i may never be able to see it before the 3rd World War ends... assuming i will still be around by then.

  2. Well, the play is so much better because the writer of the screenplay felt the need to add a lot of extra stuff. Completely unnecessary things. The performances that originate with the play are all quite good, I think.


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