Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Madwoman of Chaillot: Truth Never Goes Out of Fashion

By Nomad
Don't you think it's time to take a small sanity break? I know I need a moment to breathe. And Sunday is a good day for reflection. So, I wanted to share with you a bit of thoughtful entertainment. It might bring you  a bit of solace, perspective and perhaps even a smile.

The Madwoman of Chaillot was written by the French playwright, Jean Giraudoux, in 1943 but you'd never know it. (Sadly Giraudoux died before the play was performed on stage.)
The message of the play really hasn't aged a bit. Perhaps it is even more suitable today than it in the time it was written.
The French charm is definitely there and nobody handles this kind of satire comedy quite in the same way as the French.

The plot is pretty simple. One day at a Parisian cafe, a group of strangers meet. These are not ordinary men by any measure. They represent- in various ways- the embodiment of modern evil in the human form of bankers, industrialists, militarists etc. (Chief baddie in the film version was effortlessly played by none-other then Yul Brynner.)
They have come to form a new corporation, though they haven't a name or even a product. To aid them in this a prospector arrives who convinces them that under Paris there are vast oil reserves. It is, he tells them, there for the taking. There's only the small matter of destroying a city to get to it.

Enter Countess Aurelia, the madwoman of Chaillot- a local slightly eccentric neighborhood character. By accident, at the same cafe, she uncovers the plot, She hatches her own brilliant scheme to set the world back on its proper course. Her practical solution? Round up and exterminate of all of the evil people of the world. 

Although there are so many great lines in the play, I have taken two selections from the film version made in 1969, starring Katherine Hepburn in the title role. The film version is unfortunately flawed, in desperate need of editing, I'm afraid. Nevertheless, it is worth watching if you find the film and the time to watch it. 

In one scene, the Countess is made aware of the problem- that the world is not happy. When the Countess learns about the cabal and their plans, she is not impressed. "What a wretched world they live in. So unlike ours."

The people of the neighborhood agree that time has come to reveal to the madwoman the truth, that things are in a right mess and the world has been taken over by people like the group in the cafe. 

It begins with the line "Countess if only you knew... Shall we tell her?"

Incidentally the role of The Rag picker is played by Danny Kaye. A surprisingly good performance, I thought.
In the second scene, the Countess has been informed by one of her equally mad friends, Countess Josephine, played by Dame Edith Evans, that you can't go around exterminating people willy-nilly. ("They'll be missed and we'll all be fined. They fine you for the least little thing nowadays.") 

Countess Josephine- who represents the Justice system with all its flaws and solemn nonsense- tells the Countess that her idea of removing all of the evil people in the world is indeed practical.. providing they've all had a trial.
Countess: A trial?
Josephine: Certainly. You can't kill anybody without a trial. That's elementary. "No man shall be deprived of his life, liberty and property without due process of law."
(Given the state of things at the moment with Gitmo, midnight "renditions," the abolition of habeus corpus and drone strikes based on kill-lists, those are painful lines.)

Despite the apparent rigidity of the law, you can get around most obstacles through inane loopholes. By the use of several of these conveniences, Josephine and the Countess come up with a solution. 
Josephine advises:
"You can summon the defendants three times- mentally, if you like- and if they don't appear, the court may designate an attorney to represent them."
When the Countess tells her that she doesn't know any lawyers, Josephine dismisses her concerns by explaining to her:
"A defense is like baptism. Absolutely indispensable but you don't have to know anything to do it. You can get anybody off the street."
(Josephine, acting at the judge in the ad hoc court, does object to the first suggestion of having the deaf-mute as the defense for all of the evil in the world, however.)

In this way, the pair agree to have a trial in the damp and dark recesses of her basement, and the local refuse-collector/rag-picker will act as their defense. He knows them "to the bottom of their souls." After all, he goes through their trash every day. What does he find in their rubbish? Mostly flowers. 

If you haven't seen the film, I'd advise you to rush over to YouTube and search for it. It probably won't be there long since for obvious reasons. (Some executive will realize that he is losing money every time somebody shares something for free. 

If I had my way, this play would be performed every year in every town in America. What about you, do you have any favorite plays that you would like to see performed?
Here's a clip from the film: You can find other clips HERE.


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