Three Plays: Judith, Tiger at the Gates, and Duel of Angels
by Jean Giraudoux, translated by Christopher Fry
Oxford, 256 pp., $5.00
It is a nostalgic experience to encounter Giraudoux dressed in the dignity of a foreign translation which, coming several years after his death, consecrates him as an “immortal” figure. His works—the now too neglected novels as well as the works of the theater—had something deliberately ephemeral about them, a selfironic lightness that made little claim to future fame and mocked any monumental pose. When they came out during the thirties, they blended so easily with the flow of literary life that one took them for granted; it was in the order of things that Louis Jouvet would offer as an almost yearly rite a new Giraudoux play at the Théatre de I’Athénée. Those plays almost always lived up to expectations. They provided a marvelous medium for actors so well known and liked that they seemed to matter even more than what they performed, and they made one enter a world as distinctive and familiar as the presence of a well-liked person. The nostalgia, then, stems partly from making a literary interpretation of something that used to be directly accessible as live experience. Not that these plays offer a particularly faithful reflection of their period; they never aimed at anything that lofty or inclusive. But precisely because they never assumed a point of view beyond or above that of their period, they easily became a part of its intimate mood. The same is true of various other good minor French writers around the same time—Colette or Jean Cocteau—all of whom, by the way, have been taken almost too seriously in the United States. They nowise could be counted among the architects of that complex edifice known as the entre deux guerres, but they provided the furniture for some of its more comfortable, smaller rooms.
Nowadays, in this edition of three plays translated by Christopher Fry, Giraudoux looks very different: much weightier, more problematic, at times almost oracular. This is no doubt partly due to the particular selection of plays contained in this volume, of which only one, Tiger at the Gates (La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu), is truly characeristic. The two others, the earlier Judith as well as the late Duel of Angels, depart in tone rather than in theme from Giraudoux’s customary manner; a mixture of elegance and banter which skilfully creates an illusion of profundity. It is again typical of our time (these translations were presented in London between 1955 and 1962) that one should choose the profundity over the elegance. We are all in favor of humor and gracefulness, but only if we are sure of darker depths underneath. Here is the case of a writer who chose to be brilliant, almost glossy, and witty, except on two or three occasions when he tried a degree of high seriousness. And it is precisely these two or three occasions that, to judge by this book, are considered most worthy of interest. In a sense this is legitimate. Duel of Angels …