Three Plays: Judith, Tiger at the Gates, and Duel of Angels
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 and Judith reveal a great deal about Giraudoux. They, better than Amphitrion 38, or Electre or Ondine, place him within the thematic continuity of the modern theater—a task rather remote, however, from these pleasant-prewar evenings at Jouvet’s theater. We then can see how these plays contain implicitly much that has since become explicit in Anouilh, in Sartre, even in lonesco and Beckett. Harold Clurman, who writes the introduction to this edition, reassures us that we can enjoy Giraudoux without bad conscience since, for all his frivolity, he is nevertheless a precursor of the “theater of the absurd.” And so he is, without doubt, as are many of his contemporaries.
The self-conscious, almost tragic Giraudoux that meets us in these pages illustrates one of the attempts to master a recurrent problem of modern literature: how to produce drama without real heroes or, at least, without a recognized system of values powerful enough to inspire heroic action. Outwardly, the plays remain faithful to the traditional structure of drama organized around a central figure of heroic dimensions; Judith, Helen, and Lucille in the three plays here presented. But the nature of their heroism is altogether different from that traditionally associated with the term. As a matter of fact, their first dramatic function is to destroy whatever traces of conventional heroic values may still remain in the audience’s mind. Hence the ironic use of figures from the great Western myths: Judith, Helen of Troy, Lucrecia, Eve herself. The purpose is certainly not to show the archetypal permanence of the mythological situation, nor is it (as in Joyce) to show the degradation of the archetype in the contemporary setting. Instead, Giraudoux wants to humanize the myth radically, by stripping it of all universal significance, by reducing it to a strictly individual, particular and, as such, necessarily banal and trivial event. All the large and masculine categories that make up the heroic mood—love and war, courage, history—disappear. There is no room at all for Achilles in this version of the war of Troy, and even Hector, for whom war is an absurd butchery when it loses universal purpose, does not have the slightest grip of human destiny in spite of all his good will. With their tendency to generalize, men are the first great victims of Giraudoux’s humanized mythologies. They are steadily being cuckolded by a destiny which has chosen to mate with their women, and they are as ungracious about it is as the cuckolds of comedy are traditionally supposed to be. When they are trying to cast Judith in the role of a national martyr, she tells them in reply: “I believe God is only concerned with me, not with Holofernes or the Jews…There is no history of nations. There is only the history of Judith driven to her knees.” In more ironic versions, this feminine sense of individual reality keeps reducing the most pathetic myths to everyday comedy.
But this is only the negative aspect of Giraudoux’s heroines. The very similar feminine protagonists that reappear in play after play achieve a kind of positive heroic status of their own, a status so compelling that even the gods are completely seduced by it, let alone helpless mortal males. It comes from the heroine’s ability to stave off evil by refusing to recognize it as such. Imagine Eve, after her encounter with Satan, simply refusing to fall and continuing life as if nothing had happened. Such are Giraudoux’s women: they manage to forget the past, which is the source of guilt, and refuse to have anything to do with the future, which is the source of anxiety; no common meeting-ground can exist between Helen and Cassandra. The plays abound in talk about innocence and purity, but of a very peculiar kind. There are few virgins on Giraudoux’s stage, nor does virginity seem to be particularly valued there. Whether real or imaginary, rapes turn into rather cheerful affairs. whoever interprets this “purity” as a pre-lapsarian, childlike innocence, misses the point. Much rather, it is the ability to sin gracefully and elegantly, a feat symbolized by a love night so successful that all other considerations are blotted out for the moment. This seems to be the only genuine candor left in a world where all forms of virtue have become hollow.
Helen in Tiger at the Gates is, of course, the prototype of this paradoxical angel who knows neither pity, nor repentance. Since the dramatic interest is provided here by a caricature of the anties of contemporary international polities, Giraudoux can keep his female figure whole and pure. In the two other plays, where a not altogether successful attempt is made to present a more rounded, more true-to-life human being, the dramatic structure is more complicated. It rests on a surprise effect: after having been led to believe that some form of conventional morality will have the last word, the spectator suddenly discovers the Giraudoux heroine is in all her triumphant charm “beyond good and evil.” Thus the pseudo-Lucrecian Lucille from Duel of Angels appears as a crusader for staunch morality until she suddenly shifts sides in the last scene of the play; instead of dying to avenge her honor, she dies to avoid pomposity, gladly assuming a sin which in fact she has not committed. We understand then that the “virtue” which drove her to fight against ugly forms of vice, has nothing to do with the heavy-handed morality of the masculine world; it is in fact much more akin to the sense of style, of detachment, of bright-colored beauty that animates Helen in the Trojan play. And Judith is an even clearer case, although here the apparent conflict is not so much moral as religious, between a transcendental world of divine order and a world of immanent, sensuous pleasure. Up till the end, we are being told that Judith has achieved a transcendental grandeur in spite of herself and that, regardless of what her own feelings may be, she has been an instrument of divine purposes. Appearing in the guise of a drunken guard, a supernatural angel pronounces her a martyr—until, in the very last lines, the truth comes out; Judith has in fact brought down the gods to the level of human pleasures. Such is the power of feminine seductiveness when it casts off the weight of sin that, instead of raising humans to the level of the immortals, it humanizes the gods to the point where they forget their station.
This triumph of beauty, however, is by no means the triumph of elemental, animal forces of sensation; nothing could be more remote from the spirit of Giraudoux’s esthetic. Some of the men, and the gods themselves, partake of the natural, but women are creatures of refinement and artifice. Their struggle against the paralyzing power of moral fear is conducted with esthetic weapons. In this, they are very close to true poets. “You should imitate me a little,” says Lucille in Duel of Angels, “trust less to your thoughts and more to language… A flight of pure words lifts me into the sunshine.” Like those statesmen in Tiger at the Gates who can meet at the eve of war and exchange polished statements, the poet maintains the miracle of an elegant language among the many vulgarities of the present. When he does not actually put himself on the stage as a choral voice, Giraudoux makes his poetic presence constantly felt by claiming our steady attention to feats of language that mirror exactly the stylistic qualities of his feminine heroines. The conflicts unfold through a series of verbal contests, with the author’s sympathy always belonging to the one who has spoken best.
Today, we may have some difficulty in responding with equal enthusiasm to the charm of these ladies, and to the slightly mechanical elegance of the style. They look a little too much like fashion models. Next to writers like Valéry and Gide who also, at times, upheld deliberately “frivolous” conceptions of style asa defense against the temptations of profundity, Giraudoux is both shallow and facile. Yet the feminine type he invented, the most original achievement or his theater, becomes part of the literary gallery of the eternal feminine. He owes this to the bold determination with which his heroines leap across the conventional boundaries separating good from evil. In this, Giraudoux is a precursor of many later playwrights: his plays reduce established morality to absurdity, not by rebellion or indignation, but simply in the name of an urbane good taste. And a genuine element of poignancy is added by the fact that these shining women and their limpid language don’t have the slightest chance of resisting the rising tide. They always go under, their only achievement being that they maintain or even fulfill their style in defeat. Giraudoux’s Helen may seem brittle enough next to Valéry’s Jeune Parque or Proust’s Albertine, but if one compares her to the sultry, sulking heroines of the nouvelle vague, she rather gains in stature. One of the actresses who used to excel in Giraudoux’s feminine roles was called Madeleine Ozeray, and when I compare her to, let us say, Jeanne Moreau, it becomes clear that little progress has been made since the Thirties in the invention of an irresistible feminine type.
Much of the charm of Giraudoux’s theater comes across in this translation by Christopher Fry, though a certain amount of the verbal ironies and virtuosities is lost and little effort is made, I must say, to retrieve them. The disappearance of many good jokes increases the slightly misleading impression of solemnity left by the English text. But Fry shows a professional’s skill in preserving the brisk tempo of Giraudoux’s dialogue, and I can imagine that this version would do very well on the stage. It is an excellent introduction to the work of an author whose influence has been altogether salutary.