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Theatre and the act of “reading”—Trivial thoughts upon viewing The Madwoman of Chaillot

Yukie Mase
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences

In March 2013, Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot (produced by Didier Long) was performed in Paris. This posthumous work was written by Giraudoux, when France was being occupied by Germany. The Madwoman of Chaillot is a daring fantasy in which an eccentric old woman who is known as a “madwoman” repels a “group of villains” in Paris. The play was first performed in Paris in 1945, immediately following the end of German occupation, and was met with great acclaim from theatergoers. The play is set in Café Francis, which actually exists, as well as a fictional room located under the café. As such, it is most likely no coincidence that the venue selected for the recent performance was the Comedie des Champs-Élysées, which is located nearby the Place de l’Alma that the Café Francis faces. Prior to the performance, I had read a written version of the play until the pages were worn and had searched the theatre archives for material related to the first performance. For someone like me, it was enjoyable to reach the theatre via plazas and streets which characters in the play had undoubtedly strode through.

However, the cruel fact is that deep knowledge of a play makes it difficult to find a satisfying performance. The performance directed by Long was filled with bright comedy which traced the surface of the lines. As a commercial performance with smooth-speaking performers, it was easy to understand. Indeed, it would have been interesting to broadcast the performance live on television. Portrayed in flashy clothes and makeup, the madwoman Countess Aurélie constantly elicited laugher from the audience. However, I had not expected such a comical and unrefined elderly woman. I had envisioned a woman who uses clothespins to hike up the hem of her dull silk dress, while walking with perfect composure and ladylike appearance. I had hoped to encounter a dignified “countess” who loves her daily life together with the petty bourgeois of Paris and who loves animals and plants. It was true that the flat caricature of the performance was enjoyed by the well-dressed Parisian theatergoers who gathered in the venue that night. Of course there is the language barrier. The French language which I have interacted with over the past 20 years as a foreign language cannot be compared with French which is spoken from childhood as a native language and intensely studied in high school as language of knowledge. Despite having read the play numerous times, I was not able to respond reflexively to the voiced humor of the performance.

Generally speaking, plays are difficult to read when compared to novels or essays. In the case of a play, it is necessary for a reader to consciously replay within their mind which actor says what line and at what timing. It is difficult to finish reading a play unless you are a person who possesses a sense of first-hand connection with the theatre, to the extent that you force yourself to make such an effort while reading. Ironically, the work being performed within one’s mind through the imagination aroused by reading is frequently more “enjoyable” than the actual theatre performance. In that respect, perhaps it is best not to read plays at all? In the case of plays for which the written version has been published prior to the performance, if I would be forced to choose between reading the play and viewing the performance, I would probably choose the former. The reason is that the image formed through imagination aroused by reading is my own personal work, belonging to no one else. Also, although it is a very rare occurrence, I might someday encounter a performance at some theatre which totally destroys the image of “my own personal work.” I don’t want to relinquish the glorious fun produced by the destructive force that accompanies such a “rare occurrence.”

The image of a comical Countess Aurélie which I saw just a few days ago has already slipped into oblivion. The image of a dignified countess is slowly returning to my mind once again. Even now, I can see Countess Aurelia smiling quietly in my mind today, waiting for the arrival of a day when I will confront a powerful image which will invade my mind and overwhelm my own image of her.

Yukie Mase
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Graduated from School of Letters, Arts and Sciences II, Waseda University majoring in literary art. Started current position after completing her doctorate at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University and the Faculty of Literature, Lumière University Lyon 2. Majors in Western theatre texts with a focus on France and production. Wrote From Novels to Drama-Jean Giraudoux Changes in Narration (Waseda University Press) , and major essays such as Influence of Jean Giraudoux in Shuji Terayama – Radio Drama ‘Daireifuku’(in Theatre Essay Collection, Volume 54), Les sons sauvent les vies ; Souvenirs acoustiques de 4.48 psychose de Sarah Kane mis en scène de Norimizu Ameya, Théâtre/Public (197, 2010), and Fujita and Giraudoux--Surrounding Unknown《Chance Encounter》 (Comparative Literature Annual No.47).