An absurdist reflection of our times

'The Madwoman of Chaillot' remains as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1943

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

Theatre in the Rough's new play, "The Madwoman of Chaillot," is an absurdist French tale about love, life, art, beauty and the battle against conformity and greed.

Written by Jean Giraudoux in 1943 during the German occupation of Paris, it's also an appropriate fable during the United States' current occupation of Iraq.

"It's never a bad time to be thinking about our enemies, our motivations and why we are doing things," director Aaron Elmore said. "The play is about war, it's about oil, and it's about big business as well as communities and individuality. What's come to light during rehearsals is that it's completely vital to our world."

"The Madwoman" previews at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7, at McPhetres Hall. It opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, and shows Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 30.

Tickets are $14 in advance at Hearthside Books, $16 at the door. Kids 12 and under are $6. Students and seniors are $8. The box office will reserve some tickets at the door even if Hearthside is sold out.

The play follows a group of greed-driven prospectors and political officials who want to drill for oil beneath the French town of Chaillot. Madame Aurelia, the "Madwoman" of Chaillot, fends off their plan. The madame is dowdy at times, apparently insane at others. But she refuses to accept that the world is anything less than beautiful and emerges as the hero of the masses, the spirit of the neighborhood.

The question must be asked: Is she really that mad at all?

"Most of the time, when you have madness portrayed in a play, it's intended to turn our sensibilities on our ear," Elmore said. "The crazy people end up making more sense than the ones on the outside, and that's on purpose."

"The Madwoman is the fulcrum for everything," said Katie Jensen, who plays the Madwoman. "So many of the things she says at their face seem very, very sane. But if you really look at what she's saying, it's crazy."

Theatre in the Rough

When: previews at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7; opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8; plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 30

Where: McPhetres Hall

Tickets: $14 in advance at Hearthside Books; $16 at the door; children 12 and under $6; students and seniors $8

"She believes fully and completely that everything she's doing is for the best," she said. "She's utterly truthful to herself and to everybody else. Her only downfall is that she wants to believe the best of everybody, and she doesn't want to accept that there's anything bad in the world."

Jensen played the part of Madame Josephine while she was in graduate school at Brigham Young University.

"(The Iraq war) was probably reason B why we did this play," she said. "Reason A was because it's an incredibly beautiful play. It's in our mission statement that everything we do has to be about the dignity of the human spirit. That it's still there, despite all the things we try to do to it."

The playwright Giraudoux was a scholar, a literary editor, a soldier during World War I and later a bureaucrat. He was the head of the French information and press services of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1926 to 1934.

He spent a year of his 20s in Germany and spent much of his artistic and professional life writing about French-German relations.

Giraudoux wrote his first nonfiction book in 1921 and went on to write 15 plays. "The Madwoman" was published in 1945, a year after his death, and it was translated into English in 1947. The play premiered in New York City in 1948.

"(The Madwoman) is a little bit of an anti-war, anti-establishment play, but I would hate, as would he, for it to be labeled as merely that," Jensen said. "It's against the loss of soul in the modern civilization, especially during the time that he was writing. We've been through one world war, we're in the middle of a second one, and we're feeling the effects of post-industrialization.

"It's a play about the soul and the dignity of the soul itself," she said. "And it's a play about love. There's a line at the end of the second act that talks about greed versus the soul. So it's the soul against the machine. It's a very old thing, even Shakespeare was writing about it."

The play is set partly in the 1940s and partly in the present. Elmore wrote two songs on accordion in mazurka, a Polish folk style. David Funk (the Musician) added some klezmer tunes and a few ballads.

Giraudoux's script has not been changed, except for a few words. There's a line that says, "All you'll find down there are good Republicans." "Republicans" has been changed to citizens to make the meaning clear, and to avoid a reference to the political party.

Another notable change: Pierre, a character sent with the bomb to blow up the city architect, and the Baron, another of the schemers, are played by puppets.

"Both of them seemed to be characters that were one foot in the vagabond world and one foot in the world," Elmore said. "They are truly puppeted by business magnates.

"Through crime and poverty, they've been swindled into taking part in this. The baron ends up doing it gladly. Pierre ends up being free of it," he said.

For the role of the Broker, KTOO's David Waters has constructed a sort of Victorian-era television with a mechanical heart and two monitors facing the audience as if to suggest crossed eyes. Becky Orford (the Broker) will be broadcast on the two screens via a closed-circuit connection.

"A bit of a touchstone for this process was the Terry Gilliam movie 'Brazil,' a wonderful movie about bombs going off and losing sense of the modern world," Elmore said.

"One of the things about Girardoux's play is the absence of the pervasive influence of electrical technology in his world," he said. "I wanted to bring that in. We live in a world where we have attempted constantly to better our lives with machines, and I think we're living proof that there has been very much good and very much frustration that has come from that.

"There are things that we can do today that we never would have dreamed of 100 years ago, but there are things that we have lost also," he said.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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