Jean-Paul Sartre followed up work from the previous period with “Les séquestrés d’Altona” (The condemned of Altona, more precisely The sequestered of Altona, 1959).
“In the von Gerlach household…time has stopped, because of Franz…He never had to take the responsibility for decisive acts till one day at Smolensk when he tortured a partisan. He did so allegedly for his country’s sake but really to overcome a sense of impotence, affirm his independence of his father and manifest his personal power by a major act” (Jackson, 1965 p 64). “The characters are all perfectly aware that they are in bad faith and consciously choose to remain so…Bad faith consists in the substitution of a persona for personality to use…In Leni’s words…’Here, you know, we play the loser takes all’…She tries to make Franz face up to his past…She fails…[and] merely wants to act out her chosen role, she has no interest in effecting any change in the situation…Her attitude is summarized in her incestuous relationship…Leni has chosen to be…an unsuccessful rebel…[for] failure has only to be desired to be transmuted into success…Only if [Franz] maintains his self-sequestration can she use him as a weapon against her father in her nominal rebellion against all that the family stands for…The significance for Werner of Johanna’s relationship to Franz is that it is the final indignity, [which] depends less on Werner’s relationship with his wife than on the relationship of the two brothers to each other and to their father…He wants nothing better than to please his father…but he is constantly thwarted…Just as Leni and Werner choose to be failures, so does Johanna…Johanna’s wedding was the funeral of her quintessential beauty…However, she needs an audience for her martyrdom: Werner…The driving force in Gerlach’s life has been a belief in the rectitude of capitalist power…and [he] disregarded all normal objections to the nature of Nazi power…The justifiability of the capitalist way of life…is that there are no visible alternatives…[In suicide is] the possibility of choosing the manner of his own defeat…Why does Franz feel guilty about the murder and the torture?…[He] is disgusted because he was powerless to do anything else…He had conscience…but the dominant desire was for power…His plea is that the nature of the historical process is such that evil was the only possible result of human activity…He is implying his own guilt, and guilt posits freedom” (Palmer, 1988 pp 308-317). “Franz discovers not only his own unreality and impotence but experiences in an acute form the subjective state of being hammered into the ground. Only in one particular was he not a mere image of his father and that was when he used torture, so that death is the only means by which he can escape from an intolerable situation- the realisation that he tortured for nothing- and assert what little remains of his own reality” (Wardman, 1992 p 263).
Frantz sequesters himself because of his past participation in war crimes and current participation in incest…Leni’s love for her brother…thrives in the close atmosphere of her brother’s more literal sequestration. It is to protect this intimacy that she has refused to be her father’s messenger throughout the years. Leni is, moreover, aware that her love for her brother is part of her fanatical espousal of a certain code of tribal family life. ‘Incest is my way of making family bonds tighter,’ she says…Werner was born to jealousy. Rejected in favor of Frantz, Werner cannot give himself to any relationship unless it be an attitude of permanent courtship which he has adopted towards his father…The question is: why does he refuse to leave? He…is rooted in own conviction of inferiority…At first glance Johanna appears to be an energetic well-balanced woman, ready to fight for her husband…She is less an accomplice than the others and more of a victim…She has already progressed towards her own individual liberation…It is this that Werner does not understand in her and by his lack of understanding, he condemns her to the fictions which she has already abandoned…Old Gerlach had sequestered all…If he did so, it was because he himself is the greatest ‘sequester” of all…His single ethical code was that the end justifies the means…He said of the Nazis: ‘I serve them because they serve me…But they are fighting a war to find markets for us and I’m going to have trouble with them over a piece of land’…the source of Frantz’s sequestration complex” (Pucciani, 1961 pp 23-30) “Fear was the only emotional rapport between the domineering patriarch and his children, and Johanna discovers that his incapacity of love caused the death of his wife. Rejecting his younger son emotionally and physically, the elder von Gerlach makes Werner the prime target of his sadistic humiliations. The same lack of sentiment sequesters him from the affections of his daughter” (Galler, 1971 p 179).
“The five characters exist primarily for Franz, whose sequestration has sequestered them as well…Gerlach’s collusion with the Nazis was based on the reality of Nazi power; to remain the boss was primary and to remain a boss during the war meant to collaborate with Hitler…When the play opens…Gerlach still owns the form but no longer commands it…Franz was conceived and raised to be just like his father, a boss, with his father’s pride and his father’s passions…For three years, his father has known that he was ‘the butcher of Smolensk’. Nevertheless, von Gerlach neither can nor wants to judge his son. Bound to Franz in whatever he is, von Gerlach rejects Franz’ acts but continues to love him totally. His paternal love, born of identity, makes judgment impossible. The identity of son with father is brought to its resolution when von Gerlach takes on Franz’ responsibility for his crimes as butcher of Smolensk. Left with nothing, Franz allows his father to sanctify that nothingness” (McCall, 1969 pp 128-139). “The play’s conclusion, in which father and son commit suicide by driving their Porsche off the Teufelsbrücke, points to the bankruptcy of the father’s complicitous behavior and the son’s ultimate moral impotence. However, the audience is also implicated because it is forced to listen posthumously to Frantz’s pre-recorded speech- an analepsis created by a now dead protagonist but which is directed to the audience; yet another example of reaching back into the past to clarify the present and the future. In it, Frantz declares that ‘this century would have been fine if man had not been pursued by his cruel, immemorial enemy, that carnivorous species that swore to destroy him, by that vicious hairless beast called man’. The play’s final moments also share elements with ‘The flies’ (1943) and ‘No exit’ (1944). In a gesture similar to Orestes, Frantz assumes responsibility for this world and ‘takes the century on his shoulders’ while, as in the case of ‘No exit’, the play does not end abrupdy. There is continuity…’Leni enters his room’ and thus becomes the next prisoner of the von Gerlach enterprise, which will from now on be directed by Werner with the help of his wife Johanna (Van Den Hoven, 2012 pp 69-70).
“The sequestered of Altona”
Time: 1940s-1950s. Place: Germany.
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After learning he has only a few months left to live, an industrialist, von Gerlach, wishes his younger son, Werner, to take over his boat-construction business. He also requests that Werner, his wife, Johanna, and his sister, Leni, remain together in their 32-room family mansion, watching over his eldest son, Frantz, who has been kept sequestered in the house for thirteen years. Werner and Leni agree to do so, but Johanna wants to move elsewhere alone, so that the father must explain why the three should remain together after his death. In 1941, he received an offer from Goebbel, Nazi minister, to sell his field and organize a concentration camp for Jews, which he accepted. During the persecution of the Jews, Frantz was caught harboring a rabbi inside his father’s mansion. The rabbi was killed before his face by SS officers and Gerlach forced to send his son away in the march towards Russia. Johanna suspects that her husband tipped off the SS. In 1946, American officers were invited at the mansion, where Leni was in the habit of enflaming their desires and then dashing them with insults. One day, an officer attempted to rape her. She was able to defend herself by hitting him on the head with a bottle. To protect her from being persecuted for that deed, Frantz took the blame, and, thanks to a deal with an American general, was allowed to go abroad, but instead stayed home in hiding. Johanna hates that story. She does not change her mind, delivering an ultimatum to her husband: either to stay or follow her elsewhere. Over the years, Frantz has refused even to see his father, only allowing Leni to enter his room. Gerlach tries to convince Johanna to speak with Frantz, at least to let him know he is dying. Frantz is not the humanist he first appeared from his father’s anecdotes. Wearing an officer’s uniform in shreds, he keeps Adolf Hitler’s picture in his room and peppers it with oyster shells. Since the end of the war, he considers the entire country overrun with weeds, passing the time either drunk or engaging in an incestuous relation with his sister. Johanna obtains Leni’s secret code from her husband to see Frantz. She reveals to him that his father is dying and that she would prefer to see him either free or dead than living in such a manner. After learning that Johanna succeeded in seeing Frantz, Gerlach asks to see him, too, but she refuses to help him, thinking it might lead to his death. Werner thinks his father’s purpose is to place Frantz as head of the business in his place. Eventually, Johanna changes her mind and informs Frantz about his father’s wish to see him, but cannot entice him back to a normal life. “I will abandon at once my life of illusions….when I love you more than my lies, when you love me despite my truth,” Frantz says. He specifies that his sequestration is due not by something he did, but by what he failed to do, in passively permitting a fanatic in his troup of soldiers to torture some civilians. His confession, spurred on by a Leni jealous of her rival, repulses Johanna. Neither Johanna nor Leni are able to convince Frantz to leave his room. Yet at the moment when Johanna backs off from the mutual love they began to feel for each other, he accepts at last to see his father. Frantz has read in the newspapers of his father’s financial successes, he who has always played the game of “whoever loses, wins”. Gerlach is surprised to learn that Frantz accepts to run the business. While reminiscing about the past, Frantz reminds him of the time when they once drove a car together at great speed, both wishing to relive that experience. When they go out together, Leni becomes certain that they will die together.
Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972) followed up the previous period with another noteworthy piece in the tradition of a realist rendering of history, “Le maître de Santiago” (The master of Santiago, 1948).
In “The master of Santiago”, “a father refuses to take any steps to secure his daughter’s perfectly honorable marriage to a man she loves, because he rejects all compromise with life in complacently prosperous and power-minded Spain after the defeat of the Moors. His daughter, stirred by her father’s extreme honorableness, puts an end to the hoax that would have secured him riches and that would have enabled her to marry. The father is a remarkably well-drawn Don Quixote (without any ludicrous attributes, however), and his aversion to the conniving world and the enslavement of the American Indians by Spain rises to truly heroic proportions. The flame of idealism in this drama is all-consuming. One could wish only that it also had more human warmth. The knight’s almost superhuman purity of motivation is, no doubt, intended as a slap in the face of ordinary humanity- for which Montherlant had perhaps too much contempt to become a truly great dramatist” (Gassner, 1954a p 724). The grand scale of the play “takes the form of a resistance, expressed in fine language, to anything vulgar, mediocre, commonplace” (Cruickshank, 1964 p 110). “No wealth in the new world for him, no marriage and happiness for her! It is a total refusal, urged on by a kind of sadistic romanticism for purity…The master…is not an example of a model Christian, for his egoism, cruelty, and all his actions have a dreadful inhumanity…The love of Alvaro is a love of extermination; he has a hardness which is only explained by his pride” (Lumley, 1967 pp 345- 346).
“To many, Montherlant’s ‘Christian’ drama may appear to be the study of fanaticism devoid of saintly qualities, the sort of fanaticism that stops far short of godliness and is, at best, a narrow reaching beyond the self…Don Alvaro expresses a wish to isolate himself from all worldly commerce and concerns into a carefully planned isolation for the sake of contemplation, and to gain salvation…The world has become too much for him, he does not understand it, and he ceases to want to understand it…Mariana is depicted as an obstacle forever standing between her father and God. Her father has no interest in guaranteeing Marina’s happiness by permitting her marriage…The institution of family is condemned…The Order is the real family of elected spirits with common beliefs and noble concepts. It does not impose attachments…Mariana’s serious statement that she does not wish to be happy prepares the way for an eventual understanding with her father…The father uses the cape to cover both his shoulders and his daughter’s in a gesture meant to underscore their ecstasy and their oblivion- or else their madness and their surrender of life” (Johnson, 1968 pp 110-113).
“The master of Santiago”
Time: 1519. Place: Avila, Spain.
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Members of the Order of Santiago meet at the house of their master, Don Alvero. Three of its members decide to try their fortunes in the new world. To Alvaro, the present times are rotten, compared to the famous times when Spain ousted the Mores from Spain at the battle of Granada, when he “contemplated God in his cloak of war”. The supposed purpose of converting Indians in the new world is “impurity and excrement”, because the passion of lucre, instead of sending Indians to heaven, sends Spaniards to hell. When his friends leave, Alavaro rejoices in his solitude. “O my soul, do you still exist?” he asks himself, “O my soul, at last you and me!” A friend, Don Bernal, has heard about the love-match proposed between his son, Jacinto, and Alvaro’s daughter, Mariana. Because of Jacinto’s expensive mode of living, Bernal suggests that he enrich himself along with others in the new world, a plan the master immediately and irrevocably refuses. Alvaro is not interested in acquiring money even for his daughter’s sake, whom he best loves in the world. “You will not steal my poverty,” he warns his friend. He harshly accuses his daughter of dishonesty in this matter, calling love “monkeyshine”. “Is the father of a daughter a father?” he asks himself rhetorically. In an attempt to help the young lovers, Bernal asks the count of Soria to mislead Alvaro into thinking the king commands Alvaro’s presence as an administrator in the new world, but Mariana, unable to deceive her father, ruins the plan by admitting the deception to him. Fed up with world affairs, Alvaro heads towards St Barnaby’s convent, a place where Mariana can live, too. She accepts the offer. He covers her with the white robe of the Order of Santiago, and, with the snow falling outside, father and daughter seem ready to live buried in mystical snow.
Another play based on a religious theme but in a more critical vein is “Les caves du Vatican” (The Vatican cellars, 1950) by André Gide (1869-1951), a close adaptation of his 1914 novel of the same title. The story derives from a historical event in 1893 (Ireland, 1970 p 252) when “a crooked lawyer, an unfrocked nun and a scandalous priest conspired at Lyons to spread the rumor that Leon XIII had been imprisoned by Freemason cardinals who had substituted a false pope in his place, and collected money from the faithful for his release” (Painter, 1968 p 67). The following critiques concern the novel, but is equally valid for the play.
“There are two main plots…the story of Lafcadio and the story of the conspiracy…linked by the relationship of the family…[The objective of the] Vatican swindlers…is to make a fool of society” (Painter, 1968 pp 66-67). “A pope on earth should, by definition, be a repository of infallible truth, divinely guaranteed. But of course the authenticity of the pope would, in turn, require to be guaranteed: one could have confidence in the infallibility of the pope’s pronouncement only if one could be infallibly certain that one is dealing with the one infallible pope” (Ireland, 1970 p 270).
“Protos divides humanity into two types: ‘the subtle’, to whom of course Protos belongs, are those whose Protean sensibility dictates a flexible and variable response to any given situation, those who, for whatever reason, do not present the same face to all people and in all places; they are the enemies of ‘the crustaceans’, the rigid, the insulated, the men of principle to themselves in all contexts…Protos…takes in all the aristocratic and bourgeois crustaceans…is the embodiment of escape- escape from society…one’s self…one’s past, of evasion in its wildest Gidian sense, and in the sense of the perpetual mobile unrest of the creative spirit…Julius…is a novelist whose failure is due to the excessive logicality of his characterization…Lafcadio [is] turbulent and voluptuous [but] has imposed upon himself an austere discipline of self-control…to the extent of inflicting…penitential and admonitory stabs with a pen-knife for the slightest lapse in self-restraint” (Thomas, 1959 pp 157-161). “Lafcadio, a youthful vagabond…is both beautiful and amoral” (Pollard, 1991 p 365). Lafcadio’s “natural elegance and superior attainments make him a misfit in the lower classes of society, while the circumstances of his birth and the modesty of his condition exclude him from the higher” (Ireland, 1970 p 262). Each of the crustaceans, Julius, Anthime, and Amadeus, “changes his thoughts and habits, uprooting himself from all his past”, but, being crustaceans, lapse back to what they were (O’Brien, 1953 p 180).
Different though partially overlapping views have been presented on Lafcadio’s motive for murder, a seemingly gratuitous act. As a bastard, Lafcadio’s “unconscious need for recognition and parental love- it is irrelevant that he is too far gone to know what to do with them if had had them- has turned to equally unconscious need for revenge. In the mediocre bourgeois image of Fleurissoire, he pushes overboard the society that had rejected him” (Painter, 1968 p 72). “In ejecting Amadeus, Lafcadio was rebelling not only against the deeply rooted, intricately ramified family and the whole regime of the hard-shelled crustaceans, but also by implication against Wagner and Parsifal and all those who have made a cult of them…Lafcadio is a temperamental gambler who loves to play with sensations and emotions” (O’Brien, 1953 pp 185-186). He is narcistic, “eager for self-knowledge…deriving from a frantically impatient insensibility, a consuming lust for sensation of the most intense” (Thomas, 1959 p 162). “Bored and intrigued by his companion, Lafcadio allows his imagination to wander…It is precisely [the] apparent lack of motive that the interest of the proposition lies…It is about himself that he is curious” (Ireland, 1970 p 263).
“The Vatican cellars”
Time: 1890s. Place: Italy.
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Anthimus, an atheist and a cripple, is angry at his wife, Veronica, for offering votive candles to the Virgin Mary meant to improve his health. To his surprise, alone in the dark, he hears the Virgin’s voice and becomes cured, joyfully throwing away his crutches and converting himself to the Catholic faith. Anthimus’ wealthy brother-in-law, Julius, a writer, is requested by his dying father, a count, to visit the father’s bastard son, a youth named Lafcadio, whom he has never met. To obtain information on Lafcadio, Julius proposes him some work as a secretary. In his will, the father bequests to Lafcadio a large sum of money provided he promises not to bother other members of the family with his presence, so that he need not take the job offered him by Julius. On his way to Julius’ house, Lafcadio saves two children from a house on fire, to the admiration of Julius’ daughter, Jennifer. Lafcadio’s description of his life-history to Julius is interrupted by news of the count’s death. Meanwhile, Julius’ other brother-in-law, Amadeus, hears a rumor that Pope Leo XIII has been abducted and kept in a dungeon at San Angelo’s fortress, annexed to the Vatican, while an imposter takes his place. The rumor is false, perpetrated by Protos, a school-chum of Lafcadio, to obtain large sums of money from gullible Catholics for the purpose of freeing the pope. When Amadeus arrives in Rome, Protos, disguised as a priest, befriends him and takes him to Naples to an associate in crime, Bardoletti, pretending to be a cardinal, who requests him to change a bond of 6,000 Francs into ready cash. At the same time, Julius is also visiting Rome to request the pope a compensation for the loss of revenues suffered by Anthimus, no longer protected by freemasons he once counted on in his career. However, he is unsuccessful at this task. Amadeus reveals to him what he knows about the missing pope, but Julius finds it dificult to believe such a story. Nevertheless, he helps him retrieve the money from the bank and gives him a train ticket in his name. By coincidence, when Amadeus takes the train from Rome towards Naples, he encounters Lafcadio, neither knowing each other. Bored with his life but willing to dare fate to the utmost, Lafcadio throws him out the door to his death. He takes with him Amadeus’ train ticket but not the 6,000 francs. While meeting Julius in Rome, Lafcadio is surprised to learn that the murdered man is Julius’ brother-in-law. To tease his half-brother, he leaves on the table Amadeus’ train ticket. On discovering this, Julius becomes extremely worried he may become the unknown murderer’s next victim. Unknown to Lafcadio, his murder was observed by Protos, who proposes to his old friend that they blackmail Julius. Lafcadio refuses and discloses his crime to Julius, a conversion overheard by Jennifer. The murder makes her love the man even more. Lafcadio makes off with her, concluding: “Together, we’ll know how to save ourselves.”
A bridge is drawn between Jarry’s “Ubu the king” (1888) and the Theatre of the Absurd with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. An example of a Dadaist play is Tristan Tzara’s “The gas heart” (1921) where nonsense prevails. Examples of Surrealist plays include “Victor, or the children come to power” (1928) and “The mysteries of love” (1927) by Roger Vitrac. The playwrights of both movements seek to overthrow middle class conventions with dream images. Surrealists show interest in replacing dominant conventions with a new society, including a communist one, whereas Dadaists show little desire to replace them with anything. A bridge is also drawn between existential drama and the Theatre of the Absurd in Jacques Audiberti’s (1899-1965) “Le mal court” (Evil runs, 1947), also showing some affinity with Georg Büchner’s “Leonce and Lena” (1836) and Alfred de Musset’s “Fantasio” (1834).
In “Evil runs”, “the plot is unimportant in itself, serving only to illustrate the theme, which is that of the omnipresence and inexorable force of evil. Audiberti uses a conventional fairy-tale plot: beautiful young princess, daughter of an impoverished king, goes to marry rich young king; wicked cardinal intervenes and prevents marriage for political reasons; beautiful young princess heartbroken, etc…Audiberti carries his classic fairy-tale formula only up to a point: the rich young king does not throw the wicked cardinal into an oubliette so that he can marry the beautiful young princess at the end. Instead, the princess, Alarica, finds as the play proceeds that she is and always has been ringed around with evil and deceit. Her illusions about the goodness of life and the decency and trustworthiness of people drop from her one by one in a series of painful shocks. She discovers that her projected marriage has been secretly abandoned a long time ago and that she is being used as a decoy so that the young king can make a politically more advantageous match. Even her old and faithful nurse is in the plot. There is absolutely nobody she can trust. Everyone is self-seeking, corruptible, and dishonest because everyone is living and ordering his life within the context of an artificial and corrupt society. As the series of shocks which she is obliged to undergo bludgeon her into an awareness of the true nature of the world, Alarica realizes that she must make her compromise with it if she is to survive as something other than a pawn. She determines to fight evil with evil- to let ‘the evil run’. She deposes her amiable, bumbling old father, disregarding his pleas for filial respect, and resolves to rule with complete ruthlessness. If everything is evil, then the most evil wins” (Wellwarth, 1962 p 336).
Time: 1940s. Place: Fictional country of Shortland.
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Alarica, princess of Shortland, must marry for political reasons Perfect, king of Occident. She hears a knock at the door and a voice stating that the king has arrived. While the princess and the supposed king confer, her lieutenant discovers that the man is an imposter. As the intruder, Ferdinand, tries to leave, the lieutenant shoots him but lets him live. While Alarica and her governess discuss the case, a second knock is heard, stating once again that the king has arrived. This time it is the genuine king, who finds the princess attractive, but the cardinal in his company reveals that their marriage prospects have been annulled, as it is more in their country’s interest for the king to marry the Spanish king’s daughter. “We will marry Spain and make her pregnant,” the cardinal affirms. However, during his absence, the king proposes marriage to Alarica and is accepted. They set off for Occident, but when the subject of what to do with Ferdinand arises, Alarica proposes that he share their bed. The king is stunned at this suggestion and no longer knows what will become of him. Although Alarica and Ferdinand sleep in the same bed, they find it difficult to agree. “All that you deserve is for me to let you wade among your ideas like a comb in soup,” he says. Meanwhile, the king of Shortland, Celestincinc, demands to know what a stranger is doing in his daughter’s bedroom. She behaves more and more strangely to the point that Celestincin suspects his daughter has gone mad. “Evil runs. A ferret! A ferret! At all costs let it run,” she says. Celestincinc orders Ferdinand’s arrest. Alarica disapproves of this decision. Her life has only served so far to “mask the present tornado of my ferocity,” she says. Inspired by Alarica, Ferdinand proposes great improvements in the land of Shortland, to the astonishment of the marshal, who finds his plans “totally prodigious”. Alarica proposes that the lieutenant and the marshal abandon fidelity towards her father and submit themselves entirely to her and her husband as queen and king of Shortland. They agree. “Evil runs,” Alaracia happily concludes.
Arthur Adamov (1908-1970) is another Surrealist playwright with a claim to lasting fame in writing “L’invasion” (The invasion, 1950).
Time: 1950s. Place: France.
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Peter works hard in trying to decipher writings left by the dead brother of his wife, Agnes. While he slowly makes way in assembling the texts, she types them up. They are helped by a friend, Tradel, but the two men do not agree on the best method of proceeding. Peter believes in obtaining the most accurate word-for-word version, while Tradel believes in obtaining an approximate version completed by their instinctive knowledge of what was meant. Because of this disagreement, Peter works alone, though Tradel warns that they must hurry, because the dead friend’s family is seeking legal means of obtaining the documents for their own use. Peter thinks they can do nothing about that. An unknown man shows up to buy the apartment next door. The stranger takes pity on sad-looking Agnes, almost totally ignored by her preoccupied husband. Unable to pursue his work, Peter decides to quit for awhile and live inside a secluded room in their apartment, to be bothered by no one. “I will not have peace so long as things do not show a certain perspective,” he affirms. Agnes and Tradel do not believe this to be a good idea. Peter’s mother will bring him meals as usual, but he warns her never to utter a word to him. With Peter ensconced in the little room, the stranger loses no time in declaring his love to Agnes. They go off together, to the amusement of Peter’s mother, who laughs and slaps her thigh at this event. When Peter emerges from the room, he is ready to assume an ordinary life. He tears the papers he spent so much time on and then learns his wife has left him. He expresses understanding of her decision in view of their disordered life together, but his mother blames her for the disorder. As he leaves the room, Tradel returns to reveal that Agnes’ family is ready to remove the papers from off their hands, but then discovers all of them torn up. Unexpectedly, Agnes comes back, but only temporarily, since her friend is sick. After brief exchanges, the mother pushes her out. When Tradel looks for Peter, he discovers him dead. “I will never forgive myself,” he declares. The mother is stunned at this event and stands immobile.
Another main dramatist of this period is Jean Genet (1910-1986) with “Les bonnes” (The maids, 1947) and “Les nègres” (The blacks, 1958).
From the start of “The maids”, Solange plays her mistress’ role as “domineering and insulting…The response of the maids to madame is ambivalent, a compound of hate and affection, of envy and admiration, with hate and envy predominating…The dramatic conflict in ‘The maids’ is between the condition, status, or role of servantdom and that of madamedom“ (Jacobsen and Mueller, 1976 pp 138-143). “The two maids are linked by the love-hatred of being each other’s mirror images…At the same time, in the role of the lady, Claire sees the whole race of servants as the distorting mirror of the upper class. Thus what they hate seeing reflected in each other is the distorted reflection of the world of the secure masters, which they adore, ape, and loathe” (Esslin, 1974 p 174). “Because they hate their place so much, they also hate each other and themselves. As Solange says, ‘grime does not like grime’. The servants fail in their quest because of this hatred. As Malraux and Sartre mentioned, ‘revolutions are possible only when the victims of oppression can look upon their present condition as a possible source of future dignity’…Solange and Claire have no alternative value to offer…They would like to possess madame’s qualities themselves, and although their fury at being unable to do so may express itself in dreams of murder, they finally only punish themselves” (Thody, 1968 pp 165-167). “When madame arrives, she is not the ogre we have been expecting, but a fairly ordinary, rich, over-romantic, superficial woman of the world…Claire now realizes that their first move against madame must be to kill in themselves the elements of madame they so hate- her hypocritical superiority and her self-importance…Solange’s final speech is, for the first time, honest and calm” (Gascoigne, 1970 p 191). Henning (1980) argued that “when Madame returns, the cycle is apparently completed after all. But this, too, remains merely an image. The employer herself is not the genuine Bourgeois Mistress she first seems, nor really a Faithful-Woman-Suffering-for-the-Man-She-Loves. She, too, is only playing a role. Her actions even appear derisory copies of the maids’ opening ritual gestures. She is herself but another surrogate monarch…Claire does assume the behavior of their mistress, but during the maids’ private ceremony, it is Solange, not Madame, who plays the servant’s part. The ritual reversal of roles is thus only partially achieved, and the servants can only degrade themselves” (pp 80-81). “The maids, wearing alternately their uniforms and their mistress’ clothes, have a dual identity in several respects: humiliated drudges and triumphant vindicators, prisoners and imaginary voyagers, creators of beauty and slaves to the kitchen range, to which they add still another form of duality, that of the child and grown-up…When Claire puts on her mistress’ dress, it has to be pinned up considerably for she is far too little to fit in adult attire. That Claire and Solange may not be fullgrown is further suggested by the fact that they sleep in folding cots. Although they dedicate their lives to revenge, they recite prayers in their room in the manner of pious children. They adorn their attic with fetiches, including Madame’s bouquet, a behavior which is indicative of the child’s refusal to part with any possession” (Hubert, 1969 pp 204-205). “The maids emulate madame because they desperately desire to be integrated into the aristocratic echelon of society…Claire and Solange have no identity of their own except in relationship to madame; therefore, they want to possess the only person who defines their existence…Madame is beautiful, kind, wealthy, and a magnet for men; the maids are ugly, vicious, indigent, and have no male acquaintanceships. Frustrated by their inability to alter their social or economic status, Claire and Solange envy and thus despise madame whose patronizing attitude toward her servants only exacerbates their desire for vengeance. The maids resent being subservient, feel unable to speak honestly to their ‘patronne’ and are increasingly sexually repressed around madame, whose essence is defined by her sexual prowess. Claire and Solange engage in a ritualistic rite designed to destroy the spirit of ‘madameness’ so that the outcasts…can transcend their inferior statuses in defiance of the established ruling class” (Plunka, 1992 pp 176-177). “Madame is, of course, a kept woman and as such bears a curious relationship to the maids themselves. She is actually a member of another sub-world, a higher sub-world than that of the maids, to be sure, but a sub-world nonetheless. And so she too, to a certain extent, lives by fantasy and imagination. We see this at once in the way she dramatizes the arrest of Monsieur. She is not really herself, but alienated, like the maids, in her being. And we see further that the role she plays in her relationship with Monsieur is actually the prototype for the role of the two maids. She recounts now the story of his arrest, the anonymous letters and above all the heroic role which she plays in the whole affair. Solange tries to reassure her. She says that Monsieur is innocent and will be acquitted. ‘He is, he is,’ answers Madame. And yet a false note creeps in. We gather that Madame rather enjoys her role of martyr and saint. She will be faithful to Monsieur whatever happens. She will follow him from prison to prison. She will give up her elegant life, her beautiful dresses made to order by Chanel, her furs. She has a moment even of false sympathy for her two servants. They will all retire to the country together. They will be faithful to her and she will take care of them” (Pucciani, 1963 p 53).
“The blacks” “is an ironic howl at and mockery of every thing the paleface thinks, says and, in furtive guilt and repressed aversion, fails to say against the dark-skinned peoples…It is all done with a grin which has little humor, though it will provoke a frightened laugh” (Clurman, 1966 pp 74-75). “The principal question…is whether Village committed the murder from the right motivation and in the right spirit. Was his deed executed in a way that would do full justice to the very soul of blackness?…Accordingly it becomes necessary for Village to re-enact the murder…Archibald reminds them of the desired goal: ‘we must deserve their reprobation and get them to deliver the judgment that will condemn us’…They must live up to the concept of blackness as defined by the whites. But [afterwards] the blacks have moved toward…the determiners of their own actions…The judge…aghast that no murder has been committed, sees the evaporation of his role…The possessed…must stop short of murder…for [that] would deprive [them] of possession” and so the roles become reversed (Jacobsen and Mueller, 1976 pp 158-162). There is a tight relation between stage events and the uprising behind the scenes. “The play performed for the audience is a deception that masks the underlying motive of the blacks onstage: a ritualistic self-immolating and subsequent exorcism of white values, producing a rite of passage to a new identity…The whites in the audience are at ease to see blacks imitating white culture…The blacks are associated with the white 19th century colonialist view of Africa as a savage primitive world…The court, played by blacks in white masks, represents white society, or at least a stereotyped black view of what white society represents…Dispossessing themselves from white authority and power, the blacks establish their own identities and begin to make their own judgments which are manifested by the offstage trial of a black traitor…Diouf, as Marie, gives birth to five dolls representing the white court…[signifying] the murder of the white race” (Plunka, 1992 pp 226-233). “The ritual is designed to disintegrate the white image, the uprising to disintegrate the whites” (Brustein, 1964 p ?). “All the whites in Genet’s play are uniformed and stand for more than themselves. They are, in fact, symbols of authority. In colonial Africa native secret societies and social clubs often gave their officers the costumes and titles of queen, governor, judge, and missionary, thus both emulating the whites and challenging their monopoly of the symbols of authority” (Graham-White, 1970 pp 210-211). “The court in this play is ineffective. It is the blacks who must try one of their own. Part of the ineffectiveness of the white court is the fact that they cannot keep up a normal conversation. Their speech is marked by random outbursts that lead the trial nowhere. One reading of this can be that a white court cannot understand and make sense of a black crime…Another reading can be that…justice is impossible to the blacks” (Bennett, 2011 p 82). “The destruction of the whites as they appear is seen as the only way to better their condition. The blacks fight the whites in their purpose to obtain political independence and be able to enjoy emotions other than hatred” (Thody, 1979 p 199). “‘The blacks’ begin by dancing a minuet to a Mozart melody around a catafalque which occupies center stage. Even though the element of parody is apparent in their movements, the minuet signifies the enslavement of the blacks to white culture. That enslavement is both the starting point and the ending of the play” (Oxenhandler, 1975, p 422). “The actors enter in two groups…but the final stage image is one of solidarity: ‘all the blacks- including those who had been the court, now without their masks- stand about a coffin draped in white…The traditional values of white society are scorned, belittled, and reduced to playing ‘a tune by Charles Gounod’, knitting ‘balaclavas for chimney-sweeps’, singing ‘at the harmonium’ and praying on Sundays…The actors are working themselves up into a state of excitement in anticipation of the ‘murder’ of Diouf (disguised as a white victim), when Village halts the action. Up until this point, Village has painstakingly tried to explain his actions to the audience in repeated asides, but now the whole ceremony is going to move beyond the comprehension of the audience as narrative gives way to magic…Throughout Diouf’s recitals, the court integrates itself with the players in the ceremony. They applaud and laugh at the mimed gestures as though they were real. Meanwhile, the white spectator marooned on stage, his hands tied, so to speak, by holding the knitting, can do nothing but look on…The action of the play does not aim to resolve the conflicts of the initial situation; rather, it tends to exacerbate them” (Webb, 1969 pp 455-458). “The Missionary…proudly states, to the tacit agreement of white believers and the bemused rejection of the black ones, that God is white, a belief used over the centuries to keep God-fearing blacks from seeking to reach too far up the ladder of equality. ‘For two thousand years God has been white. He eats on a white tablecloth. He wipes his white mouth with a white napkin. He picks at white meat with a white fork.’ The blacks realize that their eventual mental liberation cannot be achieved until they are able to reject and revise color symbols such as used by the whites. Thus, Felicite, toward the end of the play, states that ‘everything changes. Whatever is gentle and kind and good and tender will be black. Milk will be black, sugar, rice, the sky, doves, hope, will be black’…The blacks in the play derive utmost pleasure from emphasizing precisely those ideas or views that society has held against them…From the very beginning, blacks proceed with a black-is-beautiful ritual, never missing an opportunity to emphasize their blackness and being chided if they appear not to do so. Archibald, who keeps the action moving along…advises Neige: ‘You wanted to be more attractive- there’s some blacking left'” (Warner, 2014 pp 201-203). “The whole play is a hymn of hatred: the loathing of blacks for whites deliberately played upon and gloried in…the catafalque remains throughout the play visually at the centre of the stage. It is thus precisely one of the deepest of all racist fears that Genet plays on, namely interracial sexual jealousy” (Martin, 1975 pp 519-522). “However much his white audience may disapprove of what the negroes are doing, they are not seeking evil for its own sake, but for political aims that can be rationally formulated: independence, freedom, self-respect” (Thody, 1968 p 200).
Antonin Artaud prefigured Genet’s theatre in its myth-creating goals, the use of language as incantation, communicating emotions rather than exchanging ideas, and the use of visual and auditory aids in the form of “music, dance, plastic art, pantomime, mimicry, gesticulation, intonation, architecture, scenery, and lighting” (Artaud, 1938). Brustein (1964) commented that “Genet pulls his myths from the depths of a totally liberated unconscious, where morality, inhibition, refinement, and conscience hold no sway; at the basis of his work is that dark sexual freedom which Artaud held to be the root of all great myths.”
Time: 1940s. Place: France.
Text at http://web.mit.edu/jscheib/Public/phf/themaids.pdf
Claire commands her servant, Solange, to dress her up in all her finery. Her constant recriminations incite Solange to fury. She strikes Claire and threatens worse until the alarm-clock rings, at which point Claire cries out: “Let’s hurry. Madam will come back.” Claire is a servant as well and they have only been play-acting. Claire blames her sister for always being late, so that they never reach the moment of their mistress’ murder. Despite frustrations inherent in their servile state, Claire is nevertheless of the opinion that at heart their mistress loves them. “Yes,” Solange comments sarcastically, “like the pink enamel of her latrine.” To avenge themselves of their lot outside of play-acting, Claire has written an anonymous letter to the police, accusing her mistress’ lover of robbery and leading to his arrest. Solange intends to go further, revealing that she was once tempted to kill their mistress as she slept, but her courage failed her when she moved. “She will corrupt us with her softness,” she warns. To their consternation, Claire learns from a telephone call that the man was set free on bail. Claire blames her sister all the more for failing to kill her. Now they well may be denounced as false accusers and imprisoned. “I have enough of being the spider, the stem of the umbrella, the sordid and godless nun with no family,” Claire says despondently. They whip up further accusations against their mistress but to no practical avail. “Yet we can’t kill her for so little,” Solange admits. She suddenly changes her mind again, and suggests dissolving barbiturates in their mistress’ lime-blossom tea. Their mistress enters, distressed about her lover’s state, ready to follow him to a far-away prison. “I will have newer and more beautiful dresses,” she decides. She gives Claire her silk dress and Solange her fur-coat. Then she notices the telephone off the hook. Solange blurts out that her lover called. She is led on to reveal that her mistress is to meet him at a restaurant. The mistress wants to join him at once and leaves before drinking the tea meant to poison her. “All the plots were useless. We are damned,” Claire concludes. Solange suggests that they should escape, but Claire finds the suggestion impractical, both being poor with nowhere to go. They uselessly curse their servile state. In despair, they resume play-acting, Solange this time in the mistress’ role asking for her tea. But then Claire resumes the mistress’ role again to swallow the poisoned tea while Solange’s hands cross themselves as if already handcuffed.
Time: 1950s. Place: White-colonized Africa.
Text at ?
A group of black people present the murder of a white woman on a stage in front of a court composed of other black people thinly disguised as whites, including a queen, a governor, a judge, a missionary, and a servant. Archibald Absalon Wellington is the master of ceremonies, guiding the spirit of the presentation towards greater hatred of white colonization. Before a hearse, Archibald asks Village what happened that morning, who answers he strangled a white woman named Mary with his own hands. On hearing of this event, the queen grieves. “Be confident, your majesty, God is white,” the missionary consoles her. When some of the blacks are distracted from contributing to any worthwhile cause, Archibald reminds them that they must merit the court’s reprobation. In their stage presentation, Mary’s role is played by Diouf, a vicar, Mary’s mother’s role by Felicity, a whore, and a man named Bobo her neighbor. While Mary speaks to her eventual rapist and murderer, the mother constantly cries out for her “pralines and aspirin” and reminds her it is time for prayers. The neighbor copmes over to remind Mary that her eyes may be ruined if she continues to work in the dark. During the course of the evening, Mary plays the piano, an art approved of by the queen: “Even in adversity, in a debacle, our melodies sing out,” she declares enthusiastically. Unexpectedly, Mary is about to give birth. The neighbor arrives as the midwife and takes out from beneath her smock dolls representing the five members of the court. She is then murdered and the court convenes for the condemnation of the murderer. The missionary considers that the victim should be beatified, but the queen is uncertain whether that idea is wise. “After all, she was sullied, defending herself to the last, I hope, but she may remind us of her shame,” the queen considers. During the court proceedings, the black people rebel and the five members of the court must escape their fury. To ease their fatigue on their way along roads and fields, the missionary approves of the use of alcoholic drinks. However, they get drunk. “Dances occur only at night, none of which do not intend our deaths. Stop. It is a frightening country. Each brushwood conceals a missionary’s tomb,” the missionary warns them. The judge succeeds in re-organizing the court in session, whereby the members of the black population begin to tremble, but one of their leaders, Felicity, arises to challenge the queen. Another of the black leaders, Ville de Saint-Nazaire, reveals that a traitor in their midst has been executed, but that a new leader of the rebellion is found. The court-members are surrounded, yet the queen admonishes them to courage amid adversity. “Show those barbarians that we are great by our attention to discipline and, to white people looking on, that we are worthy of their tears,” she declares. Despite this encouragement, one by one the members of the court are executed.
The Theatre of the Absurd originated in France in the 1940s, the first of whose main proponents is Romanian-born Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994) with “La cantatrice chauve” (The bald soprano, more precisely the bald primadonna, 1948) and “Rhinocéros” (Rhinoceros, 1959). “Both Ionesco and Beckett are concerned with communicating to their audiences their sense of the absurdity of the human condition” (Esslin, 1960 p 671). “If a good play [in the Realist style] must have a cleverly constructed story…[Absurdist plays] have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterization and motivation, these are often without recognizable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning nor an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror up to nature and portray the manners and mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings” (Esslin, 1974 pp 3-4) “The convention of the absurd springs from a feeling of deep disillusionment, the draining away of the sense of meaning and purpose in life, which has been characteristic of countries like France and England after the Second World War. In the United States, there has been no corresponding loss of meaning and purpose” (Esslin, 1974 p 266). Unlike Camus’ essay, “The myth of Sisyphus”, and Sartre’s novel, “Nausea”, both of which treating rationally of irrationality, Ionesco and other members of the Theater of the Absurd treated irrationality in an irrational manner. “An irrationalist theater is not merely a theater that attacks the idols of rationalism, indefinite progress towards happiness through science…it is, above all, a theater which is meant to be a genuine expression of the irrational” (Doubrovsky, 1973 p 12).
In “The bald prima donna”, “the picture of the human condition…is cruel and absurd (in the sense of devoid of meaning). In a world that has no purpose and ultimate reality the polite exchanges of middle-class society become the mechanical, senseless antics of brainless puppets. Individuality and character, which are related to a conception of the ultimate validity of every human soul, have lost their relevance…The audience knows no more about the mcaning of the mechanically senseless dialogue than do the characters themselves. What is involved is a savage satire (which is by no means the same as irony) on the dissolution and fossilization of the language of polite conversation and on the interchangeability of characters that have lost all individuality, even that of sex. Such characters lead a meaningless, absurd existence…. My contention is that the source of…laughter is not to be found in any irony but in the release within the audience of their own repressed feelings of frustration. By seeing the people on the stage mechanically performing the empty politeness-ritual of daily intercourse, by seeing them reduced to mechanical puppets acting in a complete void, the audience while recognizing itself in this picture can also feel superior to the characters on the stage in being able to apprehend their absurdity- and this produces the wild, liberating release of laughter- laughter based on deep inner anxiety” (Esslin, 1960 pp 671-672). The play “is almost in its entirety an exaggerated depiction of the hollowness of bourgeois life through the use of caricature…What is frightening…is how closely it resembles the banal conversations that go on in middle-class homes night after night…The characters hide their boredom and their dislike for one another behind the clichés of polite speech and the routines of conventional behavior. So mechanical have their lives become that they are incapable of learning anything” (Abbott, 1989 p 159). “The dialogue is mainly in the form of self-contained statements that attempt little interlay…When the dialogue is initiated…conversation is little more than sense destruction…[When] the Martins are introduced…the dialogue…grows out of their mutual wonder over the coincidence of their parallel existence. This process is the reverse of the incongruity that fails to surprise; here it is the expected that evokes stereotyped amazement…” (Grossvogel, 1962 pp 53-54). “The bald primadonna” presents “characters…already devoid of humanity…who do not possess even a memory of propitious times, who are the same at the falling of the curtain as they were at the beginning, and who seem unconcerned with any possible release from their imprisoned circumstances- indeed…are unaware of any imprisonment…lack any tragic sense of their condition…The incredible elicits little surprise, [as when the fireman rings the doorbell], the ordinary is greeted with incredulity” [as when Mrs Martin describes a man tying his shoelace in the street]” (Jacobsen and Mueller, 1976 pp 46-54). The conversations between the Smiths and Martins derive from instruction manuals to master a new language (Hayman, 1976 p 17). “The Smiths and the Martins…are devoid of identity. The characters mimic each other for lack of imagination, parroting contemporary clichés and boilerplate remarks because they are so eager to please they have lost any semblance of self outside the herd” (Krasner, 2012 p 308). “The Martins’ problem is that, even though they have been introduced to us as man and wife, they don’t know each other…we see a typical couple, married for some years, who do not know each other” (Wellwarth, 1971 p 62). “No sooner have the chimes struck seventeen times than Mrs Smith announces that it is nine o’clock. A joke? Of course it is a joke. But it also reveals that the specific time of day is meaningless, because from hour to hour and day to day, their lives are essentially the same. It is also noteworthy that the couple is named Smith: a perfectly conventional, nondescript, middle-class name for conventional, nondescript, middle-class people…The uniformity, as well as the lack of vital life in the lives of the members of the bourgeoisie, is revealed when the Smiths discuss Bobby Watson…There is no difference in the pattern of existence between one bourgeois and another…Ionesco frequently employs a grotesque reversal of the usual. He accomplishes this by taking a familiar situation, injecting into that situation a single element which renders it completely improbable, and then writing the scene as though the improbable element were not there. Such a scene occurs when Mr and Mrs Martin enter…and Ionesco presents not only a brilliant satire on cocktail party conversation, but- and more to the point- on the bourgeois preoccupation with inconsequentials. At first, each of the characters gropes for something profound with which to impress the others. The result is a plethora of banalities…Mr Smith goes to the door and returns with the fire chief…[The explanation of the doorbell matter] satisfies all concerned, for it is the classic bourgeois manner of settling controversies: choosing the middle path between two extremes…Enter the Maid, who turns out to be the fire chief’s sweetheart. Here, too, passion is extinct, for, as the fire chief declares, ‘it was she who extinguished my first fires’…When the fire chief leaves, Ionesco presents another illustration of the dull routine of these people’s lives. The party conversation becomes a series of clichés: ‘to each his own,’ ‘an Englishman’s home is truly his castle,’ ‘charity begins at home’- [which] follow each other with no logical continuity”(Dukore, 1961 pp 176-177). Lane (1996) enumerated the disruptions of logical discourse include pseudo-explanations (the patient died because the operation failed), false analogies (a conscientious doctor must die with his patient like the captain of a sinking ship), contradictions (the Smiths have had dinner until the maid enters), specious reasoning (when the doorbell rings, it is because no one is there), surprise at the obvious (why newspapers never print the age of newborns), unreliability of proper names (the Watsons), aphasia (a woman is asphyxiated because she thought the gas was a comb), word-action contradiction (the fire chief says he will take off his hat but not sit whereas he does the reverse). The characters lack any discernable motivations, rationality, or internal life, rather they are like puppets…Undifferentiated from each other and indistinguishable from their surroundings, they are traversed by language which uses them rather than the other way around” (pp 32-39).
In “Rhinoceros”, “the acute paralysis of will, vacuity of imagination, bureaucratic corruption, vicious authoritarianism, self-serving interests, demonstrative self-congratulatory pandering, and primarily the need to please at all costs to one’s individuality are for Ionesco symptomatic of modern culture’s predicament. The cacophony of demands from both left and right extremists is symbolized by the barrage of noise in the thundering herd of rhinos trumpeting through the town. The rhinos epitomize an excess of power bereft of vision; for Ionesco, we live in tragic times…because our power to change circumstances has reached an aporia” (Krasner, 2012 pp 313-314). “Fatalism and indifference become common sense…What is so compelling and convincing about Ionesco’s presentation of the rhino mentality…is that it is reinforced by kinship patterns…Family feelings override what should have overridden family feelings” (Hodgson, 1992 p 135). Beranger “changes from a listless slouch to an ardent defender of an irreplacable set of human values” (Gaensbauer, 1996 p 102). “His aversion to the rhinoceroses is visceral. ‘Just the sight of them upsets me,’ he says. Inarticulate, he counters John’s defense of rhinoceroses not with argument but with feeling” (Lane, 1996 p 114). “Beranger is…weak confused, fearful, alcoholic. Yet he will not yield” (Bloom, 2005 p 248). “What the play conveys is the absurdity of defiance as much as the absurdity of conformism, thc tragedy of the individualist who cannot join the happy throng of less sensitive people” (Esslin, 1974 p 151). “We find little in Berenger’s life that would appear to be worth defending. Early in Act I he confesses to his friend Jean that he is bored and tired and unsuited to the office job that he nonetheless performs dutifully…The other characters in the play are no more successful than Berenger in creating, through their lives, a form of humanity that would appear worth struggling to preserve…If meaningful thought is the necessary criterion for being, the logician has a minor but memorable role as the master of the false syllogism, less alive than anyone on stage. Confidently ignoring the logical limits premises, he concludes that four-pawed creatures are necessarily cats…It is a mark of Berenger’s lack of discernment that he is favorably impressed by the logician…As a final example of the intellectual atrophy with which the supposedly characters of Rhinoceros are afflicted, consider the mental activity of the schoolteacher, Botard. Like the fanatics who refused a few years ago that men had actually walked on the moon, Botard adamantly rejects…newspaper accounts of the presence of rhinoceroses…When Botard later denounces academe he is in effect rendering an accurate self-assessment: ‘what University people lack are clear ideas, the sense of observation, common sense’…All that remains of human civilization in the play is an almost unintelligible human-like verbal debris, unconnected fragments of logic, hollow figures posing as human beings…Understandably, then, Berenger is in an awkward position when he works away gradually, in the famous long speech that concludes the play, into a posture of resistance, on one hand, and defense of mankind…How will he communicate with the rhinos?…Right or wrong, they are in his view attractive and he ugly in contrast…His final words are less heroic or courageous than silly in their recalcitrance…[The play’s lesson might be:] individualism in defense of non-humanity is no virtue…bestiality as an alternative to unreasoning human existence is no vice” (Danner, 1979 pp 210-214). In “The rhinoceros”, John is “intent on keeping up appearances…the most hypocritical and self-righteous…fastidious, boastful of his imagined superiority over Beranger…The first to surrender his humanity…Botard is the most arrogant, stubborn, and unreasonable…He at first categorically rejects the story of the rhinoceroses…but…shares a strong sense of duty…to adhere to whatever or whoever is in power…Dudard is a relativist. He responds calmly….urging that the best course is simply to ignore the beasts and acclimatize oneself to the changing times…Daisy…opts for the ‘natural’ life, calling the rhinoceros ‘real people’” (Jacobsen and Mueller, 1976 pp 42-46). Beranger is the only character who changes. “He alone is unwilling to take them for granted. His moving from apathy to engagement, and from near death to life, is charted as he debates with one character after another about the blandishments of rhinoceritis” (Jacobsen and Mueller, 1976 p 66). In contrast, Dudard considers rhinoceritis a mark of a ‘community spirit triumphing over anarchic impulses’ (Hayman, 1976 p 110). “The play, despite the central figure’s defiance of bestiality, is essentially anarchic, bitter, very nearly hopeless. The rational mind and logic are absurd, Ionesco tells us; they have little relation to the truth (which is the chaos) of life” (Clurman, 1966 p 86). In contrast, Bennett (2011) proposes that “much of the success of totalitarian regimes is the complacency of the masses. But rhinos have no known predators (except humans) and are probably one of the last animals one would think could be herded…Different species can display remarkably different social traits, ranging from solitary to gregarious…How does one maintain individuality within a group that needs to act as one?…Berenger takes on a Sisyphian purpose…We can make our lives meaningful through our revolt and creating a purpose by which we can live by” (pp 95-98). “The earlier heroes feel that they are working for something greater than themselves and that hope sustains them in their quest. In Ionesco’s universe, no cosmic or religious meaning is given to Berenger’s refusal to capitulate” (Abbott, 1989 pp 165-166). “In drama, as in fiction, the sign of…debilitation is currently an unwillingness (arising, I suspect, from an incapacity) to create characters. A certain anti-humanism is connected with this quality, and one may sense its presence even in a work that presents a concern over the dehumanization of mankind as explicitly as Rhinoceros does” (Gassner, 1968 p 502).
“Ionesco is a formidable parodist, a sardonic skeptic, and an almost irrepressibly gay nihilist; he is as effective in comedy as in pathos. He is capable of challenging reflection while outraging sensibility or tickling our funny bone with his clowning, and of depressing and amusing us almost in the same breath” (Gassner, 1960 p 261).
“The bald primadonna”
Time: 1950s. Place: London, England.
Text at https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/smaldone2011/course-readings/
While Mrs Smith prattles about domestic affairs, Mr Smith clicks his tongue. He reads in the newspaper a mention about Bobby Watson’s death. Mrs Smith specifies that it is his wife, Bobbie Watson, that she is now thinking about. The Smiths suggest that the Watson children, Bobby and Bobbie, may be taken care of by an uncle and aunt, Bobby and Bobbie Watson, respectively, so that the widow may remarry. “Has she anyone in mind?” Mrs Smith asks. “Yes, Bobby Watson’s cousin,” Mr Smith affirms. “Who? Bobby Watson?” his wife queries. “Which Bobby Watson are you talking about?” he queries back. “The son of old Bobby Watson, other uncle to the dead Bobby Watson,” she answers. “No, not that one,” he says. “Bobby Watson, son to the old Bobbie Watson, Bobby Watson’s aunt.” After settling that matter, their invited guests arrive, a man and a woman who do not know each other. While conversing, the two guests are astonished to discover that they many things in common until realizing they are man and wife. The doorbell rings. Mrs Smith gets up to see who it is, but there is no one. The same thing happens twice more, until an angry Mr Smith gets up and sees a fireman at the door, who has been waiting there for 45 minutes. Interrogated on the subject of how can that be, the fireman reveals that he had seen no one when the bell had rung the first two times, but it was he who had rung the third time, then hid, as a joke. He recites experimental fables, such as “The dog and the bull”: another bull asked another dog: why did you not swallow your trunk?- Sorry, the dog answered, it’s because I thought I was an elephant. Their talk is interrupted by the Smith’s maid, Mary, who wishes to express her own anecdote, but the two couples are affronted that a mere servant should do so. The maid is recognized by the fireman as a long-lost love of his, a woman who “extinguished my first fires,” he says, and Mary agrees to have been “his little fountain”. When she attempts to recite at least a poem entitled “The fire” the Smiths push her out of the room. Before leaving, the fireman asks about the bald primadonna. “She covers herself as usual,” Mrs Smith responds. After the fireman leaves, the two couples have an increasing amount of difficulty in understanding each other, then run about confusedly.
Time: 1950s. Place: Paris, France.
Text at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.167320 https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.58383
John scolds his friend, Berenger, for his excessive drinking and disordered life. Unexpectedly, their conversation is interrupted by a rhinoceros running in the streets. They discuss where the animal could possibly have come from, but each suggestion seems more implausible than the other. Berenger’s fellow office worker, Daisy, comes over to talk about the same subject. Once again, the conversation is interrupted by a rhinoceros running in the streets. A housewife comes over to moan over the fact that the rhinoceros crushed her cat. They discuss whether it is the same rhinoceros or a different one. A grocer thinks it is the same, but John does not, explaining that the previous one had two horns, therefore an Asian one, whereas the second one had only one, and thus of African origin. Taking into consideration the speed with which they were running, Berenger casts doubt on whether his friend could reliably count the number of horns. “In addition, it was covered with dust,” he adds. In his view, John is a pretentious pedant. John is offended. An old man intervenes to ask whether the one-horned rhinoceros is truly African? John and Berenger quarrel about that subject as well. According to Daisy, both are wrong. “The Asian rhinoceros has one horn, the African one, two, and vice versa,” the grocer pronounces. After John leaves angrily, Berenger has qualms about his own attitude, along with that of his friend. “The least objection makes him froth at the mouth,” Berenger declares. A logician comes over to say that even if the first rhinoceros had two horns and the second only one, there is still no conclusive evidence that the two are different, because the first one might have lost one. In the office where Berenger works, there is a difference in opinion concerning the existence of the rhinoceros. His fellow-worker, Botard, considers them an invention, an opinion which offends both Berenger and Daisy. In contrast, another office worker, Dudard, in love with Daisy, believes her eyewitness account. “He does not even know how many he saw,” says Botard of Berenger. After viewing a rhinoceros in the street, another office worker, Mrs Beefsteak, rushes in panic. One of the rhinoceros damages the staircase in the office building. Botard continues to believe all this is just an illusion, until he sees one of them possessing what appears to be his own eyes. Mrs Beefsteak recognizes one as her husband. Berenger sees one animal with two horns, but is still unsure whether it is Asian or African. Meanwhile, the department head, Mr Butterfly, encourages them to go back to work while also calling for help. In the emergency, firemen arrive to usher the workers out of the building. Feeling qualms about their dispute, Berenger visits John’s home to apologize, but is horrified on seeing his friend turn into a rhinoceros right before his very eyes. Later, Butterfly and Dudard are also transformed into rhinoceros, as does Daisy, yielding to their growing numbers, especially after hearing them on the radio, despite her promise to stay on Berenger’s side. Against all odds, Berenger remains firm never to become one.
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) continued or perfected, some would say, the Theatre of the Absurd with “Waiting for Godot” (1952), “Endgame” (1957), and “Happy Days” (1961).
“Waiting for Godot” “marked a clear break with the dramaturgy of the 1940s and…established a new frame of reference for contemporary theatre…Where ‘Waiting for Godot’ seemed initially incomprehensible to its first…audiences…its meanings are now self-evident” (Innes, 2002 p 307). “Who…is the unseen Godot? To some, he is death, to others, life, to a few, nothing…one could probably settle on Godot as standing for God…His absence does not signify negation…but…infinite possibility” (Bennett, 2011 pp 27-43). “Vladimir and Estragon…are clearly derived from the pairs of cross-talk comedians of the music hall…Vladimir remembers past events, Estragon tends to forget them as soon they have happened. Estragon likes to tell funny stories, Vladimir is upset by them. It is mainly Vladimir who voices the hope that Godot will come and that his coming will change their situation, while Estragon remains skeptical throughout” (Esslin, 1974 pp 26-27). “Didi is the contemplative, the listener, the seeker, the one expecting messages, the ascetic, the one who suppresses his physical side, while Gogo is the active, the non-reflective, the one who tries to wipe the tears from the eyes of sufferers, who must eat when he is hungry, and who bellows when he is hurt. Neither can do without the other” (Baxter, 1965 pp 10-11).
“Serious subject matter is presented in music hall form…Much of the surface is taken up with farcical satire of conventional social behavior. Pozzo, for example, is unable to take a simple action like sitting down without an attendant barrage of ceremony, and the two tramps are always trying to strike up what will pass for a polite conversation, using catch-phrases like Vladimir’s: ‘this is not boring you, I hope?’” (Gascoigne, 1970 p 186). “Beckett’s extraordinary feat of blending pathos and comedy is accomplished by the relationship of the human characters who are, despite their bloviated portentousness and inane banter, filled with enormous charm. They are hilarious as they are tragic, exquisite amalgams of clownishness and grandeur. They can be pompous and stubborn, yet just as quickly brought down to earth with humility and despair” (Krasner, 2012 pp 343). According to Durán (2009), The play “reflects Albert Camus’ ‘The myth of Sisyphus’ (1942)…For Camus, the absurd issues from the clash of two contradictory phenomena: rational man and an irrational world…It soon becomes clear that Vladimir and Estragon live in a world wholly devoid of reason. The characters engage in pointless acts, the dialogue abounds in non-sequiturs and contradictions, and memories are short. Characters often forget whom they know or what they know. In Beckett’s play, things happen not according to any logic or order, but as a result of sheer fortuity…Vladimir and Estragon thus find themselves disoriented and alienated from the irrational world they inhabit…Consequently, the two characters spend most of their time and energy devising ways to fill the emptiness of their mundane lives…Camus explains that one continues to live this type of absurd existence largely out of habit…But Camus warns that the protective walls of habit can unexpectedly fall away making one suddenly aware of life’s absurdity…Thinking poses a danger because it can expose one to that ‘suffering of being’ provoked by a consciousness of the absurd…Suicide affords one means of escape…After learning from the young messenger that Godot will not come that day, Estragon gazes at the tree and laments… He asks Vladimir to remind him to bring a rope the next day and recalls a past attempt at suicide…The rejection of suicide still leaves the possibility of eliminating the other opposing term: an irrational world. Despite all evidence to the contrary, one may choose to view the world as truly rational. Camus calls this strategy ‘the philosophical suicide’…By adopting systems of belief such as religion, philosophy, astrology, or what have you, one imposes a false logic and order on this world…Lacking the courage to commit physical suicide, Vladimir and Estragon find solace in philosophical suicide. They see their hope in the coming of a Godot, someone who will satisfy all their wants and needs…No matter what occurs, Vladimir and Estragon cling tenaciously to their hope in Godot’s appearance…As a result, the two tramps end up doing nothing…Camus believes that an authentic response to the absurd resides in neither physical nor philosophical suicide…Rather than elude the absurd, one must not only accept but also sustain its truth, constantly confronting its reality through what Camus calls a metaphysical revolt…In the final pages of his essay, Camus illustrates his concept of ‘revolted man’ through the character of Sisyphus…[who] chooses instead to embrace his fate, fully conscious of all that that implies. [But the tramps] incarnate, in fact, the exact opposite of Sisyphus. Rather than embrace their reality, the two tramps use every means available to evade it” (pp 982-989). “Vladimir and Estragon play the game of waiting for an entity that they have invented to save them from the unknowable. They have even hired a boy/priest to reassure them at regular intervals that they are not waiting in vain. Meanwhile they eat, sleep (and have nightmares), engage in futile philosophical discussions, and otherwise parody human existence” (Wellwarth, 1986 p 71). “In Waiting for Godot, auditory and visual scenic means convey the tension between comedy and tragedy to the audience. Act Two ends in nearly an identical way to Act One. Estragon and Vladimir discuss suicide and separation. A tree, the only permanent prop in the play, has sprouted four or five leaves. However, what might signify the meaningful fullness of life the participation of humanity in a scheme of things larger than itself, a metaphysical reality capable of supporting the form of tragedy is reduced to mere occurrence” (Como, 1989, pp 68-69). Brater (2003) emphasized the movement of the play from the particular to the universal, as in Vladimir’s following comments to his fellow tramp: ‘let us do something while we have the chance. It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we are personally needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late'” (p 145). “The clearest statement of Beckett’s belief in the uselessness of thought is in the tremendously effective scene of Lucky’s tirade in Waiting for Godot. Beckett here implies that it is only in modern times that man has become impotent in thought and action” (Wellwarth, 1971 p 46). Lucky’s tirade “is one magnificent moment when a bestially slave-driven underdog bursts into an incoherent speech which gives an extraordinary Joycean impression of overcharged meaning” (Williamson, 1956 pp 69-70). “We have no superficial allegories and personifications of abstractions, but characters who are both symbolic and real in a situation which is a metaphor of the human condition…This is the true metaphysical Pascalian and Kierkegardian absurdity and nonsense of life without God or purpose and it is something which is very remote from the dehumanized, incoherent world of Ionesco…The Pozzo-Lucky relationship is the mirror of human degradation and shallowness. Pozzo hides his insignificance and hollowness under a cloak of ritual gestures and ceremonies which are part of the social apparatus of power…Lucky is merely an object, a thing, and his life is reduced to mechanical reactions; he not only serves Pozzo, he has also to think for him; he is therefore materially and spiritually Pozzo’s slave and has no individual existence” (Chiari, 1965 pp 68-74). The tramps “appear as a social unit outside society…like prisoners free to amuse one another…It is as though they ad lib for their very lives…The play takes up themes of many kinds- religious, philosophical, psychological- without any of them to become the drama’s motif, and with a fierce comic opposition to their pretensions…Pozzo and Lucky are emissaries from the realm of time and from the life of society, with its institutionalized relationships, its comforts and delusions, above all its thirst for hierarchies…the principles of human power and exploitation, delusory, ultimately disastrous, but maintained by them as the foundation of their lives…Whenever a character appears to be feeling some definite emotion or to have entered some decisive area of commitment, it is all undone by an opposite remark, a corrosive scornfulness, a physical jape” (Gilman, 1999 pp 242-250).
“Endgame” “reveals a singleness of tone and a tenacity of purpose that commands respect and bafflement…Nothing happens in Endgame and that nothing is what matters…The bitterness matters…the sense of entrapment matters…the intensity of Hamm’s contempt matters…the elegiac mood matters” (Gassner, 1960 pp 256-258). “Hamm is paralyzed and can no longer stand. His servant, Clov, is unable to sit down…some great catastrophe, of which the characters in the play are or believed themselves to be sole survivors, have killed all living being…Hamm is untidy. Clov is a fanatic of order. Hamm’s parents are grotesquely sentimental imbeciles” (Esslin, 1974 p 41). Hamm might be an abbreviation of hammer, Clov might reflect “clou” or nail, from which may be derived Nell (or nail) and Nagg from the German translation “Nagel” (Mendelson, 1977). “Nagg and Nell in their dustbins appear to be pawns; Clov, with his arbitrarily restricted movements (‘I can’t sit’) and his equestrian background (‘And your rounds? Always on foot?’ ‘Sometimes on horse’) resembles the Knight, and his perfectly cubical kitchen (‘ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, nice dimensions, nice proportions’) resembles a square on the chessboard translated into three dimensions. He moves back and forth, into it and out of it, coming to the succor of Hamm and then retreating. At the endgame’s end the pawns are forever immobile and Clov is poised for a last departure from the board, the status quo forever menaced by an expected piece glimpsed through the window, and King Hamm abandoned in check” (Kenner, 1961 pp 156-157). “Constant reference is made to the question of game, of play and theatre. Hamm opens his first and last monologues with the words, ‘Me- [he yawns]- to play’. To Clov’s question ‘what is there to keep me here?’, he replies, ‘the dialogue’. Hamm acts with knowledge of the underlying theatrical conventions and rules of performance, ‘Since that’s the way we’re playing it…let’s play it that way’. He teaches Clov: ‘An aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before? [Pause] I’m warming up for my last soliloquy’. He begins and ends the play theatrically: at the beginning he makes the curtain rise (‘he removes the handkerchief from his face’ and at the end he lets it fall (‘he covers his face with handkerchief’” (Fischer-Lichte, 2002, p 331). This type of self-consciousness is the epitome of the post-modern style in literature, in contrast with the lack of self-consciousness of previous periods. “The tension between entropy and order, between strength sapped and the tenacity of will, between physical restraints or incapacities and the energy to play- the tension of a play of impasse- is central in Endgame. This tension is objectified in the relationship between Hamm and Clov. Finally dying…Hamm asks for ‘a few words’…Clov’s answer is a vision of the beauty of art and order…Hamm cannot match it and he concedes defeat…Clov says he is leaving the cell, the structure, but we see him silhouetted in the shadows…his eyes fixed on Hamm till the end…Hamm…thinking himself alone in the structure, dies alone” (Rosen, 1983 pp 275-276).
”Happy days” “is another Beckett threnody on the sorry lot of mankind reduced to an absurd stalemate from which man can only decline into a worse one…At the same time, one encounters another tribute to human endurance and the determination to shore up inner defenses of faith or delusion against failure, never yielding an inch to sentimentality, against which the writer defends himself with sustained irony, so that human heroism also appears to be a ridiculous capacity for self-delusion” (Gassner, 1968 p 504). “On the one hand it is tragic that Winnie should be so cheerful in her terrible and hopeless predicament, on the other it is funny; in one sense her cheerfulness is sheer folly and the author seems to make a deeply pessimistic comment on human life; in another sense, however, Winnie’s cheerfulness in the face of death and nothingness is an expression of man’s courage and nobility, and thus the play provides a kind of catharsis, Winnie’s life does consist of happy days, because she refuses to be dismayed” (Esslin, 1974 pp 59-60). “Winnie…buried to the waist and later to the neck, maintains a logician’s, a grammarian’s detachment from her plight…Though the earth now turns so slowly that through the intensely hot day she feels her body menaced by spontaneous combustion (‘oh I do not mean necessarily burst into flames”), yet she considers with some agitation whether the hairs or hair one brushes and combs are properly styled ‘them’ or ‘it’ (‘Brush and comb it? Sounds improper somehow’), and feels it outweighs the day’s miseries to have learned the proper definition of ‘hog'” (Kenner, 1961 pp 93-94).
“Waiting for Godot”
Time: 1950s. Place: France.
Text at http://azactorsacademy.com/uploads/plays/waiting_for_godot.pdf
Two vagabonds,Vladimir and Estragon, expect to meet a man named Godot on a country road, who promised to be there, but has not yet arrived. While waiting, the two friends attempt to amuse themselves. Yet time passes and still Godot does not show up. Why? Have they mistaken the agreed-on day? Are they at the right place? Estragon is hungry but it is Vladimir who takes out a carrot and eats most of it. “I’ll never forget this carrot,” he remarks amid his almost constant state of boredom. Their waiting is interrupted by the arrival of Pozzo and Lucky, the latter appearing to be Pozzo’s servant if not slave and led along by him with a rope. This relation seems scandalous to Vladimir and Estragon, but they do nothing to interfere. Worse than this, Vladimir and Estragon begin to inflict the apparently mute Lucky with the same abominable treatment he receives from his master. But Lucky is not mute. He eventually bursts out with an unpunctuated monologue, incoherent in many parts and leading to nothing, after which he leaves with Pozzo. A young boy appears suddenly, sent by Godot to say he will drop by tomorrow. Vladimir is under the impression of having once experienced this event, but the boy denies it. The next day, nothing has changed except a tree has grown some leaves where they were before. Similar vaudeville-style exchanges are repeated to no avail. Although Vladimir mentions their waiting at the same place on the previous day, Estragon does not remember it. Pozzo and Lucky enter and soon fall down, but are not helped by either tramp, though Vladimir says it is necessary to do so and Estragon is willing to in exchange for money. Pozzo is now blind and Lucky mute, though the former does not remember when that misfortune occurred. They go on their way. The boy returns and leaves with the same message as the day before, without remembering what he had said on the previous day. As the only one seeming to remember, Vladimir’s existence seems all the more futile. The two friends decide to hang themselves on the tree. If so, they will have an erection. Estragon takes off his belt and, vaudeville-like, his pants fall down. The belt snaps off before they get a chance to try it out. They give up. They decide to go but do not move.
Time: 1950s. Place: France.
Text at http://www.unc.edu/courses/2006spring/engl/026/002/PDFs/
Hamm puts off a bloody handkerchief from his face. Blind and unable to stand, he is served by Clov, sighted but unable to sit. While yawning, Hamm wonders: “Is there misery loftier than mine?” Hamm is frightened at the thought that perhaps he has not made Clov suffer enough, but is relieved on being assured that he has. Hamm’s father, Nagg, lives in a trash-heap and asks for his pap. “Accursed progenitor!” Hamm cries out in anger. He commands Clov to give him a biscuit. Hamm despairs that nature has forgotten them, but Clov corrects him by saying there is no more nature. After lifting up the cover of his trash-heap, Nagg tries to kiss his wife, Nell, in the bin next to his, but is unable to. When Nagg laughs at Hamm’s miseries, Nell scolds him. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that, but-” she remarks but is unable to finish. Suddenly, Hamm decides he wants to be placed in dead center of the room. With great difficulty, Clov at last accedes to that desire. Hamm next requires him to look outside with a telescope, but the only thing visible is a grey landscape. Hamm has another frightening thought. “We’re not beginning to mean something?” he wonders aloud. When a crablouse bothers Clov, Hamm commands him to kill it at once. “Humanity might start from there all over again,” he warns. He next asks for a catheter to expel urine, but before Clov can obtain one, urinates on himself. He then asks Clov to set the correct position of an imploring black toy dog. Soon after, Nell dies, at which Nagg weeps. After asking Clov several times whether it is time for his pain-killer, Hamm discovers there is none. It is useless to go on any further. Clov goes away. After whistling for him with no response, Hamm throws down the whistle and puts a bloody handkerchief over his face.
Time: 1960s. Place: France.
Text at ?
Winnie lies half-buried upright on a mound of earth. A bell from an unspecific source is the signal to start her day, in which she takes out comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, handkerchief, lipstick, nail file, appetite stimulant, glasses, and revolver. After taking them out, she kisses the revolver. Her husband, Willie, lives in a cave behind the mound, reading newspapers and postcards and pouring a soothing solution on his penis. She hears but does not see him. Under a parasol to protect her from excessive sunlight, she goes about her usual routine of the day, such as singing a song at exactly the same hour. As she chatters, Willie does not appear to be listening, so that she must strike him sometimes to get his attention. Music from an unspecified source is heard, at which she rejoices. Willie does not contribute much, but at least he manages to define the word “hog” for her. It is hot. Eventually, the parasol ignites from the excessive heat, but she remains optimistic that the day may yet end well. At the end of the day, the bell sounds again, at which time she puts each item back inside the bag except the gun. Winnie is content with little. “This will have been another happy day,” she concludes. On a subsequent day, started by the same wakening bell, she now lies buried up to her neck and so can no longer manipulate any of her objects, though still confident this will yet be another of her happy days. She has not heard Willie for quite a while but believes he can still hear her, or, if not, to her he remains there in any case. “Oh, no doubt you are dead, like the others, no doubt you have died, or gone away and left me, like the others, it doesn’t matter, you are there,” she says. Unexpectedly, Willie shows up at last, heading towards her, or else towards the gun, but before reaching it, he falls off the mound. He manages to call out her name, at which she rejoices. “Win! Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! After all. So far,” she concludes for herself.
Another proponent of the Theatre of the Absurd is the Spanish-born Fernando Arrabal (1932-?), notable for “Le cimetière des voitures” (The automobile cemetery, 1959), “Guernica” (1959), and “Le grand cérémonial” (The grand ceremony, 1963). As with the British Kitchen Sink school, the better plays seem to arise early in the dramatic careers of absurdists. He is also a proponent of Panic Theatre incorporating in Arrabal’s own words “chance, memory, and the unexpected” to undermine official writing (Drumm, 2009 p 437), “named for Pan and founded on the principle of the domination of the Dionysian” (Farmer, 1971 p 155). “Homeric hymn 19 entitled ‘To Pan’ provides the most complete description of this god from whose name is derived the term ‘panic’ used by Arrabal. Pan was the god of shepherds, living in the high mountains…[Unlike Apollo’s sweet music, Pan plays] “primal matter…barbaric tunes on his rustic reeds” (Arata, 1982 pp 7-8).
In “The automobile cemetery”, “the cemetery becomes a symbol of the wreckage of civilization, of the moral destructiveness of technological society” (Podol, 1978 p 46). “The central visual image that gives shape to the micro-cosmos in which these characters struggle to cope with the senselessness of life on a day to day basis is the graveyard itself, filled with wrecked cars, a symbol of the destructive nature of modern civilization” (Podol, 1988 p 134). “The cyclic pattern is established in the dialogue from the opening moments of the play. The automobile junkyard, Arrabal’s microcosm of contemporary life, is filled with abandoned cars, each housing an unseen clientele. As the guests settle down for the night in Act I, they are embraced by the maid Dila as usual, and we soon learn that the police ‘are returning once more’ in search of the three musicians who will escape as always…The circular structure found in the dialogue is carried over to the non-verbal aspects of the play. Continuously crossing the stage, the movement of the track runners and the cops and robbers is another component of the spatial dialectic. What we are witnessing here is an unresolved pilgrimage, unresolved because there is no center to this circle, no solution, no final destination. The runners Lasca and Tiossido are engaged in an empty peregrination which leads nowhere…Two opposing forces pursue each other: the pure and innocent on the one hand, the corrupted and the compromised on the other hand. The latter group, like Lasca and Tiossido, submit without question to regimented order, to forms filled out in triplicate, to rigorous training and discipline. They are commited to maintain the status-quo. Even the outcasts who live in the junkyard belong to this world, imitating its rituals which become grotesque parodies through the solicitous care of Milos. They are united with the strong to oppose the purity of an Emanou. It would seem that for once a truce has been proclaimed between the dominated and the dominants of the world under the egis of conformity…Dila plays the role of mediator in this world. She alone is lucid; she alone understands both the purity of Emanou and the degradation in which she lives. She too ‘wants to be good’, and hungers for purity, but she knows it is too late…She defends Emanou, hides him from the police, refuses to betray him for the reward. Yet she is impatient with his idealism and his blindness” (Luce, 1974 pp 33-35). “The derelicts…are all adult children, innocent murderers, voyeurs, and exhibitionists. They like to urinate and make love. They hate the police but are constantly pursued by them…When we first meet Dila, she goes around like a great mother obliging all the inhabitants to bed down for the night. Then she gives herself to any male who desires her…Dila cynically reminds Emanou that that being good in such a world only causes trouble…and she is right…When he feeds some people in the crowd a few sardines and some bread, the others become jealous. Eventually his subversive activities lead to his pursuit by the police and his betrayal by one of his friends…Through Emanou, Arrabal…debunks the basic Christian ethic of charity and love…His good actions have little effect on his community and, we are to assume, no lasting effect whatsoever” (Donahue, 1980 pp 12-15). Emanou is meant to represent a shortened form of Emmanuel, Jesus Christ. His antecedents are similar, being born in a manger, son of a carpenter and Mary, feeding people in the crowd with fish and bread, remembered by a food item, betrayed by a kiss, and exposed in a crucified-like position. “The characters in the play become modern biblical figures…in the tradition of medieval mystery and miracle plays…Lasca and Tiossido…become Roman soldiers (policemen) who will arrest Jesus, Tiossido also impersonates Pilate, miming the moment when he washes his hands, Fodère…enacts the role of Peter, voicing the triple denial of Jesus, Dila…first resembles Mary Magdalen and later turns into Veronica as she washes Jesus’ face, Tope…impersonates Judas Iscariot, and Milos…finally turns into Simon, the Cyrenian who helped Jesus carry the cross” (Arata, 1982 pp 33-34 and p 68). Guicharnaud (1962) criticized Arrabal in being “perhaps more a visionary than a dramatist. He has the merit of being faithful to what he sees: his anonymous language- correct but without style, very similar to Adamov’s- makes it impossible for him to cheat. He has seen the automobile graveyard, its characters, their gestures and their shapes; but when he bludgeons us with the Emanou-Christ symbolism, the effect is destroyed” (p 119).
In “Guernica”, “Fanchou and Lira are at once innocent victims of the Spanish civil war and of all wars and representatives of the human weakness and insensitivity leading to destructive quarrels…Fanchou’s reluctance to exert himself to extricate Lira, his rebukes directed at her ignorance of the nature of war, Lira’s references to Fanchou’s sexual impotence and her utilization of the silent treatment are both humorous and disquieting in the context of the desperate situation” (Podol, 1978 p 51). “Lira’s entrapment in the toilet during the bombing of the Basque spiritual capital in 1937 creates the sort of tension between the horrifying and the comic that characterizes the grotesque. Her dialogue with her husband, Fanchou, which alludes to his sexual insufficiency and reveals their mutual selfishness and lack of true empathy indicts them without diminishing the horror of their plight and of the air attack itself. The villains of the work are the novelist and reporter, who demonstrate no concern for their country and its people and who seek to exploit the situation for their own professional gain…At the very end, encapsulation and pessimism are countered by the symbol of the balloons which cannot be shot down by the soldiers who have just killed Fanchou and Lira. Visually, Arrabal utilizes vertical movement for the purpose of affirming hope and liberation” (Podol, 1988 pp 134-135). “When the town of Gernica, the ancient capital of the Basque people, was destroyed by the German air force on April 26, 1937, the officer in charge of the attack, Wolfram von Richthofen, and his entourage were watching from a nearby mountain. As is well known, an underlying interest of this assault, and, in general, of German participation on the side of the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, was to test new technologies of warfare. Von Richthofen and the audience gathered on Monte Oiz witnessed the staging of the first blitzkrieg style of intense bombing that would become central to Nazi strategy during WWII. The destruction of Gernica, from its first horrific moments, was a theatricalized event in which the largely civilian victims were unwitting actors…When the journalist appears, “Arrabal presents a clear indictment of those who would benefit from an artistic rendering of the destruction of a civilian population: literary style subsumes any intent to depict accurately what has happened; the focus is placed not on the people who suffer but on the voice that presumes to tell their story” (Drumm, 2009 pp 427-436).
In “The grand ceremony”, “the name of the protagonist, an anagram of the great lover, accentuates the strong note of grotesque deformation. Despite these parodical elements…The play also manages to capture the intense anguish of the protagonist…Cavanosa suffers from a complex caused by a fixation on the mother figure which does not allow him to integrate his two parents in his psyche or develop an independent personality and ego…Cavanosa’s reprehensible treatment of Sil is really a reaction to his growing fear of realizing his repressed desires. Death, violence, and eroticism intermingle; the mother’s incestuous longing for her own son takes the form of a wish to die by his hand and helps to explain the warped nature of Cavanosa’s own feelings of love, evidenced by his treatment of his dolls and Sil. Physical torture becomes an expression of internal strife, and physical deformity the externalization of psychic anguish. While these forces dominate, the play’s atmosphere remains subsumed by the world of the subconscious…Lys emerges as Sil’s alter-ego (affirmed by their common names which are palindromes of each other); she finds Cavanosa lovable and attractive because she has not had contact with other men…If his words introduce a note of ambiguity by suggesting that love is still only possible as a destructive act ending in death, his tender kissing of Lys and the fact that he speaks dreamily to her justify, at least partially, the feeling of hope for the protagonist’s liberation from the imprisoning influence of the archetypical devouring mother” (Podol, 1978 pp 65-66). “Not recognizing a moral standard, living in a world of his own obsessions, Cavanosa encounters with every entrance into the other world of the park a way of being and acting that is the very contradiction of his own…All of Cavanosa’s actions are the opposite of what one would expect: love brings forth only his scorn, any affection shown him incites him in anger, any kindness offered him produces a cruel reaction…The result is a character not only different from the others, but one who realizes he is different and is able to observe himself functioning with ironic distance…Unlike Sil, who had to be told what was necessary to please Cavanosa, Lys instinctively knows…Lys is the woman-child prostitute who is familiar to the early plays of Arrabal…[The worlds of Cavanosa and Lys] coincide. She was tied to her mother physically just as Cavanosa is tied to his mother emotionally; she makes whips, and he uses them; she paints dolls, and Cavanosa ‘loves’ them. Cavanosa’s mother is authoritarian, sadistically cruel, and classically vindictive. The power she exercises over her son is slowly failing, and she knows that she will soon be replaced by one of the girls Cavanosa meets in the park during his daily ritual…What is more, she knows that her son wants to kill her…She knows that her son does not have the strength to kill her, and consequently she ever so tenuously maintains control over him…His fear of impotency is in part allayed by his masturbatory activities with his life-sized dolls, and his oedipal anxieties are in part allayed by the daily wooing and murder of a girl he meets in the park. Cavanosa, however, is not able to distinguish between the fantasies and reality. In effect, his fantasies are his reality…until he meets Lys, who is able to participate in his fantasy world turned reality. Lys, of course, is only a replacement for his mother and his dolls. She allows him once and for all to externalize the relationship that he has imposed upon his mother and that she in turn has imposed upon him” (Donahue, 1980 pp 17-21).
“Considering his plays as a corpus, one can classify the Arrabaldian universe by extracting eleven primary features:
1. A half-dreamed, half-mythical realm of youthful reverie, sometimes childish; a sort of playful quasi-paradise where children’s naughty games turn into handcuffed and chained torture, even to unrepentant murder.
2. Unexplained co-existence of nostalgic, simple-minded childlikeness with adult ambiguities. (A mother-fixated hero, with tendencies to misogyny, is prototypical of this double nature).
3. Obsessive tension of victims confronting torturers, dramatized mythically.
4. Rapprochement of mirth and fright; similarly, grotesque to-and-fro swings of opposite emotions.
5. Role-multiplying or androgynous characters.
6. The police-state metaphor: inquisition, torture, despair, violent death, betrayal of one family member by another.
7. Inverted Christianity, mystic emblems, blasphemy, erotic sensationalism, bizarre ceremonies and rituals, alliance of wild eroticism and death; simultaneity of devout and sacrilegious motifs.
8. Fundamental counterpoint of illusions within illusions.
9. An impetuous, sometimes patchy style; an uneven, coursing, or savage dramatic rhythm dependent on extravagant shock effects.
10. Outlandish visual imagery: dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks, huge balloons, a robot chess player, whips, coffins, nude and voluptuous cadavers.
11. Mythical or metaphorical substructure, interconnecting various esoteric patterns of coherence” (White, 1971 p 99).
“The automobile cemetery”
Time: 1950s. Place: France.
Text at ?
An energetic Lasca encourages an exhausted Tiossido to jog around a junkyard, while an elegant-looking butler, Milos, takes orders for next morning’s breakfast among assorted people living inside old and discarded automobiles. Lasca also encourages his wife, Dila, to kiss her customers. On noticing her reluctance, he smacks her on each hand with a ruler. As Dila, heads towards various car occupants to offer sexual favors, she meets Emanou, born in a manger, son of a carpenter and a woman named Mary, who expresses a desire to lie with her. “We will turn about, embracing, like two underwater squirrels,” he proposes. She accepts. The next morning, Emanou announces that police officers are out to arrest him for playing the trumpet to the poor. Incensed on seeing Dila with a man, Milos grabs her by the hair and throws her down. On this day, the roles of Lasca and Tiossido are reversed, the latter appearing more energetic. When Emanou’s friend, Topé, learns there is a reward out for his arrest, he offers to betray him to Lasca and Tiossido with a kiss. Undisturbed, Emanou offers Topé and Dila almonds from a bag. “If ever the cops capture you, we’ll eat the almonds in memory of you,” Dila declares. When Topé kisses Emanou, Lasca and Tiossido promptly arrest him. After Tiossido wipes his hands of this event, they take Emanou out to be whipped. He is next seen on a bicycle with his arms stretched out, on which Dila wipes the sweat off his face before he is taken away. The next day begins as any other, with Milos and Dila at their regular chores.
Time: 1930s. Place: Guernica, Spain.
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On her way to the bathroom, a bomb fell on the building, so that Lira lies buried under mounds of rubble from which her husband, Fanchou, cannot extricate her. He seeks to encourage her, but a fall of stones hurts her arm, which bleeds profusely. A writer and a journalist arrive to survey the damage caused by bombardments throughout the city of Guernica. “Add that I am preparing a novel and perhaps even a film on the civil war in Spain,” the writer declares. To help pass the time with his wife, Fanchou suggests he tell her a story. “Do you want the one about the woman who was in the bathroom and who remained buried under mounds of rubble?” he asks. To amuse her further, he grimaces like a clown, but Lira is unable to see him. She asks whether the tree nearby is still intact; he answers that it is. While seeking yet again to save her, Fanchou is pushed by an army officer, who impedes his progress and then leaves without a word. Unable to accomplish anything further, Fanchou gives her a child’s balloon. A woman and a little girl pass by, the former pushing a wheelbarrow containing dynamite. The balloon bursts, leaving Lira to complain about her condition. The army officer returns, who laughs while eating a sandwich, then goes away again. Fanchou asks Lira why she never had lovers. “That would be chic,” he asserts. “You never think of me…When I take off your clothes in front of my friends, you always look disgruntled.” When suggesting she would perhaps be comforted by the presence of a priest, she reminds him that they are atheists. “Who, us?” asks a surprised and frightened Fanchou. The woman and the girl return, the woman carrying on her back armements of various kinds. Fanchou becomes all the more frustrated at being unable to help his wife. “It’s your fault. Such a mania you have, reading in bathrooms!” he blurts out. The woman and the girl pass by a third time, pushing a cart containing old guns. Now Fanchou suggests that Lira might write down her will. While attempting one last time to save her, he is buried underground himself, a victim of yet another bombardment. The woman returns, this time without the little girl, carrying a coffin. Two balloons rise heavenward. The officer tries to shoot them down, but is unable to. The voices of Fanchou and Lira are heard above, laughing.
“The grand ceremony”
Time: 1960s. Place: France.
Text at ?
A hump-backed Cavanosa type meets by chance a woman named named Sil in a public park. Alhough he appears rough, she agrees to stay with him. Her boyfriend, kind and considerate, shows up to take her away, but she prefers to stay with the rude stranger, until he tells them both to go away. She does so but then returns armed with a whip. He nevertheless becomes even ruder, kicking her and trampling over her. Then he asks her to wait outside his house for a light signal, where she may help him remove his mother’s body, whom he says he has recently murdered. However, his mother is not dead. She begs him to avoid women, who would only steal his money. He sits on her knee, then brings her as a gift a small coffin containing a doll. She calls him a monster, which he deprecates. She next asks to see his knife and then requests him to strike her with it, but he cannot. They appear to be reconciled somewhat. Then she bites him on the mouth and starts to reminisce. “Another time, when you did not want me to go out without you, you nailed your hand on the door leading outside, threatening to stay like that until my return,” she reminds him. She notices legs protruding from beneath his bedcovers, which he explains as being one of his dolls he is in the habit of caressing. When the mother leaves, Sil knocks and enters the room. When Cavanosa dresses her up as a Christ-like figure, she agrees to die for him. She also notices the legs beneath the bedcovers. It is not a doll but a dead woman dressed exactly as she is, whom she helps to carry behind a screen. Sil’s boyfriend shows up again, to whom Sil explains what she has done in the room, but when she sets aside the screen to show the carcass, it is no longer there. Cavanosa suddenly appears and grabs the boyfriend, ties him up, and threatens him, but, in the end, lets him go. The mother returns and watches outside the window while police officers take away a body, explained by Cavanosa as the one he killed the day before yesterday. “I told you not to leave her in the cellar,” she reproaches him. Cavanosa wants Sil to go away, but she insists on staying until he agrees to turn her into her mother’s slave. The next night, he meets another woman named Lys, with a similar disposition as Sil’s. He is rude to her also, but yet she still wants to remain with him, retrieving for him a whip taken out from beneath her skirt. He decides to take a doll out from his car and go away with her.
In post-absurdist theatre, there are several trends of note, including the return of history plays, though largely imagined in the case of “L’Entretien entre M. Descartes avec M. Pascal le jeune” (The dialogue between Mr Descartes and the young Mr Pascal, 1985) by Jean-Claude Brisville (1922-?), based on the single meeting of the two mathematicians and philosophers in 1647. Brisville also wrote two other history plays: “The supper” (1989), based on the conflict between the 19th century statesman, Talleyrand, and the minister of the police, Joseph Fouché, and “The antechamber” (1991), based on the relation between Marie, marquise du Deffand, and Julie de Lespinasse. Her eyes failing, the marquise brings over to her house a bastard daughter of her brother, Julie, as her reader. The marquise’s house first attracts intellectuals of all sorts until she distances herself from the most liberal ideals taken up by Julie, whose antechamber draws jealousy from her protectress, from whom she is forced to leave.
“The dialogue between Mr Descartes and the young Mr Pascal”
Time: 1647. Place: Paris, France.
Text at ?
René Descartes meets Blaise Pascal, two mathematicians and philosophers with a particular interest in religion. Descartes admits that so far, knowing the dangers inherent in expressing opinions about religion, he has “advanced masked”. Unlike Descartes and despite his achievements in mathematics, Pascal is beginning to lose interest in science, because he is looking for certainties only religious faith can supply. Pascal is outraged at Descartes’ faith in numbers. “Can a Christian reason thus?” he asks rhetorically, “Don’t you see that reason will make God superfluous to you?” Descartes denies that. Fearing God and his swaying lack of faith, Pascal wishes to work only for his salvation, while Descartes is confident of that while at the same time working on scientific subjects. Pascal asks him to write a letter in support of a fellow Jansenist unjustly accused by Jesuits, the dominant movement of the time. Descartes refuses, for he has no wish to be involved in superfluous religious quarrels. Pascal is disappointed and accuses him of cowardice, which the other denies. Another subject of controversy is Madame de Sablé’s decision of dancing the night on the same day she had received communion, which Descartes considers a trivial matter, to Pascal’s astonishment. Pascal further alienates his fellow philosopher by declaring that he welcomes tribulations, for physical pains “unite me with Christ,” he says. Dismayed at Pascal’s austerities, Descartes described an anecdote about a man who once saved his life when he was trapped beneath a horse and likely to freeze to death. That man, despite his charity and goodness, later lost his position as an ecclesiastic because of Pascal’s accusations of his eccentric beliefs and has now become a pauper: is this serving God? Descartes concludes by opining that matters relating to the dangers of damnation are debatable and that no certainty is possible. Pascal does not agree. “The all I aspire to is beyond mathematics,” he affirms.
Also of note in the pos-modern period stands Bernard-Marie Koltès (1948-1989) with “Le retour au désert” (The return to the desert, 1988).
“In ‘Return to the desert’…violence simmers in every scene, from the very beginning when Mathilde Serpenoise, returning from Algeria to her ancestral home, is unable to greet her respectable bourgeois brother, Adrien, without the pair insulting one another. This scene is comic because of the ironic distance set up between Adrien’s pretensions to middle-class dignity and the vicious dog-fight that in fact breaks out between him and his sister. The violence in this play is constantly viewed in an ironic perspective. Towards the end of the play, the city fathers (including Adrien) are involved in a successful plot to plant a bomb in an Arab café. At the time when the bomb explodes, Adrien’s own son is inside, seeking sexual adventure, and when he staggers home, bleeding, to confront his father, all Adrien can do is to slap him for being out of the house without permission (Bradby, 1994 pp 377-378).
“For Mathieu, families are simply about inheritance; coercive structures where misogyny is passed from father to son, children are raised through ‘kicks and wise precepts’, and fathers trapped forever in a destructive adolescence, a life spent with school friends indulging in conspiratorial games or, as in ‘Roberto Zucco’ (1990) in a drunken abusive rage” (Delgado, 2011 p 29).
“The return to the desert”
Time: 1960s. Place: France.
Text at ?
After fifteen years of absence in Algeria, Mathilda returns to France with her daughter, Fatima, and her son, Edward, in the house left occupied by her brother, Adrian, who assumes she has returned for only a brief stay. Not so, as she specifies from the start. She intends to remain in the house that belongs to her, just as the factory belongs to him, as decided when their parents died. Adrian is upset, being responsible for the improvements he has made to the house, and so to some extent rightly his as well, but nevertheless forced to accept. When his son, Matthew, insists on continuing to have a room of his own instead of sharing it with Edward, he smacks his face. Fatima confesses to her mother she has met someone in the house garden, but when asked who it is, she refuses to tell. In the garden, Adrian catches Matthew trying to leave the family grounds to join the French army in the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962). “I do not want to inherit,” the frustrated Matthew declares, “I want to die uttering beautiful phrases.” Adrian prevents it. On seeing a police commissioner called Planters in the house, Edward jumps on him and immobilizes him. The bewildered man asks Mathilda about meaning of such an act. She answers that fifteen years ago, the man was one of those responsible for her exile, when he accused her of indecency for bearing a child out of wedlock. To humiliate him, she cuts his hair off. On seeing him thus exposed, Adrian suggests that the humiliated police commissioner may avenge himself by spying on Fatima and locking her up as a madwoman, all the more so because she pretends to have seen the apparition of his dead wife, Mary. Confronting each other with their separate needs, Adrian and Mathilda quarrel on several subjects. Adrian is especially worried about how Edward encourages Matthew to follow him in Arab cafes. Adrian strikes Mathilda who strikes him back. They are separated by Edward and a servant, Aziz. In the garden, Matthew tries to engage in amorous relations with Fatima, who repulses him. Unaware of this aspect, Mathilda encourages Matthew to continue friendly relations with both her children. A distraught Fatima points towards what seems to her as Mary’s ghost, but her mother sees nothing. At night together in bed, Mathilda tells her daughter she feels she is in danger in her brother’s house. She would particularly like to know how Mary died. Adrian enters to say that Matthew has been recruited in the army. He has no confidence that his son will come out of the war alive. When Fatima expresses her wish to return to Algeria, Mathilda does not answer. Adrian meets Planters and a lawyer, Borny, late at night to await developments about the bomb they planted at an Arab cafe. To their consternation, the explosion kills Matthew and Aziz. Adrian and Mathilda decide to move to Algeria, away from this desert of a house.
Still in the post-absurdist tradition, Yasmina Reza (1959-?) wrote “Art” (1994).
“Dermatologist Serge harbours artistic and intellectual ambitions; aeronautical engineer Marc is more down to earth and finds the purchase of the painting, which he describes in no uncertain terms as ‘that piece of shit’, risible. The two men, each of whom has been successful in his chosen career, drag the third character, Yvan, into their argument. For his part, Yvan sells stationery and is a rather clumsy procrastinator. Clearly, the play’s success is not entirely due to its plot, with its various questions: whether the friendship will endure despite personal stubbornness or social divides, whether or not the Antrios can be classified a work of ‘art’, or whether these ‘single men’ (one is divorced, one is experiencing marital problems, and the other is about to get married- his wedding takes place off-stage in the course of the play) can manage to construct a durable relationship. And neither is the play the sum total of its constituent themes, albeit ones that will be familiar to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic: the fragile nature of friendship, snobbery, money, social climbing, solitude, the pursuit of happiness, and the seditious role of modern art” (Jaccomart, 2013 p 234).
Time: 1990s. Place: Loiret region, France.
Text at http://pvp.org/Play%20Reading/ART%20by%20Yasmina%20Reza.pdf
Serge has bought an expensive painting by Antrios consisting of whitish lines on a white background. His friend, Marc, is devastated at his lack of judgment. To make light of the situation, he laughs. Serge does not. When Marc announces the purchase to his other friend, Ivan, the latter is much less upset. Ivan even says to Serge he likes the painting. Serge laughs light-heartedly, accompanied by Ivan. Serge tells Ivan that Marc’s laugh was “sardonic, without charm.” When Ivan reports their talk to Marc, the latter specifies that Serge laughed just to please him, in no way for the right reason, because the painting is ridiculous. Serge reports to Marc that Ivan likes the painting. Marc reports he has had somewhat a change of heart, asking himself the question: “Is the yielding to this incoherent purchase not a highly poetic gesture?” Ivan is soon to be married but is in conflict with his girl-friend over the invitation card to the wedding. She wants her stepmother to be included on the card, but since Ivan detests his own stepmother, he refuses to have her included. Marc and Serge agree that he should cancel the wedding. But Ivan says he cannot, because his boss is her uncle. Marc is exasperated by Ivan’s attitude, “because he is a little courtesan,” he says, “servile, fooled by money, bluffed by what he thinks is culture, culture that I definitely vomit away, moreover.” At this point, Serge challenges Marc. “Who are you to impose the law?” he asks belligerently. On his part, Marc is unable to come to terms that Serge likes the purchased painting while the latter is indignant that Marc is never hurt by his opinion. Serge specifies that he never voiced the negative opinions he holds about Marc’s girl-friend. When Marc insists that his friend reverse his opinion of her, he refuses. They fight. In the scuffle, Ivan is inadvertedly hit on the ear. They stop to attend him. Marc at last reveals the main reason he is so upset about the purchase, that he can no longer represent himself as Serge’s mentor in measuring all things by his opinion. To prove he considers their friendship more important than the painting, Serge permits Marc to damage it with a felt-pen, to Ivan’s horror. However, Serge and Marc are able to repair the damage. When asked whether he thought it could have been repaired as he drew, Marc admits he did not think so. Serge lies by saying that he did not think so either.
“Grande école” (A school of prestige, 1995) by Jean-Marie Besset (1959-?), written in a more traditionally realist style, concerns student interactions at a prestigious professional school of commerce.
“A school of prestige”
Time: 1990s. Place: Paris, France.
Text at ?
Late at night, Agnes prepares tea for herself as Paul joins her. She suspects that Bernard, Louis-Arnault, and Vieux, roommates of his, conspired to leave the apartment during the week-end so that he could get her to bed. In particular, she guesses that Louis-Arnault suggested that he call her up. She proposes a deal: which among the two will first be able to seduce Louis-Arnault? If she wins, she and Paul will live together in their own apartment; if he wins, she will leave him. Later, while Agnes and her friend, Emeline, await the arrival of the male students, they argue over the interpretation of a current event regarding murder. Emeline leaves as, laden with a heavy package, Bernard steps in to explain that Louis-Arnault lags behind because he is jogging. To their horror, Louis-Arnault enters with his side covered with blood. Paul joins the two in helping their friend head for the hospital. While Bernard and Paul study, the former is unable to concentrate and leaves the room because the latter can only philosophize about what happened to Louis-Arnault. When the latter enters in his bath-robe in a fevered state, he, too, dismisses Paul’s thoughts as devoid of originality. Nevertheless, Louis-Arnault attempts to help Paul in his school-work. “What would really help me,” Paul says, “is that you handle the case and that you put my name on it,” to his friend a bewildering idea. At 3 AM, Louis-Arnault is startled to see Agnes enter their apartment, the door being carelessly left unlocked. Agnes reminds Louis-Arnault of the tender feelings he expressed towards her on his hospital bed and that it was she, not his friend, Emeline, who visited him at the hospital. As they are about to kiss, Emeline startles them by entering from the next room, sleeping there alone as a temporary replacement for Vieux, the absent roommate. “I thought that we had between us a certain form of intimacy,” Emelin declares. “Which does not give you the right to make a scene,” he responds. “Sex binds but does not fixate,” Agnes declares. “I am not talking to you,” Emeline retorts and leaves on seeing Louis-Arnault uninterested in pursuing the discussion. He leaves and then returns with money so that Agnes can head back home, but she declines the offer. He tears up the bills and throws them on the floor. She picks them up. When Bernard returns to the apartment to pick up forgotten lecture notes, he discovers the presence of a stranger, Mecir, Paul’s apparent bedmate. As Mecir leaves to take a shower in their apartment, Louis-Arnault asks Paul whether he will join Agnes to a Saturday night party at her school, having been invited, but Paul is unsure whether he himself is invited. Louis-Arnault suddenly backs off and lifts a chair in self-defense on seeing Mecir come out from the bathroom, for Mecir was the man who stabbed him and now quick to disappear. Later, Emeline informs Paul that Louis-Arnault is leaving his apartment to live somewhere else. When Louis-Arnault shows up to take out his stuff, Paul sarcastically enumerates the advantages of his future business career. Instead of responding, Louis-Arnault heads out to Emeline’s apartment with her. Agnes tells Paul that she almost consented to sleep with Louis-Arnault; in turn, Paul tells Agnes that he himself succeeded in sleeping with Louis-Arnault. She thinks he may be lying, but leaves him in any case.