The Most Important Play of the Year: “The Madwoman of Chaillot”

rehearsal photo by Jeff Grygny

By Jeff Grygny

Jean Giraudoux knew what it was like to live in dark times. The city of Paris was under occupation by Hitler’s armies when the gentle playwright penned his most famous work, La Folle de Chaillot, which we know as The Madwoman of Chaillot. Though the city of light,  love, and art was silent, bleak, controlled by fascists, he still managed to produce a comedy: a fantasy of remarkable vision and hope. Milwaukee theaters both large and small have produced many fine plays this year, exploring topics profoundly relevant to us as a nation and as individuals. But to me, The Madwoman of Chaillot, soon to be performed by the little storefront company Off The Wall Theatre, presents the most insightful critique of our beknighted modern world, gives us extraordinary advice for getting through dark times, and offers us a saving grace that’s so crazy it just might work.
(Full disclosure, the writer is performing a role in this show).

What is this miraculous world-changing grace? In a word: art. No, really! But I don’t mean that Giraudoux suggests that more paintings, music, and poetry will save the world; the character of the  Countess Aurelia, the “Madwoman of Chaillot,” shows us how we could bring to our lives a poetic sensibility that is radically contrary to the grain of the modern world, and the antidote to the alienation and “anaesthetic” sterility that modernity brings along with its great technical achievements.

Almost as soon as the scientific revolution brought the modern world into being, people began to notice its deep flaws. The English poet William Blake wrote “May God us keep/ From Single Vision and Newton’s sleep!” Wordsworth wrote “We murder to dissect.” In the next century, the historian Max Weber lamented modernity’s “disenchantment of the world,” but allowed that once we have discovered science, we can never go back to antiquated magical ways of life. Feminist philosophers were among the first to point out that scientific reason itself is based on the rather arrogant premise that the mind, through unemotional logic and mathematical measurement, can somehow get outside the universe to observe it “objectively,” as if with the mind of God—which is not really possible for us limited human animals. The cold detatchment of science has been steadily showing itself to be at best a useful fiction, at worst, a kind of false faith: everyone from physicists to neuroscientists is coming to realize that: A, we can never completely separate our understanding from the limitations of our culture and situation; and that, B, our knowledge is never perfect, but bound up with our emotional and embodied relations with our surroundings; and that, C, the universe, from subatomic particles to ecosystems, is so richly entangled with feedback loops that it’s impossible to understand one single thing separate from everything else. Systems philosopher Gregory Bateson referred to this principle as “the pattern that connects.” Like a melody that can only appear when all the notes are heard in relation to each other, the world is not reducible to the sum of its parts.  Quantum entanglement, fractal geometry, microbiology, and ecology show how fantastically complex and interwoven is the skein of reality. The ecological thinker Timothy Morton talks about “weird loops,” and “the mesh,” to refer to how everything is in constant and intimate relation to everything else, which allows for mysterious and unexpected things to happen. In the play, Aurelia says something nearly identical:

Are we ever really alone? Millions of beings, real and illusionary are hovering about us all the time…. Invisible atoms  guide us and lay hands on us and inform us. In the middle of the masquerade called life, they are always with us. The floor creaks, they are dancing a tango. The wind ruffles our hair, they are whispering to us.

Marilyn White as The Countess Aurelia, photo by Off The Wall Theatre

Unfortunately, the modern world has yet to catch up to these ideas. We are dominated by what poet Lewis Hyde calls “the market.” In his remarkable book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, Hyde contrasts the cold and impersonal exchanges of commerce with the richly-feeling and relational “gift economies” of “tribal” and other traditional peoples throughout human history. In gift economies, wealth is passed along, creating relationships of goodwill and gratitude, blessing life with an ever-moving current of vitality. In such cultures, a gift is not just a tchotchke: it carries emotional, aesthetic, social, and spiritual meaning. Exchange creates relationships, obligations, and sustains an ongoing feeling of community. In the market, there is no such wealth; only “value:” how things may be used to create profit. An exchange is over as soon as the money is pocketed; “nothing personal.” Profits are invested, not passed along: the chain of relationship is cut. “Freedom” means the freedom to grow without restraint—the definition of cancer. The market reduces everything to numbers in a ledger: it monetizes our bodies, our attentions, even our passions. It puts up franchises and drive the locals out of business. It drive us into debt, tortures animals in laboratories and factory farms, pumps CO2 into the atmosphere, and dumps plastic into the oceans—and sends us the bill. And it regards this insanity as perfectly sensible and normal. And since, in our age, when multinational corporations and a tiny minority of oligarchs control the economic, political, and cultural institutions of our society, it’s all too easy to internalize the market and forget about the bonds that connect us into communities. In the play, a Ragman (a recycler of discarded clothing!) tells Aurelia nearly the same thing:

Before, when you walked the streets, you knew people. They were you. Differently dressed, different sizes, different colors, different languages…but you knew them. Part of the same human network. But one day, about ten years ago, there on the street, I saw a sight that made my blood freeze. I saw a man who had nothing in common with the rest of us. It was in his eyes. It was like we were objects to be used and tossed aside. We were the means to an end. He was the first. Then every day, I saw more and more.

The neighborhood of Chaillot, with it’s charming, eccentric community, is threatened by an international company that seeks to drill for oil. From the comapny’s perspective, a handful of underemployed artists is of no value compared with the massive profits to be gained by destroying their lives. Since Giraudoux’s play was first performed, this narrative has been picked up in pop culture, from cartoons like Ferngully to blockbusters like Avatar. And just as in these tales, Aurelia rallies her neighbors to resistance.

The market’s ideology of absolute freedom from relationships is at the root of many evils. Slavery, colonialism, racism, sexism, ecological destruction— all come from seeing everything and everyone as mere property: things, not persons.  It’s unfortunately also true that any attempt at liberation— however well-meaning— that keeps the market’s values in place will be like offering upgraded accomodations on the Titanic.  It is very curious that today’s pundits see “the return of tribalism,” as a dangerous destabilizing phenomenon: populist movements around the world rebelling against the elites, who have all the charts and spreadsheets to show the wisdom of “neoliberalism:” a word used to describe the dominance of global corporations in a free-trade, free-market, deregulated world economy. And it gives us pause indeed that many of these populist movements reject liberal values as well. This road could very easily end up in fascism again. But there might also be great opportunity in this global crisis: an opening to restore the old sense of “wealth” from the market’s mere “value.” But this could not be done from the corridors of power: the banks, the governments, the media—they are dominated by the market and it’s sense of free-floating, amoral calculation.

But if different communities could recognize each other as potential relationships rather than competitors in the macroeconomic arena, they could begin an age of true multicultural understanding. This will not be accomplished though facts and statistics, and certainly not by hostile rhetoric and mutual insults, but by reaching out, human to human: offering gifts, forming relationships, making common cause—as it has been done since before the ancient Babylonians scratched the first accounting ledgers on clay tablets. It will not be easy. We can feel so small and powerless against the powers that seek to keep us isolated and divided. But through The Madwoman of Chaillot, Giraudoux shares the benefit of his experience and wisdom to point the way: through the languages of feeling, meaning, and the senses: the languages of art—not the intellectualized art of academicians, or the commodified art of the market, but real art, that touches the heart and moves the soul.

Aurelia lives her life as a work of art, and she makes a gift of it to the world around her. We could start there. Embrace eros— a word the ancient Greeks used to signify all that connects in the world: pleasure, desire, the senses and affections, beauty, bliss—and their counterparts: sorrow, tenderness, awareness of suffering and the messy, complicated chaotic aspects of life. Nourish yourself with beauty. Imbue the world around you with meaning: put on your “Persian earrings;” choose  a lorgnette from your “vast collection;” gaze at yourself in “the polished copper gong that once belonged to the Divine Sarah.” Make relationships with the world around you; practice random acts of kindness; feed gizzards to the neighborhood cat; offer a calla lily to the garbageman. Spread happiness “to the trees and to the dogs who pee on them.” Don’t worry—you’re connected; you can feel it.

Reject the isolation of the market. Give gifts, expecting nothing in return. Accept them as well, then give them away too; keep the exchange moving. When your tribe is strong, find common cause with people from other tribes; only a gathering of tribes can defeat the power of the market, which is why they work so hard to keep us divided. Community is messy, and it’s not always logical: poetry holds it together. Discover the old virtues of community that have existed since before the economy of domination: courtesy, gratitude, dignity, honor, integrity, magnanimity. Respect the codes of other tribes, as they respect yours. We can’t kill all the billionaires, but that’s not our only option. Lock your inner hedge fund manager in the basement with his whats-in-it-for-me, bottom-line blindness, and just see if the flowers don’t burst into bloom, birds fill the sky, and total strangers embrace in the streets. It might sound crazy.
But it’s better than the alternative.

The Madwoman of Chaillot
by Jean Giraudoux
plays at Off The Wall Theatre from June 14 through June 24.

Make a gift of $25 out of the generosity of your heart and see what happens