"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" is one of William Shakespeare's most famous lines. But aren't we glad he didn't stretch that sentiment out into a full-length play?
The Madwoman of Chaillot, Jean Giraudoux's fantasy first produced in 1945 and now being revived at the Stratford Festival, gave me an idea of what that might be like. I laughed at first, then found it tiresome and finally soured on it completely.
By the end, all I wanted to do was stand up for lawyers – and CEOs and oilmen and advertising executives and all the other professions that the play would like to see wiped off the Earth.
The Madwoman of Chaillot is a poetic script full of faux naiveté written by Giraudoux in Vichy France in 1943, and first produced after his death and the Liberation two years later. The show had a run on Broadway in an adaptation by Maurice Valency a few years after that briefly popularized the French playwright in the English-speaking world.
Stratford has commissioned a new translation by David Edney that is now getting its world premiere in a colourful production by Donna Feore.
It begins with a group of capitalist caricatures in a café plotting to extract oil from underneath Paris: the President (Ben Carlson), the Broker (Rylan Wilkie), the Baron (David Collins) and the Prospector (a wildly mustachioed Wayne Best).
They're an unabashedly evil bunch and therefore quite entertaining – especially Carlson's President, who chomps on a cigar and has a heck of a time chewing out the annoying buskers and insipid shoelace peddlers who wander by the café.
(Dressed by designer Teresa Przybylski, it seems as if everyone in town has just wandered out of a Cirque du Soleil show or a revival of Pippin.)
Alas, Aurélie, the title character from the Chaillot quarter of Paris, is there to spoil the bad guys' plans – her "madwoman" designation, of course, actually meant to denote how sane she is compared with these rational fellows who want to dig up the City of Light and make money from its destruction.
Played by Seana McKenna with a shade too much method to her madness, Aurélie learns of the President's plot from a young man named Pierre (Antoine Yared). From a Ragman (Scott Wentworth), she learns of the larger problem of how these "pimps" have arrived in town to ruin the simple pleasures of life with their greed.
It's up to Aurélie – who inexplicably rereads the same 1896 issue of the newspaper every morning – to make Paris great again. Her plan: to trick all of the bankers into entering a deep pit and then shut the exit and starve them to death.
Wait, what? Say what you will about the problems of capitalism, it's hard to root for a character who sees mass extermination as the solution.
Of course, you're not supposed to take The Madwoman of Chaillot literally. This is a whimsical world that draws on fairy stories and folk tales, with explicit references to One Thousand and One Nights. Aurélie holds a tea party with two of her pals that is nearly as mad as the one in Alice in Wonderland. (Marion Adler and Kim Horsman are wonderful as her madwoman posse in a scene that nearly justifies the play's existence.)
Giraudoux's particular brand of whimsy, however, has fallen out of favour in the English-speaking theatre world, and this play in particular is not really as popular in France as it once was, either. ("Faux chef-d'oeuvre" one French critic argued in a recent review.)
I've seen it claimed that Valency's adaptation of Madwoman is what has aged rather than the original, but Edney's rather limp new English-language version doesn't make much more of a case for it, only a few passages spoken by the kitchen girl Irma really coming to complete life (and, then, perhaps only because of Mikaela Davies's heartfelt performance).
In being a little more direct in his translation, however, Edney has done us the service of making the problematic nature of some of its passages more clear to an English audience.
The Ragman's speech about the "different race" of capitalists that has invaded Paris reeks of xenophobia. "Before, when you walked around Paris, the people you met were like you; they were you," he says. "They could be better dressed or dirtier, happy or angry, stingy or generous, but … they were recognizable, there was a rapport between you." (Valency wisely avoided the word "race" in his translation and reimagined the exploiters who had come to town as being from outer space.)
I'm not a huge fan of judging writers from before our time for opinions not explicitly expressed in their art, but once you start digging into Giraudoux's anti-Semitism and his relationship with the Vichy government, you can see how a literary critic such as Jeffrey Mehlman might develop a hypothesis that "the group whose extermination the play celebrates in 1943 is the Jews."
But you don't have to go that far to find the play misanthropy masquerading as whimsy.
The Madwoman of Chaillot continues to Oct. 1.