In Thieves' Carnival three weeks ago we heard Lord Edgard say to his wife, "I've been reading The Times." "The same as yesterday?" asked Lady Hurf. "Not the same copy as yesterday," he replied. This week we have the pleasure of watching the grand and zany lady who has been reading the same copy of the same newspaper every day for decades and is dutifully shocked each morning on reading the same obituary.
The lady is, of course, Countess Aurelia--the title personage of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot (La folle de Chaillot). Giraudoux wrote three versions of this play shortly before he died in 1944. Had he lived longer he could not have improved it much; indeed, the mad tea party is absolutely perfect. He never wrote a greater play, and only his Electre can perhaps equal it.
This fantasy is whacky and funny, but it is also soundly based on reason and a serious philosophical outlook--in this respect resembling Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth. It is certainly destined to become a theatre classic.
The play is a satire, partly poetic, about greed and worshippers of the Golden Calf. A group of men want to drill for oil right under Paris in order to wage a destructive war. The countess and her cohorts find a way of trying them in absentia by proxy, and she then "exterminates" them (how I will not reveal).
The Countess is not alone in her madness. She has three mad colleagues, and is surrounded by a large number of lesser persons all of whom have a few screws loose. In fact, every single character in the play seems to be mad in at least one way. The point is, though, that it's the war-bent men who are really mad; the Countess and her entourage may be completely crazy in a lot of small matters, but they are quite sane in things that count. The Countess not only is able to get rid of the malefactors, but she knows how to create happiness and how to restore a would-be suicide's love of life.
Giraudoux's dialogue is dazzlingly witty, and one side-splitting line follows another. The style survives Maurice Valency's translation very well indeed and Warren Enters has staged the work admirably. On opening night some of the cast had trouble with a few lines, but all should be running smoothly by now.
The title role is a virtuoso vehicle for a magnificent actress. Florence Reed is just such an actress. With close to 60 years of stage experience, she knows all the tricks in the book--and this role demands a great many of them. She has a full, rich voice and knows how to underline it with a straightening of the shoulders or a toss of the head. And there is her famous deep-throated chuckle that has almost become a trademark. No other actress is her superior in the ability to project perfectly from fortissimo to pianissimo. Though rather short in stature, she is still a grande dame and sails through the role with positively reginal imperiousness and dignity. She reigns in more ways than one, even if the Countess does think that all men's names change every hour on the hour.
Estelle Winwood recreates delightfully her original fluttery Broadway portrayal of Mme. Constance, the Madwoman of Passy, who keeps an imaginary pet dog and won't open her door unless a caller knocks twice and meows thrice. Maureen Hurley is amusing as the chaste Mlle. Gabrielle, the Madwoman of St. Sulpice, who hears voices in her sewing-machine and hot-water bottle. And Adele Thane brings the vigor of Margaret Rutherford to Mme. Josephine, the Madwoman of La Concorde, who still goes every day to wait for Woodrow Wilson.
Melville Cooper, Jack Hollander and Guy Sorel have the proper slickness for the evil president, prospector and baron. The large number of supporting roles provide several fine vignettes: Tom Bosley does fine double duty as the double-talking broker and the sad, flower-loving sewer man; Ned Murphy actually plays the guitar as the street-singer who knows only the first two lines of his song; and Lance Cunard is a comic Dr. Jadin, who believes that "as the foot goes, so goes the man."
Special praise is due Alvin Epstein for another in his series of memorable characterizations. Here he is the rag-picker, who claims the world is no longer happy because it has been taken over by a thousand kinds of pimp. He looks marvelously seedy, with three hats on his head at once and an umbrella that has lost almost all but its ribs; and he is most compelling in his big scene in the second act.
This production is splendid theatre. Anyone who does not leave it a better person and has not been thoroughly entertained in the process is obviously mad.