The Waltz of the Toreadors uses two sets--one the trophy laden drawing room of General St. Pe, for urbane drawing room comedy, the other the bedroom of his nagging, hypochondriac wife, used for one climactic scene of hysterical bedroom farce. The play's conflict is between hysteria and urbanity, the passionate idealism of youth and the orderly boredom of old age. (The General says, "Life, Gaston, is one long family lunch, tiresome because it has to be performed according to a long established ritual, with initialed napkin rings, embroidered table mats, forks of different shapes and sizes and a bell push under the table. It is a game we have agreed to play ... until the coffee. But the coffee once drunk, down the back stairs into the pantry and the best of luck.")
As in most of Anouilh's plays, the ideas have more life than the characters. The old General, who tries to overcome the boredom of his marriage by reliving the glories of his military days, insists all the while that he has the heart of a young man. He has waited seventeen years to consummate his "affair" with a girl whom he had fallen in love with at a military ball. The young lady continues to wait faithfully for him, remaining a scatterbrained young virgin until she finally seduces and falls in love with the General's secretary, a young man of equally scatterbrained innocence.
Anouilh's nihilistic chatter, as long as furiously paced and highly stylized suicides, seductions, and wit keep it from self seriousness, is delightful. The characters are stereotypes, and the ironies are always pleasant. (Th General's friend, Dr. Bonfant, announces that life must be lived like a cavalry charge, and then goes home to be browbeaten by his own shrewish wife. When Gaston, the secretary, hints that he is falling in love, the General shouts, "You must gorge yourself on cheap novels!" And Gaston replies, "No, sir, on the classics, exclusively. But the course of events is frequently quite similar.")
When Anouilh makes his sporadic shots at pathos, as in the final scene, in which the General accepts his defeat, the result is embarrassment. The glittering stage has for the first time become a living room, the General has become your next door neighbor, and you wonder what he's doing on the stage. One cannot feel compassion for a character who has been the embodiment of ideas, cuckolded age trying to relive youth, a character who has never been human.
Leigh Wharton, though a more than competent General St. Pe, is unfortunately British, forcing the rest of the actors also to try to sound British. Their success is not uniform. In a play where so much depends on the way words are spoken, on a smart and stylized production, the traditionally amateur blight of having half the cast talk like Winston Churchill and the rest like Ma Kettle is disconcerting.
Having made these reservations, I can report that the production is the most enjoyable of any I've seen at the Charles. Never pretentious, always fast and spirited, it is the perfect escape from reading period. It is a fine piece of pure and pleasant fluff.