A Review of Barbara Vann’s production of Jean Giraudoux’s The Crazy Lady of Chaillot
by Theodore Weaver
Date: June 3, 2014
One is reminded by Barbara Vann’s recent production of The Crazy Lady of Chaillot (from Lafolle de Chaillot 1945) at the Medicine Cabinet Theatre in New York City that Jean Giraudoux
was on the wrong side of what the French called the “Funny War.” Giraudoux was the Press
Secretary for the Vichy Regime at Versaille. In Act II, the Crazy Ladies of Paris explicitly
speak of using ovens and acid to destroy human remains. By the play, Giraudoux not only
metaphorically condoned mass murder, he helped persuade the French to condone mass murder.
Vann, who has taught at Yale, Colgate, Amherst and Smith, directed the play and acted the part
The Crazy Lady of Chaillot generated excitement for its prescient anticipation of fracking and
recycling. Towards the beginning, a prospector announced to a few male, corporate men, who
dominate Act I, that he discovered oil in Paris by tasting it in the municipal water. Women
dominate Act II. In the end, with the hopes of riches, Aurélie lures group after group of corrupt
businessmen – including a philatelist – all of whom smoke, into a secret passage that reeks of
gasoline. Few of them will ever return.
Stock in the play is high at the moment for its environmental subject: Broadway Play Publishing
is offering a new translation by Laurence Senelick this spring.
The first act is set on the terrace of a café. Interestingly, most of the 25 cast members are on
stage, sitting at tables and pretending to talk, doing what people do on café terraces, while a few
businessmen speak the principal parts. The actors and actresses playing the silent café goers
are the second audience, with the difference that they wear costumes and occasionally interact
with the businessmen. For example, a rag picker finds a 100 franc note underneath their table
and gets run away by a policeman who occasionally traverses the stage. There is a seller of shoe
laces, a juggler, a singer, a waiter.
Since the second audience inevitably watches the real audience, they cannot help but be
influenced by them. In a way, the reactions of the real audience to the play are mirrored by the
second audience, which is composed of some 20 people, probably greater than the audience.
While a café terrace is a standard place to socialize in France; and café owners greatly profit by
people’s socialization, the café terrace as a stage is a model of theatrical deception. To the extent
the real audience watches the second audience as they would mimes, they are distracted from the
words of the primary actors. It is akin to a contamination because they hear a Giraudoux’s ideas
without necessarily thinking about them.
It is precisely Giraudoux’s refined, diplomatic approach that distinguishes The Crazy Lady of
Chaillot from the popular poetics of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit.
The stage included a beautiful painting of a tower and street in the post-impressionist style and
works by an internationally known artist.
The terrible metaphor of the entire play is nearly obscured by its absurd plot about drilling for oil in Paris. Céline and Giraudoux made an expression of the French mentality of the era. It should be remembered that 405,399 Americans died fighting in World War II and 670,845 Americans were wounded. Added up, that is more than a million.