World Literature

Jean Giraudoux

 

BORN: 1882, Bellac, France DIED: 1944, Paris

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Drama, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

My Friend from Limousin (1922)

Amphitryon 38 (1929)

Racine (1930)

Judith (1931)

Tiger at the Gates (1935)

 

 

Jean Giraudoux. Lipnitzki / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

 

Overview

Although he first distinguished himself in fiction, Jean Giraudoux gained fame primarily because of the stylized dramas he wrote, focusing on the universal themes of love, death, and war. Engaged in elegant, intellectual dialogue, his characters frequently represent abstract ideas. Because of his seemingly effortless, witty manipulation of language, Giraudoux gained a reputation early in his career as an overly refined pseudo-intellectual. But behind that lyrical, playful use of words, Giraudoux’s plays and novels—especially those of his later years— reveal a deep-seated idealism, a desire for an incorruptible world.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Brilliant Youth, and the Urge to Travel. Hippolyte Jean Giraudoux was born in 1882 in Bellac, France, a province of Limousin, to Leger and Anne Giraudoux. Because his father, a minor civil servant, was a quiet man often absent from home, Giraudoux felt closer to his mother and his only sibling, an older brother. A gifted and brilliant child, he attended a boarding school in Chateauroux on scholarship, studying French literature, Greek, Latin, and philosophy, which emphasized the idealism of many nineteenth-century thinkers. After completing his studies in 1900, winning the school’s award for excellence, Giraudoux moved to the Lakanal school near Paris for two years of further preuniversity instruction. When he left the school, he received the Lakanal Prize for excellence, in addition to first prize for history and French composition, and, in a national competition, first prize for Greek.

In 1903, after completing a period of required military service, Giraudoux entered the renowned Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, first studying French literature before changing to German studies. He visited Germany on a fellowship in 1905 and spent a year in Munich working as a tutor for Paul Morand, who became a writer and diplomat as well as Giraudoux’s friend. Traveling throughout central Europe during this time, Giraudoux observed the radical division of Germanic and Gallic influences in Europe, an issue that would figure prominently in much of his work.

From a Reluctant Journalist to a Diplomat. Between 1904 and 1906, Giraudoux published his first sketches and stories, some of which were included in Provincials, his first book. After he returned to Paris in 1906, he discovered that he had little interest in a career in education after a short stint of student teaching. Nonetheless, friends arranged for him a position as a visiting French-language assistant at Harvard University. When he returned to Paris in 1908, Giraudoux worked for a daily paper to which he contributed some of his own stories under a pseudonym. At the same time, he had other stories published in prestigious magazines.

In 1910 Giraudoux began an active foreign-service career, which included a position as the chief of information and press services of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Traveling extensively for his job, he was one of the well-known diplomatic travelers among twentieth-century writers, a group that included Paul Claudel and Jean-Paul Sartre. A romantic encounter with Suzanne Boland, wife of a military officer, Paul Pineau, began in 1913, resulting in both Pineau’s challenging Giraudoux to a duel, which never took place, and, eventually, Suzanne’s divorce. She gave birth to Giraudoux’s only child in 1919, and the couple was married in 1921, a fact that led some early biographers to create a false date for the marriage to protect Giraudoux’s reputation.

Military Service and a New Career as Dramatist. Giraudoux served in the military during World War I. After being wounded in the infamous Battle of the Marne—in which over two million men fought and more than five hundred thousand soldiers were killed or wounded—and again in the Dardanelles, he returned to service in the war ministry and then the foreign ministry. Having contracted dysentery while on diplomatic business in Turkey, Giraudoux was hospitalized eleven times due to injuries and illness related to war. Another lingering effect of the war was Giraudoux’s apprehension regarding France’s postwar reconciliation with Germany. This apprehension formed the subject of My Friend from Limousin (1922), a novel that was immediately admired.

A 1927 meeting with the actor and director Louis Jouvet proved to be a momentous occasion in Giraudoux’s life. With Jouvet’s encouragement and technical advice, Giraudoux adapted My Friend from Limousin for the stage. After the play’s instant success under the direction of Jouvet, Giraudoux embarked on a new career in drama at the age of forty-five. Almost every year during the 1930s, Jouvet brought out a new Giraudoux play, placing Giraudoux among the most popular playwrights in Europe until his death in 1944.

 

Works in Literary Context

Classical Roots. As evidenced by his own adaptations of stories from Greek mythology and the Bible, Giraudoux’s work was significantly influenced by that of Jean Racine (1639-1699), whose tragedies were derived from various classical sources. Perhaps the most inspirational force in Giraudoux’s career—and definitely in his career as a dramatist—was his collaboration with actor and director Louis Jouvet. For fifteen years, the pair enchanted Parisian audiences with productions of tragedies laced with irony and intellectual literary wit. Each man admired the other for his artistic gifts. Undoubtedly, Giraudoux and Jouvet complemented each other’s strengths: Jouvet’s imagination for staging scenes offered the perfect scenarios for Giraudoux’s verbal virtuosity.

Clashing Cultures. Contemplative of the gravest of human problems, Giraudoux’s work demonstrates a passionate concern for the human condition, even as he introduces such fantastical elements as the encounter between the mundane and the supernatural. One of his key themes is the differences to be found between people of different cultures, specifically the French and Germans. This is observed in My Friend from Limousin, in which a French soldier struck with amnesia believes himself to be German; he returns ‘‘home’’ to Germany but finds it difficult to fit in. This theme is also addressed in the play Tiger at the Gates (1935), set the day before the beginning of the Trojan War. Although Hector offers sound reasons for the Trojans and the Greeks to work out their differences, other forces suggest that conflict is inevitable. Many viewed this work as a parallel to the relationship between France and Germany prior to World War II.

Ethereal Women. Although most of the male characters in Giraudoux’s theatrical works are brilliantly portrayed, the females in his dramas are often the most interesting. Giraudoux’s optimistic, idealistic image of a pure, ethereal woman is juxtaposed with the coarseness and tedium of everyday life. In Giraudoux’s plays, the true woman is a natural, instinctive creature endowed with subtle and delicate sensibility. Above all, she is the only one who could discover the poetic possibilities within common existence; she is compassionate and rare. Giraudoux’s vision insists that the absolute or the ideal is the only meaningful goal of humanity, and his female protagonists—from Electra in Electra to Lucile in Duel of Angels to Lia in Sodom and Gomorrah—personify this vision. In this, Giradoux participates in a tradition that extends far behind and in front of him. Particularly in Christian cultures, the distinction between ‘‘perfect Madonna’’ (the Virgin Mary) and ‘‘fallen woman’’ or ‘‘whore’’ has been a key trope for (mostly male) writers ranging from St. Augustine all the way up to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Giraudoux's famous contemporaries include:

Ezra Pound (1885-1972): Born in the United States, Pound spent much of his adult life in Europe, where his poetry helped establish and define the modernist movement.

James Joyce (1882-1941): Joyce, an Irish-born novelist who lived in Italy and France, experimented with form and narrative in his modernist works.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924): Kafka's fiction presents the dehumanization and isolation of the individual in twentieth-century society.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): A painter and sculptor, Picasso influenced most major art movements of the twentieth century, including surrealism and abstract expressionism.

Jerome Kern (1885-1945): Kern, who established the staged musical as an art form, wrote Showboat, which includes the famous song "OF Man River.''

Erwin Rommel (1891-1944): Rommel was called the ''Desert Fox'' because of the skillful German military campaigns he waged in North Africa during World War II.

 

Works in Critical Context

In general, most critics agree that Giraudoux’s fiction and drama show superb craftsmanship. Early criticism tended to fault the ‘‘preciosity’’ of his language—that is, its elaborate affectation and excessive, maudlin refinement. As such, some scholars reject Giraudoux’s art as artificial and insignificant, too self-consciously literary and overly dependent upon its appeal to sensitive audiences. Because Giraudoux’s language, contends Robert Cohen, ‘‘is at once lyrical, witty, and searching, often turning on paradox,’’ the playwright was accused of verbal overindulgence. Cohen goes so far as to state that ‘‘words came too easily for him.’’ Nevertheless, most modern critics concede that Giraudoux’s ornamental language and ‘‘preciosity’’ are suited to his unique style of writing.

Mankind’s Last Recourse. Wallace Fowlie has documented the fact that Giraudoux called himself a ‘‘journalist of the theater.’’ As Giraudoux gauged the receptivity and intelligence of his audience, so did the public evaluate his style and purpose. What they found, says Fowlie, was that ‘‘Giraudoux believed fervently in the cause of literature. He believed that literature was the last recourse of mankind.’’ Still, some critics questioned his commitment to both art and the concerns he presents in his work. These are the same detractors who criticize his characters as vague, undeveloped creations that confuse allegory, symbol, and reality instead of revealing any kind of truth.

Life’s Truths. Giraudoux’s supporters, however, see his legacy as a writer as being due to his treatment of such serious themes as love, death, war, and humanity’s relationship to the universe. According to Robert Emmet Jones:

Giraudoux is the only contemporary French playwright ... who has created a dramatic world at all comparable to those of the great dramatists of the past. His world contains people of all social classes and all educational levels, and whether they be ancient Greeks, Biblical characters, or provincial Frenchmen, they transcend their times and become as universal in significance as any characters in the modern drama.

Fowlie concurs, observing that Giraudoux’s theater ‘‘reveals to men the most surprising and the most simple truths, which they never fully realize, such as the inevitability of life, the inevitability of death, the meaning of happiness and catastrophe, the fact that life is both reality and dream.’’ Giraudoux, it would seem, remains an important writer because of his distinct and interesting vision of the world.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The collaboration between Giraudoux and Louis Jouvet was a key factor in Giraudoux's success as a playwright. Artistically, the men had complete trust in one another's creative processes. Because the magic of Giraudoux's dramatic speech was a crucial element of his plays, Jouvet faithfully followed the text. In fact, Jouvet once remarked that ''he had to teach his actors how to speak the text rather than act it,'' notes scholar Wallace Fowlie. Listed below are other works that have resulted from the collaboration of creative minds:

The Waste Land (1922), a poem by T. S. Eliot. The poem's original manuscript of around 800 lines was cut to 443 by Ezra Pound, a fellow poet who edited and annotated the work in what many scholars consider a brilliant, creative act in itself.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. In addition to cutting about half of the manuscript's original words, writer and editor Gordon Lish rewrote the endings of ten of the thirteen stories in this collection.

Lyrical Ballads (1798), a compilation of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This important work of the English Romantic movement included ''Tintern Abbey,'' one of Wordsworth's most famous poems, and Coleridge's renowned ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.''

 

Responses to Literature

1. Research French theater from 1900 to 1945, noting major authors, literary movements, historical figures, and world events taking place that had an effect on drama during that time period. Create a timeline that displays the facts you have learned. Designate one side of the timeline for people and the other side for literary movements and historical events.

2. Because of the creative spirit of French literary and artistic movements at the beginning of the twentieth century, many writers were drawn to France—Paris, in particular. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, find at least five writers or artists who moved to France to enjoy this creative environment. Why do you think France became such a center of artistic activity at this time? Were any works produced there that could not have been produced elsewhere? If so, what were they? Why could they have been made or published only in France?

3. Compare Giraudoux’s play Tigers at the Gate with ancient legends of the Trojan War such as Homer’s Iliad. How does each work depict the prospect of war? It has been said that Giraudoux used the Trojans and Greeks to parallel the tenuous relationship between France and Germany throughout the first third of the twentieth century. Which do you think Giraudoux intended the Trojans to represent— France or Germany? Why?

4. The premise of Giraudoux’s play The Apollo of Bellac involves a sheltered woman who is told the secret to controlling men: Compliment a man’s looks, and he will do whatever you ask. Do you think this is a valid observation? Why or why not? Do you think the opposite technique would work for a man complimenting women? Why or why not?

5. Why do you think Giraudoux did not begin writing plays until he was in his forties? In your opinion, would Giraudoux have ever written plays if he had not met Louis Jouvet?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Chiari, Joseph. The Contemporary French Theatre. London: Rockliff Publishing, 1958.

Cohen, Robert. Giraudoux: Three Faces of Destiny. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Fowlie, Wallace. Dionysus in Paris. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Ganz, Arthur. Realms of the Self: Variations on a Theme in Modern Drama. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Guicharnaud, Jacques. Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967.

Jones, Robert Emmet. The Alienated Hero in Modern French Drama. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1962.

LeSage, Laurent. Jean Giraudoux: His Life and Works. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1959.

Raymond, Agnes. Jean Giraudoux: The Theatre of Victory and Defeat. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1966.

Reilly, John H. Jean Giraudoux. Chicago: Twayne, 1979.