Michel de Ghelderode - World Literature

World Literature

Michel de Ghelderode


BORN: 1898, Ixelles, Belgium

DIED: 1962, Brussels, Belgium


GENRE: Drama, fiction, nonfiction


The Farce of Death Who Almost Died (1925)

Chronicles of Hell (1929)

The Public Life of Pantagleize (1930)

Red Magic (1931)

The Actor Makes His Exit (1935)



Michel de Ghelderode. Association 'Internationale Michel de Ghelderode



Michel de Ghelderode was among the most influential twentieth-century dramatists working in French, earning an international reputation as an avant-garde playwright. Although he lived his entire life in his native Belgium, Ghelderode achieved his critical and commercial success in Paris. His plays are often set in surreal, dystopic fanta- sylands, peopled by grotesques, dwarves, and marionettes; nevertheless, they exhibit psychological realism. Although he sometimes achieved notoriety through scandal, Ghelderode felt he never received the recognition nor achieved the financial success he deserved.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

French Beginnings. Ghelderode was born Adolphe-Adhemar Martens in Ixelles, Belgium, on April 3, 1898. He was the fourth child of middle-class parents Henri-Adolphe Martens, a clerk at the general archives at Brussels, and Jeanne-Marie. Although they were Dutch speakers, the Martens chose to educate their children in French, the only official language of Belgium at the time. In fact, Ghelderode published all of his works in French, apparently never mastering written Dutch.

Early Illnesses. Martens attended school at the Institut St-Louis in Belgium until 1914, when he was forced to leave after a bout with typhus (an infectious bacterial disease that was regularly epidemic until a vaccine was created in the 1930s). His adolescence was deeply affected by his illness and the death of his brother in World War I. Though the war had its immediate causes in eastern and central European politics and entangling alliances, Germany’s invasion of Belgium in August 1914 brought Great Britain into the conflict. Though the Belgian army tried to resist, Germany occupied much of Belgium during World War I. Belgium proved to be a major battleground on the Western Front as the Allies— Great Britain, France, and Belgium, among others— sought to liberate the country.

Martens attempted suicide at least once and was never entirely stable. He became something of a hypochondriac, always suffering from one ailment or another. Because of chronic asthma, he left school early and for the rest of his life lived as an invalid.

The Devil, Damnation, and Death. Raised by a mother who fervently believed in both God and the devil (whom she claimed to have personally seen), Ghelderode was told supernatural tales from an early age. When he began to read, stories of the macabre and fantastic were his favorites. When he began to write—short stories and poems, then plays—he continued his preoccupation with those subjects.

In 1916, Ghelderode developed an interest in the marionette (stringed puppets) theaters of old Brussels, searching their records for lost or forgotten plays. Some of his own plays are reportedly based on or inspired by old marionette dramas of the sixteenth century. In 1918, a representative from a local group of avant-garde writers and artists approached Ghelderode and invited him to give a lecture. Ghelderode accepted but stated that his lecture would have to deal with American Edgar Allan Poe’s work. To accompany the lecture, the arts group asked Ghelderode if he had an appropriate short play they could perform. Although he had never written a play before, Ghelderode said that he had a suitable play, then quickly wrote one. The resulting work was Death Looks Through the Window (1918)—a horrifying play with physically or morally defective characters and an ending in ‘‘hell and damnation,’’ as Ghelderode later described it.

New Politics, New Work. By 1923, Ghelderode was working as the archives editor in Schaerbeek, a suburb of Brussels. His lifelong interest in old manuscripts was fostered by this position. During the 1920s, Ghelderode also continued his theatrical efforts, writing puppet plays usually based on biblical stories. These plays also included The Death of Doctor Faust (1926) and Don Juan (1928). When audience reaction to these French language works was not enthusiastic, he turned to the Flemish People’s Theatre. The theater was strongly nationalist, which suited Ghelderode, who also expressed support for Flemish nationalism. (Belgium is a country made up of two distinct peoples. The Flemish are generally found in the north, while the Walloons, a French-speaking people, are found in the south. There has long been tension between the groups, though the French language has long predominated.)

In 1925, Ghelderode became the principal playwright for the Flemish People’s Theatre, which produced a number of his early plays. During the 1920s, he was also a member of the Renaissance de l’Occident, a literary group that published his plays either in their magazine or in separate booklets. Some plays written or published at this time were not produced until many years later. By the late 1920s, Ghelderode’s plays were also being produced in Paris and Rome.

The year 1930 saw the production of Ghelderode’s The Public Life of Pantagleize—a play centered around the violent attack on capitalist society. Pantagleize presents Ghelderode’s essentially religious vision, which sees the world, by its very nature, as hopelessly corrupt. During the initial production, the actor playing the lead character grew ill and died, suffering a delirium in his final days in which he argued with characters he had played in several of Ghelderode’s productions. The bizarre hallucinations of the dying man inspired Ghelderode to write The Actor Makes His Exit (1935), in which an actor grows ill and dies because of the morbid plays he has been performing.

Alleged Nazi Sympathy. Because he was committed to nothing and acted as a free writer, anarchist-aristocrat Ghelderode welcomed the Nazi invasion of Belgium in 1940 and hoped the Nazis would appreciate his work. Nazi Germany had been growing as a power under Adolf Hitler since the mid-1930s and had strong territorial ambitions. European leaders tried a policy of appeasement to avoid war, but allowing Germany to take over parts of Czechoslovakia did not curb Hitler’s desire for territory. World War II began when Great Britain and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland in 1939. By 1940, Germany had invaded and taken over Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. While a democratic Belgian government was formed in exile, Belgium remained occupied until 1944.

Anti-Semitic and hostile to democratic government, Ghelderode took the Nazis to be German comrades of the Flemish nationalists. During the occupation, he went on German radio to broadcast a series of talks on folklore subjects under the title Our Own Things and People. Charged with collaborating with the enemy at war’s end, Ghelderode lost his job and citizenship. A series of judicial appeals finally won him a pardon and a revocation of the charges against him. In 1949, he was awarded a government pension and essentially retired from playwriting.

International Acclaim. Ironically, Ghelderode first won international acclaim the year he retired. A Paris production of his play Chronicles of Hell, first written in 1929, caused such a scandal that the curtain was brought down on the show after four performances. The resulting publicity launched a series of other productions of his plays both previously produced and unproduced in Paris, Rome, Madrid, Copenhagen, Oslo, Krakow, Cairo, and various locations throughout Eastern Europe. By the late 1950s, Ghelderode’s plays were also being produced in the United States. His plays were produced in his native Belgium throughout the decade as well. His last play was written in 1952, Mary the Poor, on commission from the Brabant church of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. It is considered by most critics to be inferior to his earlier works. Despite this relative failure, he was probably the most influential playwright in French and among the most influential worldwide when he died on April 1, 1962.



Ghelderode's famous contemporaries include:

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): German playwright, director, and poet, he was influential as creator of ''epic theater,'' operator of the acclaimed Berliner Ensemble theater company, and practitioner of experimental drama. His works include The Threepenny Opera (1928).

M. C. Escher (1898-1972): Dutch graphic artist, he is world-renowned for his woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints that trick the eye, seem to defy logic or physics, and feature explorations that include infinity and the impossible.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): British film and television director and producer, he is considered an icon for his pioneering suspense and thriller entertainment, his droll wit, and his unique style—including making cameo appearances in every one of his films and presenting his own series with props and mental gags. His films include The 39 Steps (1935).

C. S. Lewis (1898-1968): Irish writer and scholar, he is best known for his series The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-1954), but is also popular for his studies of Christian apologetics.

Golda Meir (1898-1978): The fourth prime minister of Israel, she was known as ''The Iron Lady'' of politics.


Works in Literary Context

Unlike many of his contemporaries in the theater, Ghelderode, who penned more than fifty plays, focused almost exclusively on writing drama. His oeuvres include only a handful of published works that are not plays. He wrote plays that shocked audiences, challenged convention, and employed popular theatrical traditions that had been neglected by artists of the elite. Sex, death, religion, and the theater itself were Ghelderode’s most cherished themes, and he addressed them while testing the limits of social mores and contemporary drama.

Unique and Varied Influences. The carnival atmosphere of Ghelderode’s plays is derived from traditional Flemish street carnivals, masquerades, and the peasant revelries found in the paintings of Pieter Brueghel. Ghelderode set several plays in what he termed ‘‘Brueghellande.’’ Critics and commentators often compared his works to the art of Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch as well as to the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck. Ghelderode also credited the Elizabethans and such Spanish playwrights as Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderon as sources of inspiration. Another powerful influence was the medieval world and its exuberant festivals, omnipresent church, brutality, and sensuality.

Grotesque Style, Fantastic and Macabre Themes. An openness to the fantastic is often present in Ghelderode’s plays. In Caroline’s Household, for example, a group of mannequins used for target practice in a shooting gallery escape to seek revenge on those who have harmed them. In The Blind Men, inspired by a Brueghel painting, three blind pilgrims refuse to believe a one-eyed man who tells them they are headed in the wrong direction. They end up falling into quicksand. Other plays feature the devil, living corpses, masked revelers at carnival time, misers, lechers, angels, historical figures, and midgets. Ghelderode’s plays present a grotesque, absurd world where humans live in torment and confusion. This ‘‘carnival of vices’’ is the result of a world that has lost its faith. Dark and foreboding, Ghelderode’s plays blend elements from marionette plays, medieval festival, and religious mystery drama into a personal statement unlike any other in modern drama.

Influence on Postwar Playwrights. Ghelderode redefined the possibilities of the theater and prepared the way for postwar playwrights such as Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett.



Here are a few works by writers who also favored macabre themes:

American Psycho (1991), a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The central character in this work of fiction has a disturbing way of dealing with irritating guests.

Buried Alive (2002), a nonfiction book by Jan Bondeson. In this thoroughly researched work, the author recounts the history of the fear of being the victim of premature burial.

''The Call of Cthulhu'' (1926), a short story by H. P. Lovecraft. When his loved one dies, the narrator discovers a disturbing truth.

The Shining (1977), a novel by Stephen King. A winter caretaker and his family have otherworldly experiences in the Overlook Hotel.


Works in Critical Context

Critical study of Gehlderode’s work has followed a pattern of neglect and rediscovery throughout the playwright’s career, especially since his death in 1962. In Belgium, and somewhat later in France, early audiences and critics of Ghelderode’s plays were often shocked by their uncompromising portrait of human depravity and sin, their treatment of religious hypocrisy, and their scatological wit. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, the Parisian theater establishment came to embrace him as an innovative and important writer. Though his stature briefly waned in France around his death, his stature as a playwright of international importance grew and spread to North and South America, Eastern Europe, and Great Britain. Since the 1960s, Ghelderode’s reputation has continued to increase.

Critics over the decades have suggested that Ghelderode’s plays do not fit into any established tradition. While Ghelderode’s theater defies categorization, his most avid scholars have been able to articulate his artistic approach as it presents itself in his work.

Importance of the Plays. ‘‘Among modern dramatists,’’ George E. Wellwarth explained in Tulane Drama Review, ‘‘Michel de Ghelderode stands by himself. If we must have a classification for him, then he can most nearly be compared to that group of novelists who have concentrated on the creation of a fictional world of their own, a microcosm in which to reflect their view of human behavior in the world as a whole.... Ghelderode has created an enclosed world that reflects and comments upon the larger world outside. Ghelderode’s world is medieval Flanders, and his view of the world can best be described as savagely grotesque.’’

‘‘The surface characteristics of Ghelderode’s universe are dazzling,’’ Jacques and June Guicharnaud concluded in Modern French Theatre. ‘‘In many of his plays masqueraders, grotesque figures, living corpses, gluttonous and lustful men and women frantically move about in a decor of purple shadows, full of strong smells, and throw violent, foul, or mysterious phrases at each other in highly colored language filled with Belgian idioms, archaisms, and shrieks. Even in the plays where the language is closest to modern French, the dialogue and long speeches are profuse and frenetic. There is no rest in Ghelderode’s theatre; the shock is permanent.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Using your library or the Internet, find out more about one of the artistic movements listed below. Write a short paper summarizing your findings.

Angry Penguins


Dogme 95

Electronic Art Music


Noise Music

No Wave

Pop Art

Progressive Rock

Social Realism

2. Ghelderode was known for using imagery from Renaissance art in his plays. Some critics have even compared his plays to Flemish paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel. Using your library or the Internet, find several copies of paintings by Bosch or Brueghel. Then, working with a single Ghelderode play, see if you can detect the influences of either Bosch or Brueghel. This can be in the imagery of the play—the use of color, shape, sensory experience, object, or scene—or it might be in the repeated appearance of one item as a symbol. How would you argue, then, that a Ghelderode play is like a Brueghel or Bosch painting? What imagery or symbolism do the two works share? Create a presentation for the class with your findings.

3. Some critics note that Ghelderode was influenced by the medieval Italian theatrical tradition known as commedia dell’arte. To find out more about this type of theater, read Commedia dell’arte: An Actor’s Handbook (1994), by John Rudlin.




Grossvogel, David I. 20th-Century French Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Guicharnaud, Jacques, and June Guicharnaud. Modern French Theater from Giraudoux to Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967.

Iglesis, Roger, and Alain Trutat. Interviews from Ostende. Paris: L’Arche, 1956.

Wellworth, George E. The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama. New York: New York University Press, 1964.


Ghelderode, Michel de. ‘‘To Directors and Actors: Letters 1948-1959.’’ Tulane Drama Review 9, no. 4 (1965).

Levitt, Paul M. ‘‘Ghelderode and Puppet Theatre.’’ French Review 48, no. 6 (May 1975): 973-80.

Weiss, Aureliu. ‘‘The Theatrical World of Michel de Ghelderode.’’ Tulane Drama Review 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1963): 51-61.

Wellwarth, George E. ‘‘Ghelderode’s Theatre of the Grotesque.’’ Tulane Drama Review 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1963): 11-23.

Web Sites

Famous Belgians on the Net. Michel de Ghelderode. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://www.famousbelgians.net/ghelderode.htm. Last updated on March 2, 2004.

Ghelderode. ‘‘Le Diamant noir.’’ Official Web site (in French). Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://www.ghelderode.be/. Last updated on February 28, 2008.