Presentation Title

I am the Madwoman: Anti-Capitalist Art in a Post-Truth Era

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Abstract

Call it kismet or prescience, but when the University of Montana’s School of Theatre and Dance chose Maurice Valency’s adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot for production in the spring of 2017, the current political climate was only an unlikely glimmer on the horizon. The play, described by the publisher as “a kind of poetic and comic fable set in the twilight zone of the not-quite-true,” revolves around the Parisian district of Chaillot, presided over by the Madwoman Countess Aurelia and her band of vagabonds. When their happiness is threatened by the “invasion” of a President of Eleven Companies, accompanied by his brokers, his prospectors, his news agents, and “a forest of derricks and drills” determined to dig up Paris to find oil and make war, the Countess holds a trial in absentia and sentences them to death. She lures them down the bottomless stairway in her cellar, where they vanish—and the world is subsequently saved.

Giraudoux began writing the play in 1942 in Nazi-occupied France, and parallels to that invasion remain clear. What scholarship exists in English on the play illuminates these parallels. Significantly more surprising, however, are the ways in which the dialogue seems relevant in America today, nearly seventy years after the play first premiered.

When I was cast as the Countess Aurelia, in December of 2016, some of the challenges of the role were readily apparent: playing old age (or a kind of ageless immortality – the play is set, according to the playwright, in “the Spring of next year,” though the Countess has first-hand recollections of events in 1881); the sheer number of lines the Countess has; and speaking those lines in a way that is poetic and stylized yet still accessible and genuine. However, as the New Year dawned and our rehearsals commenced, additional challenges presented themselves. To what extent should a performer allow the audience to draw its own connections to current events, or emphasize those connections so that they even more apparent? What does it mean to produce a piece of art that is so clearly counter-culture – and, in some ways, revolutionary – particularly at a time when art is being de-funded and the public turns to news outlets for entertainment? How does one reconcile a dramatic resolution that can be interpreted as anything from sweeping the problem under the rug to all-out genocide? Is the Madwoman—a kind of eccentric patron saint personified—an outdated trope, or does she provide answers relevant to a contemporary audience?

These questions cannot be answered through an abstract hypothetical analysis; they require the embodiment of the role. Using the rehearsal and performances of The Madwoman of Chaillot as my primary research method, I propose to answer these challenges in a formal research presentation. It is my working hypothesis that, while her methods could not translate to a world outside of the fantastical Chaillot, Countess Aurelia offers a madness that our world still desperately needs.

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Apr 27th, 2:45 PM Apr 27th, 3:00 PM

I am the Madwoman: Anti-Capitalist Art in a Post-Truth Era

UC Ballroom, Pod #1

Call it kismet or prescience, but when the University of Montana’s School of Theatre and Dance chose Maurice Valency’s adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot for production in the spring of 2017, the current political climate was only an unlikely glimmer on the horizon. The play, described by the publisher as “a kind of poetic and comic fable set in the twilight zone of the not-quite-true,” revolves around the Parisian district of Chaillot, presided over by the Madwoman Countess Aurelia and her band of vagabonds. When their happiness is threatened by the “invasion” of a President of Eleven Companies, accompanied by his brokers, his prospectors, his news agents, and “a forest of derricks and drills” determined to dig up Paris to find oil and make war, the Countess holds a trial in absentia and sentences them to death. She lures them down the bottomless stairway in her cellar, where they vanish—and the world is subsequently saved.

Giraudoux began writing the play in 1942 in Nazi-occupied France, and parallels to that invasion remain clear. What scholarship exists in English on the play illuminates these parallels. Significantly more surprising, however, are the ways in which the dialogue seems relevant in America today, nearly seventy years after the play first premiered.

When I was cast as the Countess Aurelia, in December of 2016, some of the challenges of the role were readily apparent: playing old age (or a kind of ageless immortality – the play is set, according to the playwright, in “the Spring of next year,” though the Countess has first-hand recollections of events in 1881); the sheer number of lines the Countess has; and speaking those lines in a way that is poetic and stylized yet still accessible and genuine. However, as the New Year dawned and our rehearsals commenced, additional challenges presented themselves. To what extent should a performer allow the audience to draw its own connections to current events, or emphasize those connections so that they even more apparent? What does it mean to produce a piece of art that is so clearly counter-culture – and, in some ways, revolutionary – particularly at a time when art is being de-funded and the public turns to news outlets for entertainment? How does one reconcile a dramatic resolution that can be interpreted as anything from sweeping the problem under the rug to all-out genocide? Is the Madwoman—a kind of eccentric patron saint personified—an outdated trope, or does she provide answers relevant to a contemporary audience?

These questions cannot be answered through an abstract hypothetical analysis; they require the embodiment of the role. Using the rehearsal and performances of The Madwoman of Chaillot as my primary research method, I propose to answer these challenges in a formal research presentation. It is my working hypothesis that, while her methods could not translate to a world outside of the fantastical Chaillot, Countess Aurelia offers a madness that our world still desperately needs.