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The Madwoman of Chaillot

April 18, 2013

When I was 16, I went to speech and debate tournaments with a soliloquy from Jean Giraudoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot, which I performed in the “oral interpretation” category. I had found the play in an anthology my father had in the basement of our house (I looked for that anthology when my parents moved out of the house, but alas, they had already cleaned it out and given it away to someone). Even at 16, the story of the mad old lady who persevered in her madness, claiming that if you wore them and believed in them enough, fake pearls would become real, spoke to me in a way that few things have since.

This morning I woke up thinking of one of the madwoman’s speeches from that play:

“To be alive is to be fortunate, Roderick. Of course, in the morning, when you first awake, it does not always seem so very gay. When you take your hair out of the drawer, and your teeth out of the glass, you are apt to feel a little out of place in this world. Especially if you’ve just been dreaming that you’re a little girl on a pony looking for strawberries in the woods. But all you need to feel the call of life once more is a letter in your mail giving you your schedule for the day–your mending, your shopping, that letter to your grandmother that you never seem to get around to. And so, when you’ve washed your face in rosewater, and powdered it–not with this awful rice-powder they sell nowadays, which does nothing for the skin, but with a cake of pure white starch–and put on your pins, your rings, your brooches, bracelets, earrings and pearls–in short, when you are dressed for your morning coffee–and have had a good look at yourself–not in the glass, naturally–it lies–but in the side of the brass gong that once belonged to Admiral Courbet–then, Roderick, then you’re armed, you’re strong, you’re ready–you can begin again.”

Now that I am ever-s0-much older than 16, I understand this arming of the hero scene much better–although less well than I probably will at 80–and it fortifies me to go out and meet whatever challenges lie ahead.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2013 8:11 am

    What memories! We struggled through La Folle de Chaillot in a french class a million years ago. What a pleasure to read those words again, and appreciate them more. And how were you received, at 16, saying these lines?

    • April 18, 2013 8:16 am

      I was moderately well-received; I have good diction, a pleasant-enough speaking voice, and was already 5’11″ and could put on an imperious manner.

  2. April 18, 2013 1:22 pm

    I must go look up this play and read. I was always amazed how talented teens were at the speech contests when I was in grade school and high school. I used to practice with some of my less shy friends and can still recite from some obscure works.

    • April 18, 2013 3:55 pm

      I’ve looked for that anthology in used books stores for the last several years and haven’t found it, so when I started thinking about the play this week, I found a copy of the script I could order, and did. When my kids need a soliloquy, they can choose from one of the many posted online at audition sites, and I wonder if directors get tired of hearing the same selections and wish to hear a speech from some more obscure works!
      It always strikes me that a person can be shy but still like to repeat the words of others.

  3. April 19, 2013 10:40 am

    What a wonderful speech! And so true too. We all have certain rituals we use to arm ourselves for the day whether we are 15, 50 or 80 🙂

    • April 22, 2013 7:30 am

      For me, jewelry is a special arming ritual all of its own; I think of the 18th-century rules about how only older women could wear jewels, that the beauty of a younger girl was best set off by flowers.

  4. April 19, 2013 10:46 am

    Lovely! Thinking similarly to Stefanie, how true this sounds. I used to enjoy reading plays at school so I’ll have to look for a copy of it. I find without knowing where to start looking is daunting.

    • April 22, 2013 7:31 am

      I think it used to be anthologized before the really dreadful movie version with Katharine Hepburn came out. The symbolism in that movie is so clumsy it killed interest in the play quite dead.

  5. Debbie permalink
    October 8, 2013 11:24 am

    I would like to get the speech from the outdoor dining spot (i viewed in a clip). What a great speech about capitalism and controlling the little people! It seems to be the crux of the play and the role of the “madwoman” who is rebelling against it (I may be wrong, but i don’t think so.) Does anyone have that?

  6. October 9, 2013 11:08 am

    Debbie, Here’s a scene from fairly early in the play, set in a cafe. Is it the one you saw in the clip?

    President: …Baron, the first thing we have to do is get rid of these people! Good heavens, look at them! Every size, shape, color and period of history imaginable. It’s utter anarchy! I tell you, sir, the only safeguard of order and discipline in the modern world is a standardized worker with interchangeable parts. (Sits.) Here, the manager–And there—one composite drudge grunting and sweating all over the world. Just we two. –Ah, how beautiful! How easy on the eyes! How restful for the conscience!
    Baron: Yes, yes, of course—(Enter Flower Girl, Waiter from café. Sergeant from l. to Madwoman.)
    President: Order. Symmetry. Balance. But instead of that, what? Here in Chaillot, the very citadel of management, these insolent phantoms of the past come to beard us with their raffish individualism—with the right of the voiceless to sing, of the dumb to make speeches, of trousers to have no seats and bosoms to have dinner bells!
    Baron: But, after all, do these people matter?
    President: My dear sir, wherever the poor are happy, and the servants proud, and the mad are respected, our power is at an end. Look at that! That waiter! That madwoman! That flower girl! Do I get that sort of service? And suppose that I—president of twelve corporations and ten times a millionaire—were to stick a gladiolus in my buttonhole and start yelling (He rises and yells.) Are my bones ready, Irma?

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