It's 1921, and an amnesiac Great War veteran has become the German Chancellor under the name "Siegfried," adopted from Germanic legend. He intends to transform the country by building a modern centralized government. But a political opponent with a more folksy vision for Germany discovers that "Siegfried" was once "Jacques"...
This play is self-reflexively metatheatrical. Like, a lot.
Take this Act 3 passage. Baron Zelten is about to be banished for fomenting an unsuccessful revolt against Siegfried. Generals Waldorf and Ledinger are ready to escort him to the border (though they'd rather do worse). But before he goes, Zelten alludes to the secret that Eva, the field nurse who rescued Siegfried, has been keeping all these years.
ZELTEN: Dismiss your generals. I have something to say to you alone.
SIEGFRIED: I am not in the mood nor do I have the right to have a private conversation with you.
ZELTEN: Let them stay then. You are the only one who will suffer. In any case it is quite right that they should be here. Every time destiny prepares to strike she has a rush of blood to the head and crowds her target with men in uniforms. When Oedipus learned that he was married to his own mother and that he had killed his father, he tried to rally around him all the senior officers of his city.
WALDORF: We are general officers, Zelten!
LEDINGER: May I put an end to this farce, your Excellency?
ZELTEN: Look at Eva's face, Ledinger, and you will see that this is no farce. The lips of the heroine are pale, a minute wrinkle runs across her brow, her hands are joined but they do not seem to know each other---these are the marks of tragedy, not comedy. Why, this is the moment when the stagehands fall silent, and the prompter lowers his voice, and the spectators, who naturally have guessed everything before Oedipus and before Othello, shiver at the prospect of learning what has been known from the beginning of time.
Zelten is summoning the most awesome play about discrepant awareness in the final moments of Siegfried's ignorance. Then Zelten drops the mic ("Germans love metaphor. However, I shall avoid it henceforth with you.") and leaves Eva to explain herself to Siegfried. Once enlightened (though still suffering from amnesia), Siegfried/Jacques faces the choice of how to proceed with his newfound knowledge. Eva argues for Siegfried to stay, to revitalize the post-war nation that has embraced him as a hero. Genevieve, the fiancée who had thought Jacques dead before Zelten put her wise, argues for Jacques to resume his quiet life as a poodle-loving French journalist.* She's the lampshade-hanging voice of a Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) who doesn't even care:
I don't deny that it's dramatic that one man should epitomize the conflict between the only two nations which stand not only for two different ideals of beauty and two different ways of doing business but for two different concepts of good and evil. But dramatic as your situation is, Jacques, it does not matter for the moment.
I wonder if these and other self-consciously metatheatrical moments can trace their lineage back to Giraudoux's process of adapting his 1922 novel Siegfried et le Limousin into Siegfried, his first play.
Obviously, there's an interesting geopolitical angle here, since Siegfried is an interwar piece involving Germany and France before anyone knew the other shoe was going to drop (talk about discrepant awareness!). But I'm more interested in what the play has to say about identity.
In Act 1, Siegfried presents himself to a group of German parents whose sons went missing in the war. It's a regularly scheduled event---an opportunity for Siegfried to be recognized and claimed. His servant explains that Siegfried will be downstairs as soon as he's finally done dressing.
He can't make up his mind. He doesn't know whether to cut off his mustache, as he did last time. I left him standing in front of the mirror. I know he's wondering which way he'd look more like himself.
Whereas Genevieve, afraid of waking a sleepwalker, actively avoids self-resemblance upon having gained an audience with her former lover in Act 2. She explains to her linguist friend Robineau (through whom Zelten had gotten in touch):
I didn't have the heart to put on any of the jewels he used to know or one of the ones he gave me. I didn't choose the perfume he used to love. Fortunately the fashions this season do not have any specific character. Never before have the couturiers dressed us as they have this winter, for eternity. I've had my hair cut short since he saw me. This is the first time I've been reduced to looking so little like myself.
And after warmth, protection, and cultural standards of modesty, isn't that what we usually dress for? Looking like oneself?**
Geography makes a person, too. Siegfried/Jacques, distressed upon learning the truth, laments Eva's lack of persistence in the German hospital where he regained consciousness.
Ah, when I lay there, why didn't Eva force me to ask again and again for water! Why didn't she force me to repeat it, even if my thirst became unbearable, until she could tell if I pictured a blue sea when I called for water or a mountain torrent or a lake and thus revealed my native country.
When I picture water, it is the narrow creek running through the woods behind the school I attended as an eight-year-old midwesterner. It's so strange to imagine that one day I'll have an eight-year-old to whom water will mean the Reservoir or the East River.
There's a lot of literature out there (scholarly and less so) about multilingualism and identity.*** While the play often pits stereotypical Germany against stereotypical France, language doesn't necessarily come to bear. I mean, whether Siegfried is speaking German to Eva or French to Genevieve, it's all English to me (because I read the Phyllis La Farge and Peter H. Judd translation). Practically speaking, does this mean a multiplicity of accents in performance, in addition to more subtle shifts indicative of the different cultures? Wouldn't it be something to see a multilingual production (with supertitles)?
One last thing, because it's so late and there's a yoga class in the morning that I'm perilously close to skipping... Giraudoux's style here is a bit much, but I do treasure the Act 1 scene when Zelten and Robineau meet again for the first time since their days at university together. It captures something of warfare being personal (as it may never be again in an age of armed drones).
The two men remain apart for a moment, studying each other in silence.
ZELTEN: Is it you!
ROBINEAU: Is it you!
ZELTEN: Is it you, Robineau, Hippolyte-Amable?
ROBINEAU: Otto-Wilhelmus von Zelten-Buchencach, it is I.
ZELTEN: Is it you, O dark brachycephalic, overweighted with lorgnettes and knitted vests, terrible in the attack?
ROBINEAU: Yes, O essence of culture, distillation of carnage, son of Arminius, it is I.
ZELTEN: I feel as if I were talking long distance on the telephone, Robineau, with a a very bad connection---Speak right into the telephone! Still, I see you. You haven't changed.
ROBINEAU: Nor have you---But what have you been doing these last twelve years, Zelten? You, who loved springtime, music, joy, peace---what have you been doing?
ZELTEN: I have been fighting. I made war against thirty-five nations, but I was locked in combat with only one. And you---mild, bespectacled, freedom-loving inhabitant of imperial or royal libraries--you, my dearest friend, what have you been doing?
ROBINEAU: Fighting, making war against you---
ZELTEN: Fortunately we were so unskillful, Robineau, that we missed each other. Were you aiming at me?
ROBINEAU: Several times, during an attack, I raised my gun, thinking of you, and fired at the sky.
ZELTEN: So you did that too! It's probably still over Germany, your bullet, pursuing its course. But, you know, I had an idea you weren't intent on killing your old friend. Every time a bullet missed me, I said to myself---that's good old Robineau firing! I couldn't help thinking that every bullet which hit an object for which it wasn't intended---such as a bottle or a pear still on the tree---was yours. That's what your words used to do. My adjutant was hit in one cheek of his buttocks; everyone laughed---I thought of you. [He approaches, and assumes the tone of ordinary conversation.] Hello, Robineau!
ROBINEAU: Hello, Zelten.
ZELTEN: How are you?
ROBINEAU: All right. And you?
*It's übermensch vs. Clark Kent, a decade before Detective Comics brought us Superman!
**This week, a friend asked if I'd mind if she bought a shirt that she knows I own. I told her to go ahead. Our affinity for each other springs from the parts of ourselves that appreciate this shirt enough to spend money on it. I would not be less myself for her wearing it, anymore than I am less myself for her friendship. That said, of the two people who went to Homecoming sophomore year in identical flocked taffeta column gowns, I definitely wore it best (you know who you are, copycat).