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"...

 GIF found  here .

GIF found here.

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).

***Here's a recent blog post on the topic by Arturo Hernandez.  Anecdotally, I know my mom is more likely to hug somebody if she's operating in Spanish than if she's operating in English.

Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up, is an indelible part of our culture.  But I confess, my only two Peter Pan touchstones are the 1991 film Hook and the time the Baby-sitters Club was involved in an epic production of the musical (put on by Stoneybrook's high school, middle school, AND elementary school!).*  So I think I came to the play as clean a slate as a media consumer my age can get.

One thing that pleased me, the techie: there are plausible opportunities within the text for the children to be wired for flight unseen (as when they are hiding while Nana and the maid look in on the nursery).

One thing that totally caught me off guard: a despondent Captain Hook commits suicide.

Where is Peter?  The incredible boy has apparently forgotten the recent doings, and is sitting on a barrel playing upon his pipes.  This may surprise others but does not surprise Hook.  Lifting a blunderbuss he strikes forlornly not at the boy but at the barrel, which is hurled across the deck.  Peter remains sitting in the air still playing upon his pipes.  At this sight the great heart of Hook breaks.  That not wholly unheroic figure climbs the bulwarks murmuring 'Floreat Etona,' and prostrates himself into the water, where the crocodile is waiting for him open-mouthed.  Hook knows the purpose of this yawning cavity, but after what he has gone through he enters it like one greeting a friend.

I had always imagined that Peter had defeated Hook by forcing him (perhaps accidentally) into the maw of the crocodile.  This is so much more melodramatic.

Something to remember: I read the 1928 published version.  The play was mounted annually, and Barrie continuously revised it, so this is a most unstable text.

 

My favorite fact about this play (learned a long while ago) is that playwright Dion Boucicault's daughter Nina originated the role of Peter Pan.

 Image from  neverpedia.com

Image from neverpedia.com

 

 

*As for Jonathon, he made his professional debut as lost boy Curly in a regional theatre production of the musical.  Typecasting!

I'm haphazardly choosing plays to read, and picked up a volume of J. M. Barrie's (1860-1937) greatest hits.   The Admirable Crichton was first up.

The title character of this comedy of manners is a thirty-year-old butler who firmly believes in class divisions as an expression of nature's organizing drive.  In the first act, Lord Loam is holding the monthly tea at which he forces his indolent daughters and quipster nephew to play host to the household servants.  He hears Crichton grumbling to Lady Mary (yes, another eldest daughter) about the indignity of having to temporarily act as equals with everyone in the room (a butler getting chummy with a peer is as scandalous as a page boy getting chummy with a butler), and tries to reason with him.

LORD LOAM: Can't you see, Crichton, that our divisions into classes are artificial, that if we were to return to Nature, which is the aspiration of my life, all would be equal?
CRICHTON: If I may make so bold as to contradict your lordship---
LORD LOAM: (with an effort) Go on.
CRICHTON: The divisions into classes, my lord, are not artificial.  They are the natural outcome of a civilised society.  (To Lady Mary) There must always be a master and servants in all civilised communities, my lady, for it is natural, and whatever is natural is right.
LORD LOAM: (wincing) It is very unnatural for me to stand here and allow you to talk such nonsense.
CRICHTON: (eagerly) Yes, my lord, it is.  That is what I have been striving to point out to your lordship.

As Crichton realizes and seizes on, Lord Loam can't even fully commit to his own ideals about equality.  But the fact that Lord Loam has them convinces Crichton that, demotion though it means, he must accompany Lord Loam on an upcoming yacht trip as his valet; these "dangerous views" must not be left unchecked.  Lord Loam's daughters ask Crichton to elaborate on his motivations.

AGATHA: I had no idea you would feel it so deeply; why did you do it?
(Crichton is too respectful to reply)
LADY MARY: (regarding him) Crichton, I am curious.  I insist upon an answer.
CRICHTON: My lady, I am the son of a butler and a lady's maid---perhaps the happiest of all combinations; and to me the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with every one kept in his place.
...
CATHERINE: But father says if we were to return to Nature---
CRICHTON: If we did, my lady, the first thing we should do would be to elect a head.  Circumstances might alter cases; the same person might not be master; the same persons might not be servants.  I can't say as to that, nor should we have the deciding of it.  Nature would decide for us.

Conveniently, the yachting party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the unseen interim between Act 1 and Act 2.  Inured to manual labor and predisposed to expedient thought as he is, Crichton becomes the obvious head of the group by the end of Act 2---not because he is opportunistic, but because the environment required it.  In Act 3, two years have passed.  Crichton has built a splendid house powered by a mill, and those who were once his superiors are working happily under him.  Lady Mary has become an avid outdoors-woman who goes by the informal "Polly" and thrills to Crichton's proposal of marriage (which slips into conversation as she waits on him at table).  But the celebration is interrupted by the sighting of a ship.  Everyone realizes that returning to England would reverse the island social standings, but Crichton, ever admirable, still activates the ingenious flare system he rigged, and rescuers arrive.  In Act 4, Lady Mary reconciles with her aristocratic betrothed, and she faces a crisis wherein her future mother-in-law nearly finds out about how Lord Loam and his daughters debased themselves in servitude to Crichton.  For his part, Crichton only admits to the mother that there was indeed a master on the island, and allows her to assume that that master was Lord Loam.  Crisis averted.

(Crichton announces dinner, and they file out.  Lady Mary stays behind a moment and impulsively holds our her hand)
LADY MARY: To wish you every happiness.
CRICHTON: (an enigma to the last) The same to you, my lady.
LADY MARY: Do you despise me, Crichton?  (The man who could never tell a lie makes no answer)  I am ashamed of myself, but I am the sort of woman on whom shame sits lightly.  (He does not contradict her)  You are the best man among us.
CRICHTON: On an island, my lady, perhaps; but in England, no.
LADY MARY: (not inexcusably) Then there is something wrong with England.

This would be so poignant (if a bit didactic) an ending!  But don't forget that it's a comedy of manners.  So Crichton replies, "My lady, not even from you can I listen to a word against England."

Some stray thoughts:

I am charmed by how Barrie named the setting of the final act:
Act 1: At Loam House, Mayfair
Act 2: The Island
Act 3: The Happy Home
Act 4: The Other Island

The very end of Act 2 requires an excellent sound designer.  Lord Loam, his daughters, and his nephew have briefly decided to go it without Crichton and his perceived impertinence.  Crichton sends the family's minister friend Treherne and between-maid Tweeny after them.

CRICHTON: (thoughtfully) They went westward, sir, and the wind is blowing in that direction.  That may mean, sir, that Nature is already taking the matter into her own hands.  They are all hungry, sir, and the pot has come a-boil.  (He takes off the lid)  The smell will be borne westward.  That pot is full of Nature, Mr. Treherne.  Good-night, sir.
TREHERNE: Good-night.
(He mounts the rocks with Tweeny, and they are heard for a little time after their figures are swallowed up in the fast growing darkness.  Crichton stands motionless, the lid in his hand, though he has forgotten it and his reason for taking it off the pot.  He is deeply stirred, but presently is ashamed of his dejection, for it is as if he doubted his principles.  Bravely true to his faith that Nature will decide now as ever before, he proceeds manfully with his preparations for the night.  He lights a ship's lantern, one of several treasures he has brought ashore, and is filling his pipe with crumbs of tobacco from various pockets, when the stealthy movement of some animal in the grass startles him.  With the lantern in one hand and his cutlass in the other, he searches the ground around the hut.  He returns, lights his pipe, and sits down by the fire, which casts weird moving shadows.  There is a red gleam on his face; in the darkness he is a strong and perhaps rather sinister figure.  In the great stillness that has fallen over the land, the wash of the surf seems to have increased in volume.  The sound is indescribably mournful.  Except where the fire is, desolation has fallen on the island like a pall.

Once or twice, as Nature dictates, Crichton leans forward to stir the pot, and the smell is borne westward.  He then resumes his silent vigil.

Shadows other than those cast by the fire begin to descend the rocks.  They are the adventurers returning.  One by one they steal nearer to the pot until they are squatted round it, with their hands out to the blaze.  Lady Mary only is absent.  Presently she comes within sight of the others, then stands against a tree with her teeth clenched.  One wonders, perhaps, what Nature is to make of her)

 Image from  stagebeauty.net 's set from the original pictorial program.

Image from stagebeauty.net's set from the original pictorial program.