Wherever the Road Leads

The Madwoman of Chaillot

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Katharine Hepburn as The Madwoman of Chaillot

Two Women in my Life

The Madwoman of Chaillot – a title which I have referred to Yvonne, more accurately, The Madwoman of Hull – is a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943. The story concerns an eccentric woman who lives in the Chaillot region of Paris’ 16th Arrondissement, probably its most wealthy district, and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life.

The play is set in the Café de l’Alma. A group of corrupt corporate executives are meeting. They include the Prospector, the President, and the Baron, and they are planning to dig up Paris to get at the oil which they believe lies beneath its streets. Their nefarious plans come to the attention of Countess Aurelia, the benignly eccentric madwoman of the title.

She is an aging idealist who sees the world as happy and beautiful. But, advised by her associate, the Ragpicker, who is a bit more worldly than the Countess, she soon comes to realize that the world might well be rurnt by these evil men — men who seek only wealth and power. These people have taken over Paris. “They run everything, they corrupt everything,” says the Ragpicker. Already things have gotten so bad that the pigeons do not bother to fly any more.

Aurelia resolves to fight back and rescue humanity from the scheming and corrupt developers. She enlists the help of her fellow outcasts: the Street Singer, The Ragpicker, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and various other oddballs and dreamers. These include her fellow madwomen: the acidic Constance, the girlish Gabrielle, and the ethereal Josephine.

In a tea party every bit as mad as a scene from Alice in Wonderland, they put the “wreckers of the world’s joy” on trial and in the end condemn them to banishment – or perhaps, death. One by one the greedy businessmen are lured by the smell of oil to a bottomless pit from which they will (presumably) never return. Peace, love, and joy return to the world. Even the earthbound Pigeons are flying again.

 

 

I didn’t think I had this picture of Kathy, the bleach-blonde, red-nailed, two-carat Ex, I thought I had thrown it out to avoid a scene with The Madwoman in question. Yvonne, who had lived in Atlanta since 1979, was exceptionally jealous, nosy, scheming and vindictive. Yes, a perfect match. It wasn’t until long after she was gone that I realized just how accurate her ex-husband’s statement was, “Yvonne, if it wasn’t for me, you’d still be in the gutter in Hull.”

However, I was cleaning house recently and came across this picture, well-stashed.

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Kathy came from West Virginia, her family moved to Alabama in 1960. Her dad was an auto-mechanic at a local GM dealership from the time of their move until he retired. Her mother was a hairdresser at JC Penney.

When Kathy was young, in downtown Huntsville they still had separate water fountains and movie entrances for whites and coloreds. She went through racial integration in high school, when it became unsafe for white girls to walk down the hall alone, and when she had to start carrying her lunch money in her bra.

 

 

By contrast perhaps, here she is, The Madwoman of Hull…

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The original stage play of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” was turned into a 1969 movie starring Katharine Hepburn. I don’t recall ever seeing the movie in its entirety so I recently downloaded a copy and enjoyed watching it. It seems little has changed in the seventy years since the play was written. We still have the greed and corruption today, just on a grander scale.

Even then, the older generation represented by the madwoman could not fathom the thinking of the generations following. Surrounded by her band of outcasts and misfit friends, The Ragpicker explains to her…

“Countess if only you knew… Shall we tell her?… Countess, it’s you that is hiding. You see, there was a time when old clothes were as good as new. In fact they were better because when people wore clothes they gave something to them. But that was a long time ago, Countess.

Just as, there was a time when… when garbage was a pleasure. Oh, it smelled a little strange or seemed confused, that’s because there was everything there. The smell of sardine, of iodine, cologne, roses. An amateur would leap to the wrong conclusion. But to a professional, it was the smell of life… No Countess, the world has changed. The garbage has changed… People are not the same, Countess. People are different. No one is involved with anyone anymore. There’s been an invasion, and infiltration.

The world is beautiful no longer. The world is not happy… Because you’ve been dreaming a long time, Countess, and, no one wanted to disturb you. Countess, look, there was a time remember you could walk along the streets of Paris and everybody you met were just like yourself. I mean, oh, a little cleaner maybe or dirty perhaps or angry or smiling. But you knew them. I knew them too.

And one day, 20 years ago I saw a face in the crowd. Face without a face; the eyes empty, the expression not human. It was not a human face at all. It saw me staring and when it looked back at me with its gelatin eyes, I shuddered. Because I knew to make room for one of them, one of us must have left the earth. The world is full of faceless people, Countess, and once you stop dreaming, as we all had stopped dreaming, you see them quite clearly.”

 

 

The Ragpicker’s speech certainly goes against the Madwoman’s philosophy which she expounds to a young man she has just met…

“To be alive, is to be fortunate, Roderick. Of course, when you first awake in the morning it doesn’t always seem so very gay. When you take your hair out of the drawer and your teeth out of the glass, you’re quite likely to feel a little out place in this naughty world, particularly if you’ve just been dreaming that you’re a little girl on a pony looking for strawberries out in the woods.

But all you need, in order to feel accord with life again, is a letter in the morning mail, giving you your schedule for the day. You write it yourself, the day before.

For instance, here are my assignments for this morning: to mend my petticoat with bed thread, to curl my ostrich feathers, to write my grandmother, et cetera, et cetera…

And when I’ve washed my face with rose water, and scrubbed it, not with those idiotic cleansing creams they sell nowadays but with a good stiff kitchen brush, and put on my pins, rings, brooches, pearls, bracelets and necklaces, in short, when I’m dressed for my public and I’ve had a very good look at myself…

Then, Roderick, then, I’m a woman, I’m strong, I’m ready to begin again. After that, everything is pure delight.

First, I read the morning paper. Not these current sheets full of lies, full of vulgarities. I always read the Bon Mots. (Good words). The issue of March 22nd, 1919. It’s by far the best. It has some delightful scandal, some excellent fashion advice and, of course, the last-minute bulletin on the death of Léonise LeBlanc, she used to live next door, poor woman.

And when I learn of her death each morning it gives me quite a start, to recover from which I take my fruit salts, not with water, but naturally –  for no matter what they say, it’s water that gives you gas – with a piece of spice cake.

And then, Roderick, then, in sunlight or on rain, Chaillot calls, and it’s time to dress for my morning walk. I have my cats to pet, my dogs to feed, my plants to water.

So, you see, Roderick, that’s life.”

 
 
Too simplistic? Too naive? Perhaps. But it’s my current goal in life.

Here’s a small clip from the movie. It takes place in contemporary (1969) France. Note the stark difference in the fashions of the three ladies, and what is being worn by the passers by.

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