It is not the lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 –1900)
Chichester Festival Theatre's revival of Waltz of the Toreadors (in a new translation by Ranjit Bolt) is played unashamedly as a farce – and a good thing too because its farcical elements made the audience laugh out loud. At a deeper level, the characters are a uniformly miserable bunch.
Anouilh classified this play, written in 1952, as a pièce grinçante (grating), roughly equivalent to Bernard Shaw's plays unpleasant. The play is set in 1910 and Peter Bowles plays General Leon Saint Pé, whose life has been blighted by one big mistake: he remained with his wife instead of following his heart with Ghislaine, a girl with whom he had danced (the Waltz of the Toreadors) 17 years before. Saint Pé had spent those years salving his wounds by rodgering every servant girl who crossed his path, while his wife feigned paralysis to retain control over her husband. She saw him as her object, her possession, although she responded to his moral (but unconsummated) infidelity with Ghislaine by conducting a series of affairs of her own. Meanwhile, Ghislaine wasted her youth, remaining pure and waiting for Saint Pé for 17 years.
Existentialism was the intellectual core of French culture in the mid-20th century and Anouilh was an author of his time. His story is an existentialist parable: you must act in order to validate your existence – otherwise you are nothing. But beneath this philosophy lies the romantic notion that, by acting on feelings engendered by a passing moment of happiness, you will find true fulfilment. In fact, this is no more than an escape from reality, from the need to make the best of the hand you are dealt in life.
The essential theme of the play is therefore an empty one. The resolution – that Ghislaine finds happiness with Gaston (the General's secretary) who grabs his existential opportunity when she throws herself over a balcony and lands on his head – is both trite and unbelievable. The director, Angus Jackson, was right to play for laughs, but he failed to pull off his idea of turning Saint Pé's daughters into a pair of pantomime ugly sisters.
It was Maggie Steed who rescued the play. Her appearance as the General's tortured wife was magnificent. She injected humanity into the suffering of a woman who found herself trapped in a loveless marriage and was unable to distinguish ownership from feeling. Her performance was a startling contrast to the wooden performances of most of the cast who struggled to convey emotional depth in a wordy text.