REVIEW: The Enchanted

  • Presented by the London Arts Theatre Committee Limited at The Arts Theatre, London, England.
  • April 1954.

Character: A Young Man/The Ghost

ENCHANTED

PETER (Centre, standing) as The Young Man/Ghost

If you believe in ghosts and the after-life, then this charming play would have delighted you, I’m sure. But even if you don’t, chances are, you’d have been every bit as enchanted as the characters were said to have been.

No doubt Jean Giraudoux’s ‘Intermezzo’, which was admirably translated by Maurice Valency as ‘The Enchanted’, wrote the piece for an audience who were much more sceptical and fatalistically indifferent to the matters of life and death than we are today.

But it was full of charm, wit, philosophy, satire and whimsical inventiveness than the listener who, according to the authors theories, were much more important than the beholder, were compelled into his world and there held spellbound and persuaded to believe. The tale begins by establishing that life within a small town in provincial France has never been quite the same since the report of a the untimely death of a young man by drowning which, in turn, has spawned stories of a ghostly apparition close to a local lake.

Happiness has at last descended upon the town! And further still, chance has discovered for once a sense of fair play; in a local lottery, the cash prize has gone to the neediest couple instead of the richest, while the consolation prize of a motorcycle has been won, for the first time, by a young man instead of the Mother Superior of the convent! However, the authorities in Paris, horrified at this “subversion of the natural order”, send down an Inspector, who is the very embodiment of good sense, and armed with reason and regulations, is to report on these alarming manifestations and cosmic radicalism. He sets about trying to persuade the local committee – the dim-witted Mayor, the somewhat philosophical Doctor, and the Supervisor of Weights and Measures – that in fact there is no ghost, and that a young woman by the name of Isabel, who claims to be in touch with it, is nothing but a wicked influence.

The second clause is easier to prove, since Isabel is standing in for the local schoolmistress, and the flock of little girls who accompany her are soon to be in a dangerous frame of mind. Less easy to prove, however, is the non-existence of the ghost and the Inspector, who has found himself attracted to the beautiful, but other-worldly teacher, has to fall back on trying to exorcise the spectre instead. When it is rumoured that Isabel is to meet with the spectre by the lakeside to learn from him, she hopes, the true meaning of life and death, the members of the Committee solemnly congregate in a nearby wood to spy on her. It soon becomes apparent that she is in love with the ghostly young man, but little known to her, the Inspector has hired two doleful assassins to test whether or not the spirit is for real. When the ghost finally materializes, the somewhat poetic image is instantaneously shattered by the sound of bullets ripping from the executioners revolvers: the “ghost” was indeed merely flesh and blood, and falls dead into the distraught school teacher’s arms. Yet no sooner has the young man paid the ultimate penalty for his dishonesty, that his spirit rises to confound the inspector and his henchmen. The story concludes when, the following day, the ghost visits Isabel in her room, where he begs her to join him on the “other side”.

A bizarre scene of rivalry between the spirit and the Government Inspector ensues, and the rest of the townsfolk are enlisted to combine their efforts to help save the young teacher from stepping through the door which Death has left so invitingly open. In retrospect: To quote Jean Giraudoux himself, the effect of the ‘The Enchanted’ was to leave its audience “bewitched, bothered and bewildered”. Bothered? A great deal. Bewildered? A little. But bewitched? Entirely! What bothers me, however, is how to get the extraordinary mixture of fantasy, realism, philosophy, occultism, satire, poetry, and good old-fashioned French logic into any kind of description that might convey something of its atmosphere.

What bewilders me is the multiplicity of things that it had to say. What bewitched me is Giraudoux himself, and his astonishing faculty for being absurd and profound, satirical and moving, all at the same time! Who but he could conduct a serious discussion on life and death, by the way of a mock-solemn story of a French multiplicity scandalized by the discovery of a well-authenticated ghost in their midst? Who else could hold an audience rapt over a scene in which a pompous Government official develops the theme that if one ghost is allowed, then all the myriads of dead will come thronging back to life to disturb the political stability of the entire country? But I should not indulge too much in continuing a description of the play, for inevitably a prose outline would only serve to destroy the magic and, anyhow, it could give no idea of the ingenious invention and charming fancy which was built up right from its beginning. However, it was pleasing to read that John Fernald received the accolades that he so richly deserved, as a play of this kind tends to make considerable demands on a producer. There is first an unusual amount of tricky stage management which, I understand, was triumphantly achieved at the Arts Theatre. The great climax, for instance, where PETER as the ghost, makes his final bid for Isabel; she is “out”, but still revivable, and the entire cast combine with the tin-pot town band outside to get through her unconsciousness in a concerted cacophony of sound from the living world to draw her back. The scene was absolutely superb, and was brilliantly handled by all concerned.

No less difficult for the producer was to strike the widest range of notes that the play needed and yet sustain the prevailing mood of fantasy which held it together. Under Robert A. Batty’s expert direction, this occasionally slow-moving production, in which grouping, lighting and atmospheric off-stage sounds were made all the more spell-binding in no small part by PETER’s stylish and imaginative portrayal of the young man/ghost. His handling of the part successfully suggested ghostliness without obviously straining for the macabre. Of course ‘The Enchanted’ was outrageous nonsense; it was absurd to think that the officials of a provincial French town might be concerned by the alleged activities of a local ghost or for them to hire two assassins to shoot the apparition in order to prove to both the citizens and themselves, that he was in fact flesh and blood!

However, as the almost poetic exchanges between Peter as the ghost and Valerie Hanson as the infatuated schoolmistress never allowed the audience to pick holes in it. It was so surely and beautifully shaped, with masterly dramatic sense and high levels of imagination, that even its long-drawn-out wordiness and irrelevant stuffing’s were readily forgiven at the interplay of shadow and scintillation, and at the fundamental searching’s for the mystery of itself. It is obvious the author meant his play to be seen as a huge and elaborate joke, and in doing so, to be pondered on many different levels. The thing now becomes a philosophical speculation argued with impeccable logic; now it is a piece of extravagant satire at the expense of the town Officials. Again, there is a kind of poetic evocation of the atmosphere which is traditionally kind to theatrical phantoms, with a witty and charming interpretation of the innocence of the schoolmistress; a wonderfully burlesque view of provincial organizations and of all the sights and sounds of life calculated to rescue a human being from the clinging hands of death.

  CRITIC’S COMMENTS…

 “…PETER WYNGARDE portrays the ghost with a style and grace rarely witnessed in the theatre…” Plays and Players – April 1954.

“…PETER WYNGARDE is as attractive facially, vocally and artistically as a young Olivier…” The New Statesman – April 10th, 1954.

 The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

 

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