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Engagement et detachement dans le theatre religieux d'Henry de Montherlant. McAuley, Margaret Elizabeth

Abstract

If not in style at least in the basic subject of his plays, Henry de Montherlant can be termed a thoroughly modern playwright for he, like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, deals with the dilemma facing twentieth-century man: that man is nothing in an illusory world devoid of hope. Montherlant does not choose the vehicle of the "anti-théâtre" chosen by Beckett and Ionesco to symbolize the futility of man's life and aspirations but rather creates his plays within the framework of the style of the great classical tragedies of seventeenth-century France. His is a purely psychological theatre in which all external action is kept to a minimum in order to permit a penetrating study of the mind and soul of the hero. Of the four plays chosen for comparison in this thesis, we find that three take place in periods other than the twentieth century. The sixteenth or seventeenth century background does not detract from the plight of modern man, but rather magnifies the intense suffering of man throughout the ages as he struggles towards a deeper awareness of the self and of the world surrounding him. By using men of heroic stature from these bygone eras, Montherlant is able to transcend the contemporary and thus prove that the quest for human values is indeed eternal. Modern man faces the same search for self identity as did medieval or Renaissance man; both must find some way to brave a world of illusions and to rise above the uselessness of their own existence. This thesis is an attempt to show how the Montherlantian hero combats the seeming folly of the "condition humaine." Any study of Montherlant's theatre necessitates a close look at his idea of a protagonist. It will soon be realized that all the heroes of his religious theatre are superior beings; this superiority is not based on wealth or social rank but rather on a contempt for mediocrity in themselves, in others, and in the world about them. The desire for superiority on the part of the hero is revealed in a constant need to reach beyond himself; he becomes, in his own mind at least, a superman of the type created by Nietzsche. The Montherlantian hero is very similar to a martyr for he is completely under the influence of a genuine passion, in this case, the passion of his own degree of superiority. Like the martyr, he is driven by this passion to an uncompromising attitude because he refuses to accept any part of a society which appears to him to be mediocre. For this reason the heroes of Montherlant's Christian vein are almost all estranged from their time and compatriots. Throughout the religious plays this total estrangement takes the form of lack ofunderstanding and communication between the characters; a fear that any demonstration of understanding would only reflect a decrease in the superior qualities of the hero. Montherlant's religious theatre, like his profane theatre, reflects the author's constant search to surpass the hopelessness of human existence. No avenue is left unexplored and Montherlant through his heroes rejects all political, religious, or philosophical "engagements." With the exception of the Cardinal d'Espagne, the religious protagonist refuses to be a part of his particular order or rank because he feels that he is superior to all other members of the group. His role in life, as seen through his eyes, is to achieve a perfect knowledge of the self in order to become a free person; in this respect he is an "être engagé" because he uses the world to his own advantage to obtain this goal of complete and total liberty. However, the more he engages in this inquiry of self knowledge, the more he becomes an "être détaché" because he is unable to bear the mediocrity which he feels surrounds him. The more lucid the Montherlantian hero becomes, the more he realizes the complete futility of human existence. This theme of extreme suffering and the penetrating lucidity of the hero can be traced from the first of Montherlant's plays until the last. With each play the amount of suffering, the degree of lucidity, and the desire for total withdrawal from a hopeless and absurd world are increased. The religious plays magnify the infinitesimal nature of man when compared with a supreme being. With each religious hero, Montherlant presents a character of increasing perception until he finally creates la reine Jeanne as a perfect portrait of someone who has seen in its entirety the nothingness of this world and who has herself become a part of this nothingness. Jeanne la folle is the culmination of Montherlant's philosophy of "Service Inutile", a philosophy designed to aid a person to surpass the "néant" by means of an act which is in itself completely useless. Jeanne has come face to face with this "néant" and she accepts it; she has seen not only the vanity of human existence but also the futility of her own actions; she has stripped the world of all its illusions. Having accepted the "néant" so completely that she has become a part of it, she nevertheless has surpassed the "néant" by means of an act which is the supreme degree of futility. Although she has no illusions about anything in this world, including her unfaithful husband, she glorifies her husband although he is not worth this idolization. Jeanne attains her freedom by means of this act which becomes more beautiful as it becomes totally useless. The portrait of la reine Jeanne, as has been stated, is the peak of Montherlantian philosophy, and the other religious protagonists reflect the various levels of the art of attaining complete liberty. From the first religious hero, the Maître de Santiago, to the Cardinal d'Espagne the lure of the "néant", of this nothingness increases in each character until the Cardinal is finally depicted as the symbol of the dilemma of man: despairing, he can neither believe in himself nor in what he has done throughout his life. He sees the uselessness of it all but he lacks the courage to do the one thing which would liberate him from the overwhelming power of this nothingness; he is unable to destroy what he has created, that is, he cannot commit the most futile act of all, destroying what is already nothing. Like men of every epoch, in the last analysis, he refuses to see himself as he really is. Of the five religious protagonists studied in this thesis, all superior people, all to a certain extent endowed with a remarkable lucidity, the reader learns only of the sure success of one hero, la reine Jeanne, who is able to survive in a world devoid of all illusion and hope. The philosophy of "Service Inutile" is indeed reserved for a very select few - for those who belong to "les gens de qualité."

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