The Generals' Tea Party : LUSENET : Boris Vian : One Thread


I'm reading (with immense relish!) a Vian play that I unearthed in the university library, "The Generals' Tea Party" (Le Gouter des generaux) and I'd like to know something about the background against which he wrote this - didn't even know of its existence until I found it. Does anyone have more information on it, etc.? Thanks!


-- Dawn Teo (, September 17, 1999


This is from Cismaru's book.

Written before Les Batisseurs d'Empire, but published only in 1962 and presented on the stage for the first time in 1965, Le Gouter des generaux is another of those Pataphysical compositions which mocks effectively patriotism and militarism. The first manuscript of the play, which is in many respects different from the second and final one, dates from 1951, and the general idea of the plot seems to have come to the author while he was working on a translation of General Omar M. Bradley's A Soldier's Story. The revised and final version was published by the College de Pataphysique on 4 Clinamen LXXXIX (26 March 1962). The play is preceded by an introduction signed "Latis" and entitled "Actualiti du Gouter des generaux," of which a significant excerpt is the following: "Nothing is more general than the General. And we don't think that we are abusing the complaisance of the deceased by supposing that, thinking of the motto of the College, he would say with Aristotle and with us that 'the thing to do is to go from the particular to the General'" While puns of this type lose a great deal in translation, it may be interesting, nevertheless, to know that those in charge of the publication at the College de Pataphysique constituted what was called the Sous-commission des Ersatz. Various other editions of the play were published subsequently, and noteworthy is the English translation under the title The General's Tea Party. Le Gouter des generaux is one of the longest among Vian's published and unpublished dramatic repertory. In Act 1, James Audubon Wilson receives from the government the order to start a war because the country is suffering from a crisis of over-production. At first he resists because his friend, Lenvers de Laveste, says: "Oh, it's very disagreeable, you know, nothing disorganizes an army like a war." Later he agrees, however, because orders are not questionable, and he invites a few of his general friends to a tea party at his mother's house. A great deal of discussion takes place between them on various details requiring attention, although it is only at the end of the first act that Audubon Wilson recalls, but without any astonishment, that he was not told against what country or countries he was supposed to prepare to fight. In Act 11, Lion Plantin, President, calls into his office three generals: the American Jackson, the Russian Korkiloff, and the Chinese Ching-Ping-Ting. In vain he tries to persuade them of the necessity of a war, for no one wishes to fight France. In fact, Ching declares seriously (Vian never hesitated to poke fun at Gaulle-ish visions of grandeur): "You are a country sufficiently glorious to find an enemy all by yourselves!" But it is he who proposes a solution, namely that France should fight Morocco and Algeria. The third act takes place two years later, in a shelter forty meters underground, somewhere in Sweden. There we find Plantin, a Monsignor called humorously enough Tapecul, and all the generals with the exception of Jackson. The news emanating from the war is so good that they can think only of amusement, and so they begin to play Russian roulette. Each drinks, sings, and shoots himself very matter-of-factly, then dies amid the burst of laughter from the survivors. Near the end only two generals are left: Audubon Wilson and one of his friends, called Dupont. The hero finds the game of Russian roulette so intriguing and so enjoyable that he says at one point: "Oh, how super! Let me try! (He loads the weapon and twirls the cylinder.) One ... two ... (Pulls the trigger. Nothing happens.) Damn! Lost! (He twirls again, pulls the trigger, the gun fires and a picture drops off the wall.) Ha! Nearly! (He tries a third time, the gun goes off and he drops dead, crying out): I have won!" Whereupon a thin, small sound suddenly swells up: it is the "Marseillaise" being played on a reed pipe. Enter Dupont, dressed in full ceremonial uniform, his saber at the slope, drawing behind him a small cannon on wheels. He crosses the stage singing: March on. March on. March on, march on, march on. Let's march with heads aloft. Along a road that's soft. March on. March on. The comicality of this play springs mainly from the fact that all the characters are puppets whom the author can manipulate at will for the purpose of showing how the burlesque of their attitudes underscores the danger which they represent. In a country in which the gross national product grows uncontrolled, the army is looked upon as a means of absorbing and using the surplus, for "it is the consumer who pays the army ... and it is the army which consumes." Moreover, Vian refuses to take sides in the struggle between the big powers: he introduces in the same room and places equal emphasis on the derision of American, Russian, Chinese, and French military delegates. The chatter, contradictions, and evident puerility of the characters mix incongruously with their opportunism and their absolute selfishness. The obvious conclusion is that what the spectator faces are not organized, austere and disciplined generals, but rather a group of children playing a game of war. For example, the general in command of all the others, the one who has the highest responsibilities, James Audubon Wilson, does not dare invite his comrades to an afternoon tea without obtaining permission from his mother first. In addition, the very fact that generals gather to discuss mobilization procedures while sipping tea and munching on dainty goodies destroys the virility one usually attaches to their profession. But it is especially the initial scene of the play, with its hilarious dialogue between mother and General-child that sets the tone for the entire production, and points to Vian's ability to combine successfully his antimilitarism with his already frequently stated dislike for assiduous, motherly attention (much as he has done in L'Herbe rouge, in L'Arrache-coeur, and in other works): AUDUBON: Oh, drat it! Mama! Mama! Oh, I'm absolutely furious! Mama! MOTHER Voice offstage): What is it now, you naughty boy? (She appears: she is a repulsive creature, dignified, white-haired.) What is the matter? AUDUBON: Oh! It's so exasperating. It's this tie. I just can't get the knot tied. MOTHER: Come now, Audubon, don't get excited. You only have to ask mama. AUDUBON: Oh! I just can't bear things resisting me like that! It's so humiliating! MOTHER: No, no, Audubon, there is nothing humiliating about it. This is mere manual work, whereas you were created to think, to reflect, not to use your hands like any clodhopper. AUDUBON: But I am a general, mother... MOTHER: Yes, indeed, and the brain of your body of troops. AUDUBON: Not "body," mama, "corps." In my case, "army corps." A full general commands an army corps, a brigadier general commands a brigade, and a lieutenant general commands a division. MOTHER (Knotting his tie): Ah, well, Audubon, as your late father always told you, in your army corps you must be the brain which commands and which is always obeyed smoothly by your organization's innumerable cogwheels, by virtue of the soothing and mollifying oil which constitutes discipline. There, look how nicely I've tied your tie. AUDUBON (Kisses her hand): Mother, you're an absolute darling. MOTHER: Ah, Audubon, if it wasn't for me you'd fly into a tantrum twenty times a day. Now, have you washed your feet well? AUDUBON: Yes, of course I have, mother. MOTHER: And your ears, too? (Audubon nods "Yes.") Well, I'm going to have a look, Audubon, to make sure. I remember very well what a struggle it was trying to clean your ears when you were six years old. (She inspects them.) Hmm. This ear looks a bit dubious, my boy. AUDUBON: Oh! You can't have looked properly, mama. I'll show you. (He picks up the towel and proffers it to her by one corner. She studies it, nods her head and puts it back.) MOTHER: That's a good boy. Ah, Audubon, how sweet your little ears were when you were tiny. But here you are now, a great big grown-up military booby getting into even worse scrapes than when you were a little boy and dipped the kitten into the soup to give her extra energy. (She laughs. He sulks.) The spectator can overlook the lack of verisimilitude of such a scene, as well as the numerous exaggerations in the others which follow, in favor of the effervescent mirth sparkling throughout the play. In this connection, Audubon's formula for national unity deserves mention: "In a word, Work, Family, Fatherland, Honor to the Unknown Soldier and to the dead of the Valerian Mountain, and all of us behind the tricolored flag." Each time that in the course of conversation the name Philippe comes up, all the generals rise and say in unison: "Honor to the unfortunate courage!" Moreover, the participants' lack of memory concerning historical events of which they otherwise boast is indeed striking. For example, General Lenvers de Laveste does not even recall what happened on 6 June 1944, the day of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The play is also dotted with the usual amount of Vianesque linguistic acrobatics. For instance, when Audubon asks his mother for permission to have an afternoon tea for his friends, she asks: "Are they well-behaved boys?" And the son replies: "Oh, yes, mother. They are all generals." (36) In addition, the anticlericalism of the author is well served in this play by the character of Monsignor Tapecul, whom Henri Baudin aptly describes as "a cynical prelate, cunning, vulgar and obese." (37) In what Vian considered to be the typically dangerous alliance between religion and brute force, it is he who supplies the generals with a workable propaganda couplet: Save, save Europe In the name of Sacri-Coeur. Such words cannot help but recall for the French the famous hymn, "Sauvez la France au nom du Sacri-Coeur, " which had known an almost universal success throughout France during the German Occupation. In addition, like others of his predecessors in Vian's repertory of men of the cloth, he does not hesitate at all to state how easy it is to distinguish the good cause from the bad one by simply watching out for the one that is going to triumph. But in spite of Vian's characterizations of Army and Church, alienating and perhaps even intended to alienate the conservative public, Le Gouter des generaux was, in the 1965-1966 Parisian theatrical season, one of the most successful entries among a host of other productions by more established playwrights. Guy Dumur, for example, wrote: "This play should have been given during Boris Vian's lifetime: no one has dared." (38) he conservative critic Jean-Jacques Gautier, who could not bring himself to write an adverse review, explained: "If you do not have a father, brother or son in the Army as a career, you may hope to be amused by Boris Vian's play. But if mockery or satire about the Army makes you indignant or pained, you should stay away." (39) However, alienated or not by Vian's ideas, there is little question concerning the play's ability to make one laugh. B. Poirot-Delpech stated: "The death of Boris Vian appeared incredible. In fact, it was. After his success in the bookstores, here is one in the theatre: one of the most astounding, craziest [sources of] laughter since Ubu. " (40) And Rende Saurel had elaborated earlier: "One laughs to the point of tears [in seeing] the play of Boris Vian and for once the laughter does not spring from any sexual jokes.... The text is somewhat negligent, borders on the cabaret style, but it is always funny. (41) Yet, a cabaret style, even if granted, is not by definition devoid of literary validity. That Vian often wrote rapidly and paid little attention to rigid syntactic procedures are points to which one may easily stipulate. But to say with Freddy de Vrie that "Le Gouter is quite a weak play" (42) appears unwarranted both because of its popularity and because of its laudable theatricality. Subsequent critics confirmed the earlier opinions as quoted above. Jacques Duchateau, for example, wrote: "In September 1965, Gouter des generaux is presented in Paris.... The critics unanimously praise not only the play, but also Boris Vian the writer. Jean Dutourd: "He had a kind of satirical, burlesque, surrealistic genius. This Gouter des generaux furnishes the proof. It also demonstrates that Boris Vian was especially endowed, had luster, audacity." Pierre Marcabru: 'It is proper to recall that Boris Vian is also a great writer. Whoever approaches him is duly rewarded.' 114 1 The laughter-provoking liveliness of Vian's pen is not always profound, yet by his antimilitaristic attitude he indeed anticipates a worldwide current which established itself firmly only at the height of the American involvement in Southeast Asia. The darts which he launches at the military establishments of all nations precede, then, by many years, the widespread attacks of others who, today, lacking Vian's humor, are much less efficient than their predecessor. In fact, it is probably safe to state that great writers, or writers who are sometimes great, do not merely respond to a prevalent mood in the public, but rather create it with the artistic means at their disposal. This is not to say that they are prophetic, only that their lucidity is greater than that of the majority. In Vian's case, another interesting example is furnished by his text entitled "Le Probleme du Colon" which is found in Textes et chansons. There, a year before the start of the Algerian war, in ferocious language he appears to slip from a political discussion into an anatomical one, by talking instead of the intestinal colon, the homonym being, according to him, more directly related to the police and military procedures vis-a-vis the natives. And then he goes on to say how in the colonial world "heroism is butchery, legality becomes a caprice, justice is a mockery, the qualified citizen is reduced to the role of an intruder, and the one who resists is labeled a terrorist." (43) His anticolon

-- Robert Whyte (, September 17, 1999.

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