Michel de Ghelderode - By turns mystical, macabre and whimsically humorous, and set in the unsettled atmosphere of Brussels, Ostend, Bruges and London, Spells conjures up an uncanny realm of angels, demons, masks, effigies and apparitions, a twilit, oppressed world of diseased gardens, dusty wax mannequins and sinister relics

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Michel de Ghelderode, Spells, Trans. by George MacLennon, Wakefield Press, 2017.

Hitherto unavailable in English, Spells, by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, ranks among the 20th century’s most noteworthy collections of fantastic tales. Like Ghelderode’s plays, the stories are marked by a powerful imagination and a keen sense of the grotesque, but in these the author speaks to us still more directly. Written at a time of illness and isolation, and conceived as a fresh start, Spells was Ghelderode’s last major creative work, and he claimed it as his most personal and deeply felt one: a set of written spells through which his fears, paranoia and nostalgia found concrete form.By turns mystical, macabre and whimsically humorous, and set in the unsettled atmosphere of Brussels, Ostend, Bruges and London, Spells conjures up an uncanny realm of angels, demons, masks, effigies and apparitions, a twilit, oppressed world of diseased gardens, dusty wax mannequins and sinister relics.Combining the full contents of both the 1941 and 1947 editions, this translation of Spells is the most comprehensive edition yet published.



Michel de Ghelderode, Ghelderode: 3 Plays, The Siege of Ostend, The Actor Makes His Exit and Transfiguration in the Circus. Trans. by David Willinger. Host Publications, 2006.

Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962) was a Belgian playwright who is generally ranked with Beckett, Brecht, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter in the international avant-garde. Writing most of his plays between 1918 and 1937, he wasn't discovered in Europe until after World War II, where he was hailed as the "Belgian Shakespeare," and in America until the 1960's. Both discoveries led to great, though cult, popularity. In the early 60's not a week went by without a production of one of Ghelderode's plays, somewhere in the United States. Ghelderode's best known plays in English translation are Escural and Pantagleize. This unique volume includes three plays—The Siege of Ostend, The Actor Makes His Exit  and Transfiguration in the Circus—in their first ever English translation.
David Willinger is the outstanding English-language translator of Belgian drama, as well as the leading American authority on Belgian drama and theatre. He has prepared a volume of three of Michel de Ghelderode's major plays, which are important for our understanding of his contribution to twentieth-century dramatic literature. The translations are lively, inventive and eminently stageable, while at the same time remaining true to the spirit and texture of the original. – Daniel Gerould

Michel de Ghelderode, Ghelderode: Seven Plays, Hill & Wang, 1960.

Production Photo
1965: Chronicles of Hell (Michel de Ghelderode)

Religious faith isn't based on logic; it is fostered by belief in mysterious forces and finds its raison d'etre in miraculous occurrences. A human being who manifests miraculous power threatens the entire structure of organized religion. If such a person cannot be branded a charlatan, condemned as a witch, or perverted into a Satanist, Holy Church may be forced to do its worst... enshrine him as a saint. CHRONICLES OF HELL is about a saint who refuses to die and bares the whole grotesque nightmare of organized religion. - www.sfmt.org/



Michel de Ghelderode (1898 - 1962) was an avant-garde Belgian dramatist, writing in French. He was born on Palm Sunday April 3rd, 1898, as Adh mar-Adolphe-Louis Martens in Ixelles and married in 1924 to Jeanne-Fran oise G rard. He died in Brussels, and is buried in the Laeken cemetery. A prolific writer, he wrote more than sixty plays, a hundred stories, a number of articles on art and folklore and more than 20,000 letters. He is the creator of a fantastic and disturbing, often macabre, grotesque and cruel world filled with mannequins, puppets, devils, masks, skeletons, religious paraphernalia, mysterious old women... etc. His works create an eerie and unsettling atmosphere although they rarely contain anything openly scary. Among his influences are puppet theater, commedia dell'arte and the paintings of fellow Belgian James Ensor. His works often deal with the extremes of human experience, from death and degradation to religious exaltation. His 1934 play La Balade du grand macabre served as inspiration for Gy"rgy Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre.

Article about the Grand Macabre, by György Ligeti, an opera with a libretto by Ligeti himself and the famous marionettist Michael Meschke, based on an original play by Michel de Ghelderode. Grand Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona.
Le Grand Macabre
The opera Le Grand Macabre, first performed in Stockholm in April 1978, was presented in a revised version in 1997 in a production by the Fura dels Baus, with stage direction by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, and musical direction by Michael Boder.
The reason for an article in Puppetring about this full scale opera is none other than the wish to do justice to a production we consider pure Puppet Theatre in capital letters, and, furthermore, of the most noble kind seen in recent times.
For years now, La Fura dels Baus has regaled us with shows which are fully steeped in so called visual theatre, with a profusion of “plastic” or sculptural elements and a preponderance of images created with supreme care.
Besides the imagination of their directors (Àlex Ollé and Carles Padrissa), the Fura works with a number of close collaborators who approach the image from different perspectives and are highly regarded in their own fields. Roland Olbeeter comes to mind, the scenographer and member of the company responsible for coming up with their most original and sophisticated machinery and gadgets, (among other things he is a nautical engineer). In 2005, Roland’s Orlando Furioso! was presented in the Pocket Opera Festival in Barcelona. In this piece five acoustic, mechanical instruments played themselves, as they moved around the space like robotic puppets, interacting with the singer Claudia Schneider. Or, equally, the video-artist  Franc Aleu, an indispensable presence in most of the Fura’s productions; or the various scenographers who have worked with the company.
In the Le Grand Macabre, the “Fureros” (with a set designed by Alfons Flores) hit the bull’s eye when they came up with the idea of a gigantic puppet which occupies the whole opera theatre’s stage and which centres the action and draws it together.
A puppet, because it has articulated parts (mouth, eyes, head and legs, as well as the body’s natural orifices which open and close as required), because it can turn, and, above all, because it comes to life as a character, thanks in part to the use of video projection which gives it a face with facial movements and multiple body textures, and because at a certain moment we perceive it as its own skeleton, thanks to the translucent nature of the doll’s skin which allows the bones of the inner structure to be seen.
If a production achieves a completely organic relationship between a central element of the set and the other elements of the performance, it can be said that the “dramaturgical bullseye” has been hit; this is something that is extremely difficult to achieve. When it’s succesful, the miracle happens and the show will fly, to the full extent of its potential. This is what happened with the Fura’s version of Le Grand Macabre.
In its day, (the work was premiered as has been said in 1978), Michael Meshke, the illustrious marionette puppeteer, participated in writing the libretto of Le Grand Macabre. This is apparent in the buffonesque style, almost “ubuesque”, of the text, with language which is reminiscent of Jarry’s. Meshke directed Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1965, in a production that has entered the anthologies which continued to be performed until 1990, which indicates the importance this work had on the world of the Polish puppeteer. Who is the character, really, of Nekrotzar (Death in Ligeti’s opera) if not a kind of ridiculous and capricious Ubu, laughed at by his own assistants and who, furthermore, at the end discovers he’s afraid of his ex-wife? An Ubu who kills everything he touches but who, at the same time is ridiculous and grotesque, as are all the powerful characters who appear in the work.
All the characters emerge out of the huge doll at the centre of the opera, (modelled on the naked body of Claudia Schneider, who appears in a video at the beginning and end of the production): some from the mouth, others from the eyes or from the vagina, and when the figure is turned round, the buttocks are parted and another space is created which contains the intestines and which, once these have been extracted, even becomes a kind of disco-bar where a party’s going on.
Each scene and each act is marked by the doll’s new position, its movements, and the way the spaces inside, around, or on it are used, in such a way that it can be claimed that it absolutely centres the action and the production itself.
For anyone interested in this prodigious production and some of the comments it has earned, I invite you to visit the Fura’s web page, where you can see images, texts and video, as well as reviews and comments.
Translation – Rebecca Simpson
- www.puppetring.com/

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