Ring Around the Moon

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Ring Around the Moon












Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon first appeared in France in 1947 as L’Invitation au Chateau. Especially important in Anouilh’s career, the play is the earliest of his pieces brillantes, a rather mixed group of four works moving from two lighter to two darker pieces. Brilliantes has been employed to describe the polished and sophisticated gemlike quality of this group, most prominently displayed in Ring Around the Moon’s complex plotting, ceaseless obstacles, and still—after all—the reconciliation of almost all of its characters to both love and wealth.

Perhaps because of its parody of upper-class vanity Ring Around the Moon is Anouilh’s most produced play in the United States, where there is a tradition of holding the aristocracy in contempt. The play’s numerous characters—engaged in ceaseless exiting and entrancing—enhance the quick-paced wit and tangy satire of upper-class pretension and lower-class ambition. Yet Ring Around the Moon is unexpectedly coupled to a fairy tale ending where nearly everything comes out better. For this reason, Ring Around the Moon, like some of Shakespeare’s comedies, succeeds on the level of both entertainment and art—just one reason Anouilh is Europe’s most popular post-World War II playwright.


Jean Anouilh was born in Bordeaux in the southwest of France in 1910. His father was a tailor known for his meticulousness, and his mother, a pianist, played in the orchestra of a casino in a seaside resort outside Bordeaux. At the resort, the young Anouilh was able to watch frequent operettas, which nurtured his interest in theater. At nine, Anouilh moved with his family to the Monmartre district of Paris, and by age twelve began writing verse plays acted for friends and relatives. At nineteen, he collaborated with Jean Aurenche on two plays, Hamulus le muet and Mandarine. After briefly studying law at the Sorbonne, Anouilh became a gag writer from 1929-1931 for the cinema, and a copywriter at an advertising agency. In 1931, Anouilh married the actress Monelle Valentin and became secretary to one of the most important producer/ directors in the French theater, Louis Jouvet, who was known for his elaborate and elegant productions. Jouvet produced a few of Anouilh’s early plays, which were well received. When, in 1935, Anouilh sold the rights to MGM for Y’Avait un Prisonnier, he gained the financial independence to devote himself to writing. Two years later, Anouilh took his work to Georges and Ludmilla Pitoff whom Jouvet referred to as les pitoyables(the pitiful) for their spare productions. The Pitoffs produced two of Anouilh’s plays and had a major impact on Anouilh’s philosophy of theater: staging made subservient to ideas.

Anouilh first developed his chronic, and often comic, misanthropy when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to collect signatures from fellow artists to protest the death sentence given to novelist and dramatist, Robert Brasillach, who was accused of collaborating with the Germans. In 1944, Anouilh gained a wide audience with Antigone, a version of Sophocles’ classical drama. Antigone was a thinly disguised attack on the Nazis and the collaborationist French government headquartered in the southern half of France, in the town of Vichy, during Nazi occupation of the north. After the war Anouilh was the most successful playwright in Europe. In the United States his “costumed” plays in the 1950s fared best. These include L’alouette {The Lark,1953), about Joan of Arc, and Becket(1959), which won a Tony Award (1955) and was filmed with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. By the end of the 1950s Anouilh’s works began to lose critical favor with the emergence of a new wave of “absurdist drama,” which Anouilh welcomed, by Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett. In 1987, Anouilh died in Switzerland, survived by his second wife, the actress Nicole Lancon, and his four children. Anouilh was the recipient of the Grand Prize of French Cinema (1949), the New York Drama Critics Award (1957), the Cino del Duca Prize (1970); the French Drama Critics Award (1970), and the Paris Critics Prize (1971).


Act I

Ring Around the Moon opens with the aristocratic bon vivant, Hugo, talking with Joshua, his butler, both discussing Hugo’s brother, Frederic. Frederic has been sleeping outside his fiancee’s bedroom window while she is a guest at the family’s estate. Frederic and Hugo are identical twins, but Hugo is good with women and Frederic inept. Hugo and Joshua are unhappy with Frederic’s fawning over Diana Messerschmann, his fiancee. Hugo hints he will do something about it. Hugo leaves and Frederic enters (they are played by the same actor). Frederic and Joshua now discuss Frederic’s sleeping habits. Frederic assures Joshua that slumbering amidst rhododendrons is nothing serious. As one might expect from Frederic’s behavior, Frederic’s love for Diana is indeed insecure. Enter Patrice Bombelles (Messerschmann’s male secretary) and Lady India (Messerschmann’s mistress and Hugo and Frederic’s cousin), who reveal their affair behind the back of the industrialist, Messerschmann. Patrice is especially worried because wealthy Messerschmann pays Patrice’s salary and “keeps” Lady India. Lady India is less concerned with getting caught, is in fact fascinated by it. These two are replaced by Madame Desmermortes and her nephew, Hugo, he notifying her of Lady India’s (her niece and his cousin) affair with Messerschmann. Hugo also informs Madame of Frederic’s impending marriage to Diana. Madame is unhappy with Messerschmann’s and Lady India’s affair because Messerschmann is a mere businessman, not an aristocrat. Madame is displeased with the Diana-Frederic match because Madame believes the rich and confident Diana will overpower the subservient Frederic. Hugo again hints that marriage bells may not ring. Madame is now replaced by Romainville. Hugo informs Romainville he has seen Romainville doting on a young girl (Isabelle) and further, knows Romainville has brought her to the country to be with him. Hugo threatens to expose the meeting to

Madame as a lecherous affair unless Romainville acquiesces to inviting Isabelle to the Desmermortes estate and pose as Romainville’s niece. Isabelle and her mother soon arrive, the latter dazzled by the estate and the increased prospect of marrying Isabelle to a rich man. Isabelle thinks she has come just to dance. When Hugo greets them, Isabelle is preoccupied by his handsomeness. All exit and Madame and Joshua enter, planning the ball to be held that evening. In the next set of frequent entrances and exits, action is focused on an extended conversation between Hugo and Isabelle. Romainville’s infatuation with Isabelle is revealed, as is Hugo’s plan to parade the beautiful Isabelle at the evening ball so Frederic will fall in love with her, and out of love with Diana. Romainville rushes in to alert Hugo about a rumple in the plan: Isabelle’s mother has recognized Madame’s companion, Capulat, as her long lost friend. Romainville is worried Isabelle’s mother will betray the plan to Capulat who will in turn tell Madame, giving away Romainville’s apparently lecherous connection to Isabelle and ruining his relationship with the Desmermortes. Romainville’s suspicions are confirmed after talking with the mother who has apparently already told Capulat too much. Hugo decides to tell Capulat to keep quiet, but before he can, Madame corners Romainville and intently questions him about his family connection to the enchanting “niece,” a grilling through which Romainville barely fakes his way. The final exchange of Act I has Capulat promising Isabelle’s mother to help her win Hugo for Isabelle.

Act II

Act II opens at the ball with Capulat slyly giving up misguided bits of Hugo’s plot to get Madame to connect Hugo and Isabelle. Madame is mystified as to Capulat’s meaning and pulls her offstage to get the full story. Patrice enters with Lady India discussing Patrice’s terrible fear that Messerschmann will discover Patrice and Lady India’s affair. This excites India who romanticizes being poor. When Messerschmann enters, Patrice and Lady India leave, wondering if Messerschmann has seen them and guessed their affair. The next set of exchanges involve quick and uncomfortable meetings between Isabelle and Frederic. Isabelle finally tells Frederic—immediately after Hugo has kissed her to arouse Frederic’s jealousy—that she is not, as it appears, in love with Hugo, but with Frederic. Hugo then tells Isabelle of his plan to inflame Frederic’s love still further with another fictional lover pretending to challenge Hugo to a duel if Hugo does not cease his attentions toward Isabelle. Shots will then ring out and Isabelle, acting as if she thinks Frederic dead, will fake drowning. Hugo will then “rescue” her and carry her to Frederic. So happy will Isabelle act to see Frederic still alive, and so flattered will Frederic be that Isabelle attempted to drown herself on his account, Frederic will fall in love with her. After hearing Hugo’s elaborate plan, Isabelle becomes so frustrated in her still-unstated love for Hugo, and so disgusted with Hugo’s incredible stratagems, she runs off. Diana enters having seen Hugo and Isabelle together and is aroused to jealousy. Diana tries getting Hugo to say he loves her (Diana) but he refuses and leaves. Enter Messerschmann. Diana complains to him that she is being upstaged by Isabelle, that Isabelle is stealing the attentions of the men at the ball. Messerschmann promises his daughter he will take care of everything. Now Hugo enters threatening Patrice to expose his affair with Lady India if Patrice will not be the one to play the jealous lover and duelist in Hugo’s crazy scheme. Patrice complies. Now Capulat enters with Isabelle’s mother, richly dressed as “Countess Funela” a character Madame has given the mother to keep her occupied while Hugo and Madame manipulate the matches according to their own specifications. Romainville enters and tells Hugo he is distraught because Messerschmann has threatened to ruin Romainville financially unless Romainville gets Isabelle out of the Desmermortes house. Patrice now enters to play the jealous lover, insult Hugo, and challenge him to a duel. But Patrice is ignorant that by this time Hugo has forgotten the plan, preoccupied as he is with Romainville’s hysteria and the “Countess Funela.”


When Act III opens, Hugo, his plans in disarray, desperately discusses a new and fantastic plan—no longer to match Isabelle with Frederic by having her fake her drowning—but to embarrass the rich guests by exposing Isabelle as a humble girl, not an upper-class debutante as he led them to believe. Isabelle, again disgusted with Hugo, will have none of it. Hugo exits and Diana enters and complains to Isabelle about the misfortune of wealth. Isabelle, poor as she is, is incensed and ends up fighting with Diana. When Frederic discovers them, Isabelle mistakes him for Hugo, telling him off and confessing her love. Frederic admits he is not Hugo. Diana dislikes the attention Frederic and Isabelle pay each other and says she is leaving, demanding Frederic leave with her. Isabelle, now alone and distraught, is discovered by her mother. Isabelle tells her mother the charade is finished and that they are leaving. Messerschmann enters and tries to bribe Isabelle to leave the house. She tells him she is already planning to leave and refuses his money. He cannot believe it and continues raising his offers as fast as she rejects them. Suddenly, Messerschmann becomes disillusioned about the power of money and he and Isabelle begin tearing up stacks of bills. But both are still unhappy and Messerschmann hints at destroying himself. Isabelle then attempts to drown herself for real, but Hugo rescues her. Madame now begins to bring about a happy end. She persuades Isabelle to forget Hugo and has Frederic console her in order to match them. She then attempts to convince Hugo of his love for Diana. (Meanwhile Patrice, completely clueless to the new developments, again rushes in to play the jealous lover). Lady India now walks on to announce Messerschmann is financially ruining himself by selling off his assets. Diana enters and declares that since her father is poor and her marriage with Frederic finished, she will learn to be poor. Hugo, feeling sorry for her, advises reconciliation with Frederic. Romainville enters and announces he will propose to Isabelle, but learns Isabelle is now with Frederic. In a note from Hugo brought in by Joshua, Hugo confesses his love for Diana because he thinks her poor. Messerschmann then confirms the news of his financial ruin. Lady India is moved and entranced by the adventure of being poor. The play ends with Messerschmann reading a telegram saying that his attempts at financial ruin were perceived as maneuvering, and have made him richer than ever. Messerschmann celebrates with his standard bowl of noodles, this time with a little salt.


Patrice Bombelles

Patrice Bombelles is male secretary to the wealthy industrialist, Messerschmann, and also the object of Messerschmann’s mistress’s (Lady India) attentions, which Bombelles has reciprocated for two years. Unsurprisingly, Bombelles does not want Messerschmann to find out about the secretive affair, since Bombelles believes it would mean his firing. So preoccupied is Bombelles to keep the affair with Lady India a total secret, he is constantly agitated, often forgetting or missing the subject of conversation and the latest change in the main character’s (Hugo) ever-evolving plans.

Geraldine Capulat

Capulat is, as Anouilh describes her, Madame Desmermortes’s “faded” servant/companion. She has a minor role until she is recognized by Isabelle’s mother as a long-lost friend with whom she once played piano duets. Capulat is both a hopeless romantic and a loyal friend and so cannot help but satisfy Isabelle’s mother in the attempt to get Madame to unite Hugo and Isabelle.

Madame Desmermortes

Desmermortes is the elderly, overly family-and class-conscious aunt of Hugo, Frederic, and Lady India. She is interested in her nephews and niece getting married to the right companions. By helping Hugo with his plans, by acting according to her own lights, and partly through sheer luck, Madame is successful. With a sometimes cruel, sometimes sober realism, Madame parries the hopeless romanticism of her servant/companion, Capulat. Madame’s somewhat hardened view of life is at least partially due to her age and confinement in a wheelchair.


Frederic is the identical twin brother of Hugo and played by the same actor. He is also the nephew of Mme. Desmermortes, and the zealous pursuer of Diana Messerschmann. He lacks confidence, and is self-deprecating, He constantly fawns over Diana from whom he cannot bear to be separated for a moment. Perhaps for this reason, Diana is not in love with Frederic, but Frederic’s confident twin, Hugo. However inept Frederic is with women, Hugo thinks Frederic “good, sensible, kind, and intelligent.” Frederic eventually becomes disillusioned with Diana’s domination of him and falls for Isabelle.


Hugo is the identical twin of Frederic, but unlike Frederic, Hugo is a confident ladies’ man and according to his own assessment, a kind of evil twin to Frederic. Hugo is the play’s main character because the major action of the play revolves around his scheme to lure Frederic away from Diana, who does not love Frederic, but the more confident Hugo. While Hugo knows Diana loves him, he is convinced he doesn’t love her because, he says, she is rich and “badly spoilt.” Hugo views himself as the enemy of upper-class vanity, and for this reason, some of the characters remark that he seems “capable of absolutely anything.” The observation is not without merit since Hugo blackmails Romainville, attempts to bamboozle Frederic away from Diana, pays Isabelle to act interested in Frederic, and finally, blackmails Patrice Bombelles to fake jealous love for Isabelle in order to stir up Frederic’s desire. In the end, Hugo finally confesses his love for Diana after learning she is poor.

Lady Dorothy India

Lady India is the niece of Madame Desmermortes, cousin to the twins, Hugo and Frederic, and the mistress of both Messerschmann and Patrice Bombelles. She thinks she is in love with danger, and fantasizes about getting caught by Messerschmann in the arms of Patrice. Part of Lady India’s attraction to danger is an unreal desire to be poor. She is at least partially sincere: at play’s end, her love for Messerschmann is rekindled after learning he has just become penniless.


Isabelle, a young and attractive ballet dancer, has a somewhat uncertain relationship with the character of Romainville: it appears he furnishes her with money in the guise of “patron of the arts.” Whatever her motives, she accepts his attentions. At root, Isabelle is honest and considerate, but she becomes swept up in playing the part of Romainville’s niece because, like so many women, she is irresistibly drawn to Hugo. Along with Hugo, Isabelle shares a certain contempt for money, which she shows when refusing Messerschmann’s offers to pay her off, and when joining him in tearing up his stacks of bills. Through the aid of Mme. Desmermortes’s matchmaking, Isabelle realizes she loves Frederic, not Hugo.

Isabelle’s Mother

Isabelle’s mother is the only character in the play fully romanticizing money and culture, partly because she once had both. She pushes Isabelle to play the part in Hugo’s charade so that Isabelle might have a chance to marry him, or at least marry someone with money. Isabelle’s mother also turns out to be an old friend of Capulat. Fool that the mother is, she stands to give away Hugo’s scheme through Capulat. To prevent her from subverting Hugo’s plot, Mme. Desmermortes gives Isabelle’s mother the character of “Countess Funela” to play at the ball. This fulfills the mother’s fantasies of wealth and status. In the final distribution of partners, the mother gets her wish when Isabelle wins Frederic.


Joshua has been the respectful butler at the Desmermortes family estate for thirty years. He makes sure Hugo’s plans to separate Frederic and Diana is well executed. Joshua adds comic relief not only for his dignified language befitting the stock character of the butler, but also because he often loses his composure in the face of the unexpected. As Anouilh says, Joshua is “crumbling.”


A wealthy industrialist, Messerschmann is also an insomniac and eats only one thing: noodles without butter and salt. He has four primary roles in life: Diana’s father, paramour of Lady India, Patrice Bombelles’s boss, and owner of the pig-iron company managed by Romainville. Messerschmann represents money and the rich man’s belief that every person has his or her price. When he finds Diana is jealous of Isabelle, he attempts to blackmail Romainville and bribe Isabelle to get her to leave the house. When his efforts fail with Isabelle, Messerschmann’s rage and sudden disenchantment with money lead him to attempt to ruin himself financially, which, unexpectedly, makes him more attractive to Lady India.

Diana Messerschmann

Diana is the attractive daughter of the wealthy industrial magnate, Messerschmann; the aloof love object of Frederic; and the thwarted pursuer of Hugo. She settles for Frederic because Hugo does not love her. Diana becomes jealous of Isabelle for stealing the glances of the men at the ball and complains to her father. It is only when Messerschmann is reported to have lost his fortune that Hugo confesses his love for the now seemingly impoverished Diana.


Romainville is an older man who studies butterflies, probably intent on making Isabelle his next specimen. He also heads a pig-iron company owned by Messerschmann. To guard against a possible smudge on his reputation, Romainville tries to keep his pursuit of young Isabelle a secret, and so is blackmailed by Hugo into getting Isabelle to pose as Romainville’s niece, out to steal Frederic from Diana. But when Messerschmann finds that Isabelle is provoking his daughter’s jealousy, Messerschmann threatens Romainville with financial ruin unless Romainville removes Isabelle from the house. In the last moments of the play, Romainville decides to confess his love and propose to Isabelle. He is, however, too late. Isabelle and Frederic have already become paired.


Wealth Versus Poverty

Two sets of class conflicts occur in Ring Around the Moon: that of older, aristocratic wealth versus newer, capitalist wealth, and both of these versus poverty. Old money is represented by Madame Desmermortes, her niece, and nephews; new money by Messerschmann, his daughter, and Romainville, head of Messerschmann’s pig-iron company. When Madame makes her first entrance with Hugo, discussing Messerschmann’s keeping of Lady India, Madame calls it “monstrous” and “humiliating,” because old money kept by new money indicates aristocratic demise, dependence, loss of status. In


  • Beginning a decade or so before the French Revolution (1789), research the history of industrialism in France, focusing on the friction between the old-money aristocracy and the new-money bourgeoisie. Then write an essay detailing some of the consequences of such friction.
  • After researching the history and form of commedia dell’arte write an essay discussing how stock characters in that form resemble those in Ring Around the Moon.
  • Study Anouilh’s directions for music in Ring Around the Moon. Select (or compose) music to fit those scenes. Justify your reasons.
  • Research the history of marriage in late eighteenth-century Europe, then write an essay describing what economic and social functions it served. Do any of these functions exist in today’s United States? Which ones and in what segments of society?

Act III, Scene 2, Madame Desmermortes proceeds to make sure her two charges are married happily. This is a somewhat complex matter: Frederic must not marry Diana because she will be in complete control of him because she doesn’t need his money and because he is servile. This is humiliating in terms of Frederic’s wealth and status, and his gender. At least if the confident Hugo marries Diana, the emotional balance will tip in Hugo’s favor. Further, if Diana is poor, then a marriage between Hugo and Diana will be even less objectionable, as she will be totally dependent upon Hugo. And Madame does not object to Lady India’s swooning over Messerschmann’s financial ruin because he will be unable to disgrace the Desmermortes family by keeping her. This is partially why Messerschmann wants his doubled wealth kept secret. At play’s end, everyone is able to retain or increase his or her wealth. Even Romainville and Patrice keep their positions in Messerschmann’s even stronger financial empire.

The other conflict in Ring Around the Moon is wealth versus poverty, the latter represented by Isabelle and her mother. But while Isabelle’s mother has a generous dose of class envy—either new or old money being very acceptable—Isabelle is not only not envious but, at least as a result of Hugo’s and Messerschmann’s attempt to buy her, rather contemptuous of wealth. She therefore plays the heroine. Not only does Isabelle display enough strength of character to refuse Messerschmann’s and Hugo’s money, but after she and Messerschmann finish destroying the money, she realizes it might have been used to help the poor. Neither she nor Messerschmann feel as if destroying the money has been of any lasting value. Anouilh, then, while criticizing certain aspects of wealth (vanity, egregious power, pettiness) and poverty (envy and awe of the upper classes), denounces neither wealth nor poverty in themselves, nor class inequality. Instead, he spins out an ending unusual in the real world: both rich and poor get richer.

Appearance versus Reality

The most obvious example of the theme of appearance versus reality in Ring Around the Moon is the use of identical, indistinguishable twins played by the same actor. But readers have an “advantage” over audience members: while readers know who is speaking, audience members cannot always tell. This robs readers of an intended confusion accessible to only those seeing a performance. That is, unless a director dresses Hugo and Frederic differently, or alters their appearance.

The only characters confused about who is Hugo and who Frederic, are Diana and Isabelle. Diana’s confusion is, however, far less total: while she mistakes their appearance on occasion—or pretends to—she is able to distinguish their personalities. Isabelle, on the other hand, hardly knows one from the other. If Isabelle had met Frederic before Hugo, she might even have been as infatuated with Frederic as with Hugo. Why does Anouilh wants to confuse not only the audience, but Diana and Isabelle? A partial answer is that he wants to preclude simplistic assessments like “The rich are all alike,” since even identical, indistinguishable twins are not alike; are, in fact, opposites.

Two other violators of reality through physical appearance are Isabelle and her mother. Isabelle, a ballet dancer, is brought to the estate to play Romainville’s niece and seduce Frederic. Isabelle’s mother plays the part of Countess Funela. Both are meant to appear as though upper class. Though both poor and of the same family and gender, Isabelle and her mother are also not alike: Isabelle dislikes deceit while her mother frolics in it. But whatever the case, the poor are paid by the rich to imitate the rich in order to fool the merely wealthy into thinking the poor are really rich. Less confusingly, Hugo and Madame (old money) attempt to bamboozle the new money guests at the party, such as Romainville, and those running companies that Messerschmann (also new money) ultimately controls.

There are other examples of appearance versus reality, but these have less to do with being a part than acting a part. While the twins, as well as Isabelle and her mother are pretending to be other characters, the violations of reality by Patrice and Lady India involve acting the part of not having an affair. Lady India is, in fact, attempting, though sometimes halfheartedly, to appear as if she is not having two affairs. In addition, Romainville must act as uncle to Isabelle, and Diana acts as though in love with Frederic. Finally, at the end of the play Messerschmann wants everyone to think him poor, though he is richer than ever. Why the charade? Because it not only provokes laughs, but points to the falsity of human behavior, and simultaneously, the facility of making fools of people, including—in the case of an identical actor playing Hugo and Frederic—the audience.



Ring Around the Moon takes place at a French country estate in spring. Why spring? Probably because it is when romance is thought to “bloom.” The additional setting of a glassed-in rococo winter garden looking out on a “wide expanse of park” contributes to this fertile atmosphere. The home belongs to Madame Desmermortes and is occupied by her nephews, Hugo and Frederic, and her niece, Lady India, all of them attended by the butler, Joshua. All other characters are guests at the chateau.


The dialogue in Ring Around the Moon is entirely social: it contains no soliloquies. Dialogue, as the word indicates, is always directed at someone, most often taking the form of persuasion, coercion, or attack. Recall the dialogue about money between Messerschmann and Isabelle, Hugo’s numerous coercions of Romainville, Patrice, and Isabelle, and Diane’s toying with Frederic. This is dialogue as manipulation.


Music occurs primarily in Act II at the evening ball, where it may reinforce the idea that precise and numerous entrances and exits of a multitude of characters are a kind of comedic dance. When Hugo blackmails Patrice into acting as Isabelle’s jealous lover, a kind of battle of wits results, and so Anouilh calls for a “heroic, warlike tune.”


The movement of Ring Around the Moon consists of a multitude of precisely timed entrances and exits, especially of the identical twins, Hugo and Frederic, played by the same actor. In the final act of the play, Hugo must send in—“for reasons which you all know” —a note from offstage in which Hugo confesses his love for Diana Messerschmann. The reason? Frederic is already onstage. In Act I, Scene 1, just before Diana and Frederic exit, Diana states that Hugo is “capable of absolutely anything.” Patrice and Lady India immediately walk on, Patrice speaking these same words, producing a neat transition between different situations and characters with Hugo’s interference in common. Finally, it is fitting that in this play full of movement, the heroine, Isabelle, is a dancer.


During the course of World War II (1939-1945) the Germans invaded Paris and occupied the northern and western parts of France from 1940-44. The rest of the country was under the authority of the puppet government of Vichy led by Marshal Pétain and supported by much of the traditional French right. Simultaneously, General Charles de Gaulle was organizing the resistance movement of the Free French from London. Soon after the American, British, and Canadian military invasion on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, de Gaulle entered Paris to head the new government.

France’s defeat by the Germans unexpectedly prodded modernization forward after the end of Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime. The resistance movement that emerged, though existing in frictional coexistence, contained most of France’s forward-looking elements. With the right discredited and the resistance elements committed to sig-nificant change, the two-year life of the post-WWII liberation coalition after November, 1944 allowed a wide range of reforms. Extensive nationalization of industry endowed the central government with new power over the direction of France’s economy and France’s welfare state greatly expanded. Modernizing technocrats, represented by Jean Monnet and his planning commission, were eager to use the new state levers for rejuvenated control. Strong state influence pushed France’s postwar development in a different direction from many other European countries whose industries were not nationalized.

Post-Liberation French governments did not fare so well at building new political institutions. Disputes between General Charles de Gaulle and the left over the role of the head of state led to de Gaulle’s angry resignation and denunciation of the emerging “regime of the parties.” In the Fourth Republic Constitution (1946-1958)—barely approved by the electorate—the National Assembly became the seat of all power. Its majority coalitions, made volatile with a new system of proportional representation, became even more unpredictable when the Cold War began in 1947. France’s political alignment on the side of the United States forced the Communists, who represented twenty-five percent of the electorate, into quasi-permanent sectarian isolation. Governments thenceforth were constructed from among center-left and center-right groups that rarely agreed. The Fourth Republic drifted to the right and progressively fell under the sway of forces determined to preserve colonialism. Thus from 1946 to 1958 there was costly and divisive warfare, first in Indochina (1946-1954) and then in Algeria (1954-1962). The postwar years deeply changed French society: consumerism was born, the service sector rapidly expanded, and high-tech national projects were successfully launched. Modernization of the economy led to continuing attrition of aristocratic elements—represented in Ring Around the Moon by Madame Desmermortes—and their gradual replacement by the newer and more influential money of industrialists like Messerschmann.


Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon first appeared in France in 1947 where it was and still is entitled, L’nvitation au Chateau. The play is especially important because it marked a transition


  • 1947: Extensive nationalization of French industry becomes well established.

    Today: The French government retains considerable influence over key segments of each economic sector, with majority ownership of railway, electricity, aircraft, and telecommunication firms, but since the early 1990s has been gradually relaxing its control over these sectors.

  • 1947: With the Truman Doctrine of March 12, a policy of world communist containment by the United States is formally announced, an early landmark of the Cold War.

    Today: The Cold War is officially ended but is threatened again with the conflict in Yugoslavia—Russia aligned with Serbia, Europe and the United States aligned with elements against Serbia. The Cold War is heated up further when U.S. bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

  • 1947: The American Marshall Plan, named for secretary of state, George C. Marshall, channels huge quantities of money into rebuilding Europe and strengthening anticommunist European governments.

    Today: A united, noncommunist Europe launches its first common currency, the Euro.

  • 1947: France greatly expands its welfare state.

    Today: France continues to refrain from cutting social welfare benefits and the state bureaucracy, preferring to trim defense spending and raise taxes to keep its deficit down.

between Anouilh’s pieces roses, plays in which characters escape dark conditions through fantasy, illusion, and change of personality, to Anouilh’s pieces brillantes, a more mixed group of four plays with brilliantes referring to polished and sophisticated gemlike pieces. The first two plays of the pieces brillantes, which include Ring Around the Moon, were lighter plays closer to their “pink” precursors. The latter two plays were more ponderous, weighed down by gritty reality.

In Jean Anouilh, Alba della Fazia called Ring Around the Moon a “pleasantly jumbled fairy tale” and selects Isabelle as the play’s heroine, primarily for her rejection of money and her understanding of when to end her part in the charade. In Jean Anouilh, Marguerite Archer echoes della Fazia’s description of the play as a fairy tale: “Here, the ending is a happy one, achieved by Anouilh when he combines the themes previously exploited in the pieces noires[earlier, darker pieces in Anouilh’s career], so that money and love can exist side by side in harmony.” Lewis Falb in his Jean Anouilh, sees a darker center to Ring Around the Moon: “Though the action resembles a lighthearted charade, beneath the sur-face there are disturbing undercurrents.” Falb’s comment is developed at length in Leonard Pronko’s The World Of Jean Anouilh. Pronko says that Hugo is without feelings because, since he plans to pay Isabelle to act her part, and does not think she deserves consideration. Pronko goes on to say that in Anouilh’s work, “men are so selfish that they seldom take their fellows into consideration. The primary social unit—the family—has broken down, and acts not as a group but as a heterogeneous mixture of individuals. With little regard for conventional morality, each goes his own way.” For Pronko, then, Falb’s “disturbing undercurrents” in Ring Around the Moon revolve primarily around selfishness issuing from monetary concern. Anouilh thereby becomes a critic of the intersection where society meets money. A more recent analysis of Ring Around the Moon reconciles the play’s lighter and darker elements. H. G. Mclntyre in The Theatre of Jean Anouilh sees this reconciliation in the marriage of form with content: “The vision of life may be bleak but an antidote to it lies in the comic form of the play. .. Implicit in all this is an ethic of endurance not of rejection and self-sacrifice. ..”

Mclntyre goes further: not only does comedy help us endure, but so does the practice of theater.


Chris Semansky

A playwright and poet, Chris Semansky teaches literature and writing at Portland Community College. In the following essay he discusses the role of class conflict in Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon.

Behind the thinner, lighter veil of Jean Anouilh’s charade, Ring Around the Moon, lies two sorts of class conflict. First, is the friction between the older aristocracy (“old money”) and the emerging and usurping industrialist bourgeoisie (“new money”). The second is the tension between both of these wealthy groups and the working class. The characters belonging to each camp are as follows: in the aristocracy, the Desmermortes side composed of Hugo, Frederic, Lady India, and Madame. In the wealthy bourgeoisie, the Messer-schmanns: Messerschmann, Diana, and though not part of the family, Romainville, because he runs Messerchmann’s pig-iron company. Also in this class are many of the unnamed and unspoken guests at Madame’s ball who, Diana states, work for Messerchmann. The last group, the working class or poor, includes Isabelle and her mother. All other characters fall somewhere between these camps since they are attached to the upper classes: Joshua and Capulat to the aristocracy, Patrice to the industrialist bourgeoisie.

The core conflict between old and new money erupts in the imminent marriage between Frederic (old) and Diana (new). Frederic, the “good” twin, cares little for class. But he is betrothed to the wealthy Diana. This is probably no mere coincidence since, usually, the moneyed classes are as segregated as the poor, self-segregation ensuring preservation of wealth and a sense of superiority. It is not clear what Diana is after by settling for Frederic when she really wants Hugo, but Diana’s motivation might be her desire to marry into wealth, even if it means losing her happiness. But whether Diana marries old or new money seems of little concern to her. Nor does it concern Messerschmann since, after all, he has taken Lady India (old money) as a mistress. But it might be that the two Messerschmanns’ do care, and consciously


  • Much Ado About Nothing, is a comedy by William Shakespeare, written about 1598-1599. Like Ring Around the Moon, this is another play of mistaken identities and happy couplings at play’s end.
  • As You Like It is a comedy by William Shakespeare and first printed in 1623. This is yet another of Shakespeare’s plays involving mistaken identities and an ending with a happy double marriage.
  • The Marx-Engels Reader is an anthology of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1978. Of special importance to the issue of class warfare is “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848).
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith was originally published in 1776. It is arguably the most important work in support of capitalist theory ever published. Smith’s work is still quoted.
  • Pride and Prejudice is a novel by Jane Austen first published in 1813. While there are no mistaken identities in Austen’s work, the place of marriage in class relations is of central importance. One important difference between Anouilh’s play and Austen’s novel is the latter’s emphasis on gender, specifically how women are forced by society to seek marriage in order to escape poverty or secure economic well-being.

or unconsciously, pursue the old-moneyed Desmermortes to gain sophistication through association with “class,” “breeding,” and education. Through linkage with the Desmermortes the Messerschmanns might be able to have their wealth and eat it too.

The aristocratic Desmermortes, on the other hand, want little to do with the bourgeois Messerschmanns. Madame Desmermortes is humiliated by news that Messerschmann is “keeping” (paying for) her niece, Lady India. Madame exclaims: “She is a Fitzhenry! And through me, a Desmermortes. If only your uncle Antony were alive it would kill him.” Desmermortes money has been transmitted by inheritance from generation to generation and is therefore “purified” by being kept within the family. Messerschmann’s money, however, is recently gained through business, himself having been a member of the lower classes only “yesterday.” Madame’s humiliation over these matters is of less concern to Hugo with his narrower criteria for upper-class superiority. Hugo is less concerned with family than with breeding. For Hugo, money is not to be pursued or displayed as “mere” wealth, but instead, used for the sake of racheting up one’s civility, culture, and refinement. Hugo’s complaint about mixing blood and money with the Messerschmanns apparently has less to do with them having it (after all, Hugo is rich), than with the way they deploy it. Although not fleshed out, Hugo’s “healthy” contempt of money likely comes from the fact that he takes it for granted. Contempt for wealth (but not for breeding) Hugo likely thinks, is beyond the understanding of the bourgeoisie who continue to worship money like the lower classes, whom these Messerschmanns still are in disguise. And so, Hugo thinks, how dare Frederic stoop to Diana; how dare Lady India allow herself to be had by that mere businessman, Messerschmann.

And who does Hugo blackmail? Romainville, that second-tier wealthy bourgeois connected to Messerschmann, and Patrice, Messerschmann’s secretary engaged in an affair with Hugo’s aristocratic cousin, Lady India. Hugo’s blackmailings are not mere means to break up the ill-fated Diana-Frederic love match, but ends, battles fought against those economic upstarts, the Messerschmanns, and their lackeys, Romainville, and Patrice. It is no coincidence Anouilh calls for battle music during the scene in which Hugo blackmails Patrice.

Finally, in the war between the upper echelons, there is Lady India, the peacemaker. Like Hugo, she takes wealth for granted. But unlike Hugo, Lady India does not manifest contempt for the bourgeoisie. After all, she is Messerschmann’s mistress. But she is attracted to danger, specifically to “slumming,” associating with the lower classes. This is at least part of her attraction to a mere secretary (Patrice). At the “further reaches” of danger, Lady India is not just attracted to the poorer classes, but to poverty itself. She believes so strongly that she would like to be poor, that she falls hard for Messerschmann when it looks like he is financially ruined. Lady India, unlike the play’s other major characters, is in conflict with no one. She is the bridge not only between the upper classes, but also between upper and lower classes. While this might cast Lady India as the play’s heroine—great bridger of all gulfs—Anouilh portrays her as a fool, in love with the state of poverty only because she has never visited. Thus, her poor sense of economic and social geography.

The battle between upper and lower classes involves both major and minor characters. For example, Joshua, Capulat, and Patrice partially escape inclusion in the working or poorer classes because they are attached to the upper classes, not just by working for them, but by living with them. Just as house slaves had more status than field slaves, so do Joshua, Capulat, and Patrice as “house slaves” have status over Isabelle and her mother, the “field slaves.” There is, however, one last division among the lower classes. As Anouilh divided the upper classes into old and new money, he divides the poorer, working class into the envious (Isabelle’s mother) and the complacent-if-not-contemptuous (Isabelle). Isabelle’s mother shares features with both branches of the upper classes. With the aristocracy, she shares a love of breeding, as evidenced by having studied piano at a conservatory. Further, she has enabled Isabelle to study ballet, both of these, piano and ballet, being aristocratic pleasures. She also once belonged to the bourgeoisie: “Always remember, Isabelle, your grandfather was the biggest wallpaper dealer in the town. We’ve even had two servants at the same time.” Isabelle’s mother aspires to both branches of the upper class, if not for herself, then for her daughter. Isabelle’s mother does not call her objects of aspiration old or new money, aristocracy or bourgeoisie, but sums them up with “beauty” (more often referring to old money rather than new) and “luxury” (more often referring to new money rather than old). Isabelle’s


mother is not particular. She would be happy with either Romainville or Hugo as an upwardly mobile catch for Isabelle.

Isabelle, unlike her mother, aspires to love more than money. She does whatever chore needs doing, and doesn’t dream of being rich so that, someday, servants will do it for her. Her mother’s unabashed upper-class aspirations embarrass Isabelle who is not attracted to Hugo because of his wealth, but because he is handsome and confident. Money is nowhere apparent in her aspirations. Even Isabelle’s ballet dancing seems a product more of her mother’s aspirations than her own desires. Isabelle’s disinterest in money turns to hostility in the memorable scene where Isabelle refuses offers of money from Messerschmann and from Hugo, and where she and Messerschmann tear up his stacks of bills. While Messerschmann tears up the currency because he resents money’s loss of power, its death if you will, Isabelle tears it up to render it powerless, kill it. But neither Messerschmann nor Isabelle are made happy by such destruction. Isabelle remains unhappy because tearing up money does not help the poor. Moreover, Hugo does not care for her, and has only used her in his botched charade against upper class vanity, showing his contempt, as well, for the lower classes and those recently escaped, namely Messerschmann. And so through the insensitive and repellent actions of both old and new money (Messerschmann, Hugo, and Diana all display open class contempt), Isabelle finally ceases an outlook of quiet humility and satisfaction, becoming contemptuous of the rich. Revenge, however, is not open to one such as Isabelle, who can only separate herself from what is everywhere repellent by attempting suicide. When rescued, Isabelle becomes Anouilh’s official hero by rewarding her more than any other character: only Isabelle moves up a few notches on the economic and social scale. But the other characters make out pretty well too: no matter what kind of folly absorbs them, Anouilh forgives them by letting them keep their money and status. He is forgiving. . . unlike the world he assaults.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.

Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses literary, biblical and mythological references in Anouilh’s play.

Biblical, Mythological and Folkloric References in Ring Around the Moon

The dialogue of Anouilh’s play Ring Around the Moon includes several references to folk, biblical, mythological, and English literature. A greater understanding of the sources of these references helps to illuminate the thematic concerns which run throughout the play.

Calliope. In Act I, Scene 1, Hugo discusses his twin brother Frederick with Joshua, the elderly butler. Joshua is informing Hugo that Frederick, who is in love with Diana, has spent the past five nights sleeping in the rhododendron bush outside of her bedroom window. Joshua explains to Hugo that he has slept in the rhododendron bush “beside that statue they call Calliope, a classical character, sir.” In Greek mythology, Calliope is the primary of the nine Muses. The Muses are a group of goddesses, all sisters, daughters of Zeus, who were originally considered to be the patron goddesses of poets and musicians. They later each became associated with different branches of the arts and sciences, and statues of the various muses were popularly sculpted holding various objects indicating these associations. The name of Calliope means “she of the beautiful voice.” Calliope is considered the muse of heroic or epic poetry, and sculptures often depict her with a writing tablet in her hand. She is considered to be the mother of Orpheus, the musician who played the lyre.

Croesus. Later in Act I, Scene 1, Hugo, in talking to Mademoiselle Desmortes, describes Mr. Messerschmann as being “as rich as Croesus.” Croesus was a king of ancient Lydia, who reigned from 560 B.C. to 546 B.C., and was known for his great wealth. Main events during his reign include the conquest of the Greeks on mainland Ionia, and subsequent defeat by the Persians. The name of Croesus continues to be associated with extensive wealth, and he was known for bestowing lavish gifts upon the oracle at Delphi, which appears in many Greek myths. While Croesus was a historically real person, his reputation and fate have taken on mythical status in the writings of ancient Greek historians. Some say that upon defeat by the Persians he tried to burn himself alive, but was saved from death by his captors; some say he was condemned to death by fire, but was saved by the god Apollo; and some say he was made a government official for the defeating nation. One of the prominent myths about Croesus, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, is that he met with Solon, an Athenian law-maker, who lectured him on the virtues of good fortune, rather than wealth, as a source of happiness.

Reference to Croesus is significant because it indicates a central theme of Anouilh’s play: wealth and poverty. Except for Isabelle, her mother, and the various servants, the central characters of the play are wealthy beyond all measure. The arrival of Isabelle and her mother into this world of rich socialites initiates a tension between rich and poor, and incites debates among characters over wealth and poverty. Messerchsmann is compared early on to Croesus, and this comparison is echoed toward the end when he realizes that wealth is not a source of happiness. Isabelle’s role in this realization is comparable to the role of Solon, in that she provides Messerchsmann with a similar insight.

Helen of Troy. In Act I, Scene 2, Hugo tells Isabelle that the dress she has been given to wear “makes you look like Helen of Troy.” Helen of Troy, in ancient Greek mythology, was a daughter of Zeus, and was the most beautiful woman in Greece. According to legend, she was the impetus behind the Trojan War, which explains references to her as “the face that launched a thousand ships.” Isabelle’s enchanting beauty is central to her role in Anouilh’s play. It is agreed by all that she is the most beautiful presence at the ball, and her arrival is the catalyst which effects a change in the dynamics of the wealthy socialite world into which she has been thrust.

Cinderella In Act I, Scene 2, there is an exchange between Isabelle’s mother and Hugo, in which the Mother refers to herself as “poor little Cinders.” She is of course referring to the fairy tale Cinderella, in which the abused and neglected stepdaughter is visited by a fairy godmother who grants her the opportunity to dress in finery for a ball, at which she dances all night with the Prince himself. According to the Encyclopaedia Britan-nica, this folktale dates back as far as the 9th Century AD, and has appeared in over 500 different renditions. In Anouilh’s play, Hugo asks Isabelle’s mother if she would like supper brought to her in her room, to which she replies,“Just a crust, a crust and a glass of water for poor little Cinders.” Isabelle’s mother is an impoverished woman continually attempting to push her daughter on any rich man who comes her way. She is a selfish woman who embarrasses Isabelle, and continually laments her own poverty and lost youth and beauty. In comparing herself to Cinderella, the abused and neglected stepdaughter, the mother expresses a self-serving self-pity. Meanwhile, it is Isabelle who shares the role of Cinderella in Anouilh’s play. She is a poor, beautiful, yet humble, girl who needs only to be dressed up in the finery of the rich to become, like Cinderella, the belle of the ball. And, by the end of the play, she does, in fact, find her prince charming in the form of the wealthy Frederick, the twin brother of Hugo (although she at first believes herself to be in love with Hugo).

English literature

Robinson Crusoe. In Act I, Scene 2, the wheelchair-bound elderly woman Mme. Desmortes makes reference to the classic English novel Robinson Crusoe(1722), by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Robinson Crusoe is the story of a castaway on a deserted island who must make do with limited resources in order to survive harsh and solitary conditions. In Anouilh’s play, the excessively wealthy and privileged Mme. Desmortes compares herself to Robinson Crusoe when she is momentarily stranded in her wheelchair without a servant to escort her, and without a nearby “bell-rope” she could use to summon a servant.

Mme. Desmortes: “Really, how marooned one is away from a bell-rope. I might be Robinson Crusoe, and without any of his initiative. If only one’s governess, when one was a girl, had taught one something practical like running up a flag or firing a gun.”

When a butler, Joshua, appears, she continues the comparison of being lost at sea, remarking, “Thank Heaven I’m on some sort of navigation route.” She commands Joshua to “Put into land for a moment, my dear man, and rescue me. I was washed up here fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t seen a living creature since.”

Mme. Desmorte’s extended comparison of herself to Robinson Crusoe not only establishes her


character as extremely witty, with a keen, ironic sense of humor, but also demonstrates her ability not to take herself too seriously, as expressed by her tendency to jokingly exaggerate her circumstances. This reference also continues a theme of water imagery which runs through the play.

Byronic Poetry. In Scene 1, Act III, Hugo launches into an extended discourse in conversation with Isabelle, who listens attentively. Hugo has been using Isabelle in a scheme to distract his brother from his unrequited love of Diana. He explains that he is going to invent a lofty and romantic past for Isabelle, which he will use to deceive the guests at the ball as to her origins. Hugo muses that he will tell everyone that “you’re the wonderfully wealthy side-issue of a Portuguese princess and an Admiral, an Admiral who wrote Byronic poetry and was drowned at sea.” The idea of the Admiral drowned at sea picks up on the water imagery which runs throughout the play, such as in reference to the fictional character Robinson Crusoe. Hugo’s mention of “Byronic poetry” refers to a style of Romantic poetry by the infamous English poet, Lord Byron (1788-1824). Byron is best known for his extended poem Don Juan(1819-1825), which is a satiric recounting of the adventures and exploits of a young man. In one segment of the poem, Don Juan becomes a castaway on a Greek island after surviving a shipwreck. The reference to Byron thus indirectly echoes Anouilh’s theme of water imagery in the play.

Biblical stories

Samson. In Act III, Scene 1, the rich man Messerschmann has a conversation with the old butler, Joshua, in which Messerschmann mentions the Biblical myth of Samson. Samson is a figure from the Old Testament whom some scholars consider to be purely mythical, but whom others consider to be a historically real figure. The story of Samson is that his parents were told before his birth that he was to be a Nazarite, a person chosen by God to abstain from liquor, avoid contact with dead bodies, and never shave or cut his hair. Samson was known for his incredible physical strength, but his downfall was always his passion for Philistine women. The most famous story about Samson is that he was seduced by the Philistine Delilah, who tricked him into revealing the secret of his incredible strength: his long hair. As he slept Delilah cut his hair, depriving him of his strength so that he could be captured by the Philistines, blinded and forced into slavery. Samson’s final act, although blinded and enslaved, was to use his strength to tear down the Philistine temple, where the worship of false gods was carried out, destroying both the Philistines and himself in the process. This act is seen as his final return to the service of the Jewish god Yahweh for which his life was originally intended.

In conversation with Joshua, Messerschmann recounts the tale of Samson, comparing himself to this mythical figure.

M:“You must have read your Bible when you were a little boy? J: Here and there, sir, like everybody else. M: Did you ever come across Samson? J: The gentleman who had his hair cut, sir? M: “Yes; and he was very unhappy. Jeered at, my friend, always jeered at by everybody. They had put his eyes out. They thought he was blind, but I’m sure he could see. J: Quite possible, sir. M: And then, one fine day, unable to stand it any more, he got them to lead him between the pillars of the temple. He was very strong, terribly strong, you understand? He twined his arms round the pillars” (he puts his arms around Joshua) like this.

Messerschmann continues, “And then he shook them with all his might.” He was so strong the entire temple crashed down on to the two thousand Philistines who were there praying to their false Gods and thinking Samson no better than a fool.” Joshua points out that, “it fell on him, too, sir,” to which Messerschmann replies, “But that wasn’t of any kind of importance.” Messerschmann then explains to Joshua that he will be “putting through an overseas telephone call” that night. Messerschmann tells Joshua that he will be doing this, “Like Samson. With my eyes tight shut.”

This conversation between Messerschmann and Joshua occurs late in the play, just after an extended exchange between Messerschmann and Isabelle, the impoverished young dancer whom he has in-vited to his home with the intention of making her his mistress. Messerschmann is like Samson in that his lust for women has been the cause of his moral depravity. Through his conversation with Isabelle, he comes to realize that his wealth is no source of happiness, and he rashly decides to make a financial decision that will undoubtedly impoverish him. Messerschmann’s intention is to alter his financial situation with a single phone call. Like Samson tearing down the temple, Messerschmann plans to perform a final act of moral good by symbolically tearing down the temple of wealth in which he and his fellow socialites worship the false gods of money and luxury. Messerschmann performs this act “blindly,” like Samson, meaning that he does not stop to consider the consequences of such as brash act as turning himself from a rich man into a poor man. And, like Samson, he may bring on his own ruin in the process of performing an act for the cause of a greater good.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.

Charles Isherwood

In the following review, Isherwood presents negatively the revival of“Ring Around the Moon” through its actors.

Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon is a real heartbreaker—but for all the wrong reasons. Christopher Fry’s adaptation of Anouilh’s comedy has not often been staged since its original London and Broadway productions in 1950, and it’s easy to see why: The play is uncommonly delicate, a poetic mixture of farce, romance and comedy of manners that must also accommodate a whiff or two of mortal thoughts (it was written in the shadow of World War II). Fry subtitled his sparkling adaptation A Charade With Music, and indeed it has the sweeping rhythms of a dance—not for nothing is the play’s heroine a ballerina. Unfortunately, what’s onstage at the Belasco Theater more often than not has two left feet. Gerald Gutierrez’s largely miscast production betrays the play’s gossamer sensibility; what should taste like a spun-sugar confection goes down more like chewy taffy.

The disenchantments begin even as the curtain rises on John Lee Beatty’s set, a rather literal-minded reworking of Oliver Messel’s famed London original. Beatty’s garden gazebo manages the signal feat of seeming both flimsy and oppressive. The airiness that is the soul of the play is lost—the characters cavort in this chamber like trapped moths. (The play cries out for the liberating imagination of a Bob Crowley.) The young British actor Toby Stephens plays the central roles of the twins Hugo and Frederic, and here, too, delicacy is lacking. Stephens comes from sturdy theatrical stock—he’s the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens—and he’s definitely an actor in the grand English tradition. As such, he does not have a natural, light touch, as anyone who saw him in the Almeida Theater Co.’s recent Racine plays at BAM could attest (and surely the producers did).

Stephens does have an authentic upper-crust charm, and is amusingly snippy as the heartless Hugo, whose scheme to wean his twin brother from his love for Diana Messerschmann (Haviland Morris)—who in turn loves Hugo—sets the carousel of the plot in motion. But as the lovesick Frederic, he’s really just Hugo sulking—there’s no soul in his Frederic, no romance. His performance is professional but artificial, and more artifice is the last thing this sweet piece of whimsy needs.

The play is set in 1912 France, at the chateau of the twins’ aunt Madame Desmermortes (Marian Seldes), an imperious woman whose reliance on a wheelchair hasn’t kept her from ruling her little fiefdom with an iron fist.

Guests at the chateau include Diana’s father, Messerschmann (Fritz Weaver), a Jewish business magnate who controls the destinies of his fellow visitors; Lady India (Candy Buckley), Messerschmann’s mistress and Desmermortes’ niece; and his secretary Patrice Bombelles (Derek Smith), who also happens to be India’s lover.

Hugo has invited to the chateau a beautiful ballerina from Paris, Isabelle (Gretchen Egolf), in the hopes that by turning her into the belle of the ball he can turn Frederic’s head, curing him of his hopeless love for Diana. But the sensitive Isabelle, as fate would have it, falls instantly for Hugo himself, and it takes some sorting out before she is united in bliss with the equally sensitive Frederic.

With everyone either in love, trying to get out of it or observing it with variously cynical, practical or sentimental attitudes, the play is a comic poem on the vagaries of romance. It also contains wry reflections on the elusive nature of happiness: Diana’s riches can’t win her the love of Hugo and her father’s constitution is so poisoned by the excesses delivered by his wealth that he has been relegated to a diet of unsalted, unbuttered noodles.


But the subtle strains of melancholy and the affectionate tone that suffuse the comedy mostly are muted here. Emblematic of the production’s clumsiness is the bull-in-a-china-shop performance of Joyce Van Patten as Isabelle’s mother. Her character is supposed to be silly and pretentious, but Anouilh observes even her with a measure of sympathy. You’d never guess it from this production, which turns her into a crass buffoon with an American accent.

Indeed all the characters in Ring Round the Moon are dusted with poetry, even the most fiercely pragmatic or comically cynical. And yet virtually none of the performers in this production give lyrical or graceful performances. The fault is the director’s; Gutierrez plays the comedy too heavily and lets the tender essence of the play evaporate.

Morris’ Diana is a flat, shallow interpretation of a character whose haunted depths are revealed in a striking monologue in the second act, when she recalls a traumatic childhood experience of anti-Semitism; this feeling should infuse the rest of the performance, but it doesn’t. The pathos of Messerschmann himself is only hinted at by the gruff Weaver. Buckley’s India, replete with tongue-in-cheek English accent, isn’t even convincing as a small-L lady, and her business with Smith’s Patrice is overcooked.

The beautiful Egolf has a graceful, willowy presence and comes very close to capturing the ethereal spirit of Isabelle. But the role requires an actress who can suggest infinite feeling with the subtlest of inflections, and Egolf ultimately cannot (merely to look at a photo of Claire Bloom in the original production is to be enchanted).

The estimable Seldes is gloriously entertaining as she dishes out Desmermortes’ eloquently phrased, Lady Bracknellesque put-downs, but she is not entirely right for the role. Her astringent delivery of the part’s waspish witticisms ultimately obscures the essential goodness of the character. (Irene Worth was to have played it, with Seldes gallantly doing one performance a week, but Worth had to withdraw because of a stroke.)

While Simon Jones strikes just the right, straightforward note in his small role, it’s really only Frances Conroy, as Desmermortes’ companion, who manages to walk the fine line between tender feeling and high comedy that runs through the play. Her overwhelmed effusions about the young lovers’ fates are both brilliantly funny and tinged with a real pathos. She isn’t onstage for long, but Conroy makes the most of her time.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the production itself. This revival of a lovely play about romantic opportunities seized is a theatrical opportunity lost.

Source: Charles Isherwood, “Ring Around the Moon,” (review) in Variety, Vol. 374, Issue 11, May 3, 1999, p. 94.


Anouilh, Jean, Ring Around the Moon, translated by Christopher Fry, Oxford University Press, 1950.

Archer, Marguerite, Jean Anouilh, Columbia University Press, 1971.

Della Fazia, Alba, Jean Anouilh, Twayne, 1969.

Falb, Lewis W., Jean Anouilh, Frederick Ungar, 1977.

Mclntyre, H. G., The Theatre of Jean Anouilh, Barnes and Noble, 1981.

Pronko, Leonard Cabell, The World of Jean Anouilh, University of California Press, 1961.


Chiari, Joseph, The Contemporary French Theatre: The Flight from Naturalism, Macmillan, 1959.

Chiari’s text charts the course of French theater from Naturalism to Realism to Theater of the Absurd.

Curtis, Anthony, New Developments in the French Theatre, Curtain Press, 1948.

Curtis’s subject, like Chiari’s, charts varied approaches toward achieving realistic theater.

Grossvogel, David I., The Self-Conscious Stage in Modern French Drama, Columbia University Press, 1958.

Grossvogel concentrates on psychological aspects of late nineteenth and early twentieth century French theater.

Kuritz, Paul, The Making of Theatre History, Prentice Hall, 1988.

Kuritz’s ambitious study encompasses Asian and Occidental theater. The book is organized according to time period beginning with ancient Greek Theater and proceeding to the present.