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Theatre Review of a Christmas Classic – Harold and Maude

With the end of the Year festivities around the corner, the Circular reviewed a classical piece of theatre for you to read during this weird time between Christmas and the New Year.

The Circular reviewed the play while it was in Paris in November. The play also toured in England and should be coming to Dublin at the end of 2020.


“Harold and Maude” is an American play by Colin Higgins. This is the adaptation of the scenario of the American film Harold and Maude, made in 1971 by Hal Ashby, during which Colin Higgins was the screenwriter. After an adaptation into a novel, the author transcripted it into a play. The adaptation of the play in French was done by Jean-Claude Carrière in 1973.

This is the story of Harold Chasen, a 19-year-old young man with an overflowing and morbid imagination, who uses his free time to attend funerals, and stage suicides to catch his mother’s attention. Mrs Chasen is a strict woman, somewhat hysterical, whose goal in life is to find a wife for her son. But one day at a funeral, Harold meets Maude, a delightfully wacky octogenarian, unconventional and full of life. Everything changes for the young man. The old woman teaches him to love life through more bizarre experiences than others, and his peculiar attachment for the old woman soon turns into love.

First of all, a little bit about the two main characters, because Harold and Maude are the opposite image we have of lovers; they are the anti-Romeo and Juliet.                                                                                                                                  Countess Mathilda Chardin calls herself Maude. She is one week away from her eightieth birthday at the beginning of the play and lives alone in a small cottage. Of European origins, she spent her childhood in Austria. She married a certain Frederick before experiencing many hardships, including the experience of concentration camps during the Second World War.

She is described as an old lady with white hair, small. Her appearance contrasts with her atypical personality: she is an eccentric woman, unkind about conventions and resolutely optimistic. She has great freedom of mind which results in her seeing beauty in everything. She plays the role of an initiator for Harold. Very different from the other characters, and especially from Mrs Chasen, she allows him to get out of his nihilist attitude and shows him the treasures of life when detaching himself from the material world.

Harold Chasen is a 19-year-old American from a wealthy upper-middle-class family. He lives with his mother in a villa and does not remember his father, who died when he was a child but seems to have inherited a penchant for the absurd. He spends his days idle since he no longer goes to school (he set fire to the chemistry lab). His hobbies include attending funerals and contemplating destruction shows. But his favourite activity remains the staging of fake suicides: he spends long hours developing strategies to make them credible.

We do not have a precise physical description of the young man; we simply learn that he is tall and “charming”. He is visibly very intelligent (his mother claims he has a higher than average IQ), as proved by the treasures of imagination and refinement needed to execute his suicide simulations. Harold experiences a real morbid fascination, death becoming paradoxically his only reason for being in a world in which he cannot find his place. However, he is afraid of dying and does not admit death: his macabre stagings are childish and intended to make his mother respond, not very attentive and very busy, who does not devote any real attention to him.

In the second part, we will talk a little more about the absurdity of play.                                                                       “Harold and Maude” is a decidedly comic piece which explores every aspect of the register. We note, however, that the comic is mainly manifested through the use of the absurd. The absurd is a very high degree of the comic, it encompasses everything which is contrary to or escapes logic. Mrs Chasen’s characters (Harold’s mother) particularly embodies this notion of absurdity. The reader’s first encounter with Harold’s mother is revealing: as she realizes her son is hanged by the neck, she is not shocked (“Frankly, Harold, […] do you think that’s funny? “, p 10. His reactions are continually out of step with what the reader is entitled to expect. When she discovers, for example, Lifeless Golden Sunshine (one of Mrs Chasen’s prospect wife for her son) next to Harold, she simply says, “Harold! It was our last candidate!  p 115. But it is not the only protagonist to convey such a sense of the absurd, the sculptor Glaucus working the ice blocks and never succeeding in completing his works is another tasty example.

Colin Higgins’s foreshadowing in the writing of the play is brilliant. Because you know that Harold and Maude are going to end up together even if it defies our idea of a couple; but you also know that something bad is bound to happen, probably related to old age, …

“Harold and Maude” use the unusual relationship of the two main characters to propose a reflection on old age. Maude is a seventy-nine-year-old woman and is first referred to by Harold as “an old lady” p 19 and then as “an old lady with white hair” p 25. It is interesting to see how the young man’s perception changes: as soon as he gets to know her, Harold no longer seems to pay attention to his old age and considers it negligible: “Harold leaned towards her and took his hand, a wrinkled hand, covered in age spots. He covered her with his, then said, “You are beautiful. The reader, too, comes to forget that Maude is an old lady because she does not behave as such: she is more cheerful than the young man, she does not fall behind in the race etc. When they start a relationship, it seems natural to them, and neither of the two characters seem to see anything strange.

For her birthday, Harold showers Maude with surprises. Delighted, she makes this disturbing announcement: “I am happy, […] deeply happy. I could not imagine more wonderful goodbye.” When she reveals she has taken pills, Harold, in tears, calls an ambulance. At the hospital, Harold is helplessly watching an absurd scene pp. 148-149, as the intern does not seem to grasp the urgency of the situation and Maude remains resolutely gay. As they take her away, the old lady exclaims: “Farewell, Harold. I am on the way to a new experience. p 151 Harold is later told that she is dead. Crushed, he goes to Maude’s cottage and finds one last gift from his beloved: the keychain to open all the cars p 154. He drives up to a cliff and sends his hearse into the void, then leaves playing Maude’s song on his banjo p 155.

The exposition and the end scene are handled in a very similar way, except for the fact that in the end scene, the young man is transformed into a man. In the exposition scene, the audience is presented with Harold and his journey to life.  The end scene is a great paradox, the now man, is crushed by his sadness but finally in his way to “happy life”. Because hearts do mend, the audience is convinced to everything is going to be fine for him.

We believe this play to be a great coming of age piece, with a twist, …


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