From: Time Magazine, May 2, 1960
Duel of Angels (translated and adapted by Christopher Fry from the French of Jean Giraudoux) was the last play written before his death in 1944, by the wittily ironic, aromatically pessimistic author of The Madwoman of Chaillot and Tiger at the Gates. It is a suavely chill farewell —a glass of iced champagne held in almost as cold a hand. Called Pour Lucrece in French, it offers—in the Aix-en-Provence of 1868—variations on the old tale of the violated Roman matron who, after bidding her family avenge her, committed suicide. It opens in the best Giraudoux style of artificial high comedy. The ultra-pure wife of Aix’s overrighteous new judge, by cutting dead everyone involved in sexual intrigue, even the innocent, deceived mates, is rocking the town with scandal. When one decent husband’s eyes are opened, his affectionate if promiscuous wife harshly berates the prude. Then, drugging the virtuous lady, she plots with a procuress to make the lady believe that while unconscious she was violated by the town rake.
As the itself-violated Lucrèce theme sounds louder chords, as the pure lady bids the rake kill himself only for him to be killed in a duel, as the righteous judge rejects the wife he thinks was raped and she takes poison, rejecting life itself, Giraudoux’s artificial story remains scrupulously behind glass. But gusts of realistic rain or melodramatic sleet from time to time beat against it. Giraudoux cleverly lets his characters remark how tragedy is jostling farce, or drama is encroaching on comedy. But the play, as it plunges over rapids in which both men and women are hurt, and virtue and vice are drowned, is kept between banks by an ironic tone and wit. By the end, the champagne seems more like Pernod, and the last word—a kind of lament for women by way of lashing out at men—goes significantly to the procuress.
In this duel of attitudes, the play’s blood thins as its plot thickens, and what the evening yields as a whole is not so much a sharp intellectual meaning as a plaintively cynical mood. The old generalities repeat themselves: Must sensuality grow so coarse, or purity so prudish, or life itself so punishing? But if limited in vital substance, Duel of Angels has considerable style. Christopher Fry has conveyed Giraudoux’s gloved, sheathed, scented prose with great adroitness, and Roger Furse’s sets and Dior’s gowns enhance the provincially elegant atmosphere. If much of the acting is simply competent and Mary Ure in the difficult role of the pure woman suggests mere marble rather than flesh on which ice has formed, Vivien Leigh’s errant lady is conceivably the high point of her career.