We are capsizing in banality: A humanist reading of “L’École du diable”
Appeared in the Vassar Critical Journal (2018)
Written by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, “L’École du diable” is a one-act play, or saynète, which was created expressly for a soirée hosted by Amnesty International in late 1996. Given that it was written at the turn of the century with the audience of a human rights organization in mind, “L’École du diable” takes its inspiration equally from humanist philosophy and looming twenty-first century anxieties, seeking to understand mankind’s relations with itself and God in a new, modern age. The play itself depicts a characterization of the Devil, who, having failed to reach his annual quota of wars, famine, and torture, has fallen into the throes of deep melancholy. His advisory council struggles to invent new ways to torment the Earth, until the perfect solution presents itself—if the Devil himself is no longer spoken of, then human beings will devise even more diabolical ways to evade culpability for their own sins, ultimately lending to their own self-destruction. Schmitt employs jarring thematic contrasts to represent a moment in time suspended between two epochs by juxtaposing the ancient and the modern, suffering and humor, and the diabolic and the human. In effect, the superficially comedic “L’École du diable” is capable of contending with a provocative philosophical question: when humans no longer have a scapegoat for their own sins, where will they turn next?
The stark contrast that Schmitt employs between tradition and progress, the old and the new, is evident from the first stage directions of the play. The reader is immersed in a cave-like world of “ténèbres” where the eerie sounds of “gouttes semblent suinter et tomber de murs qu’on ne voit pas”. It is clear that this natural milieu is likely not suitable for advanced life, until a door slams, unexpectedly, “en sonnant comme des glas”. Not only would a live audience be surprised to hear signs of life in this place, but a reader in particular might find the stage directions’ use of the word “glas”, heavy with funereal connotation, suspicious. Despite its association with religious practice, the cave is not a place of worship for the divine—its dark and subterranean characterization suggests that it is rather a home of something more evil. After the initial sound of the door, the stage directions continue, evoking the sounds of steps “sur un sol humide et métallique ; ils se répercutent en hauts échos le long d’une cathédrale d’acier.” The contrast between earthen ground and metallic reverberations transform the once uninhabitable cave into a confusing and contradictory setting where life can evidently flourish. It is a place of antiquity and of modern development, two opposite poles connected by the common thread of religion. Religion, not unlike the robust and resistant bacteria that have survived for tens of thousands of years in caves, has also remained a fixture of humanity nearly as long as the bacteria themselves, enduring throughout the changing eras of mankind.
The characterization of this play also underscores the leitmotif of the contrast between ancient and new. Despite the sound of footsteps and evidence of life in this cave, the reader or audience member is left to guess at who, or what, is the inhabitant of this subterranean world—until two characters, the Butler and the Doctor, step wordlessly onto the stage. The first glimpse of human (or humanlike) life in the play presents another bifurcation of the old and the new—while the Butler embodies antiquated tradition dating back to the Bible itself, the Doctor represents progress, evolution, and distance from strictly religious belief. The way in which each character enters the scene is not insignificant—one arrives from stage left and the other from stage right, and they eventually join in the center of the stage. Like the mélange of the old and the new in the play’s set design, these characters provide a living compromise between tradition and progress, physically represented in the way they approach one another and originate from polar sides of the stage. When they, as well as other characters in the play, finally speak, much of their dialogue is centered on the enduring struggle between stagnation and progress. It is their express purpose to assist the Devil in the proliferation of evil across the world, whether by their Old Testament methods of famine and drought, or by the grace of technological advancement and scientific development. The stark contrast of the characters and their respective philosophies thus heightens the narrative tension and gives way to a broader philosophical critique of the roles of tradition and progress in a modern world.
This play’s attention to the interplay of tradition and progress is evident not only in its tangible setting—which contrasts stone with metal, and life with uninhabitable spaces—or in its characterization of ancient and modern characters—most notably, the Doctor and the Butler—but in its allusion to literary and philosophical theory as well. In Plato’s Republic, the Socratic dialogue of “The Allegory of the Cave” depicts men imprisoned in a cave, whose fixation on the dancing shadows in front of them instead of reality itself exposes the constraints of mankind’s access to a higher truth. Also set in the metaphorically-rich milieu of the cave, “L’École du diable” seeks to answer the same questions posed by Plato, and this enduring philosophical predicament becomes central to the play’s meaning. If the shadows of the past are singularly fixated upon—whether in a religious, philosophical, or political sense—then reality becomes obscured and progress becomes obstructed. More specifically, Schmitt uses Plato’s epistemological allegory to pose a difficult question—to what extent is adhering to tradition in a modern age inhibiting progress? Having débuted in late 1996, this play’s concern with how to manage the symbiosis of antiquity and modernity reflects the collective anxiety of a world about to plunge into a new era.
Although “L’École du diable” contends with human suffering and mankind’s complicity in its own demise, Schmitt manages to balance this grimness with humor. Suffering, a mechanism which drives the play’s satiric commentary, is most notably evident in the character of the Devil, a pitiable demon weighed down by his responsibility to spread evil throughout the world. Even before his character is introduced, the play’s first lines of dialogue diagnose the Devil—despite him having no heartbeat—with depression, a prognosis caused by the stagnation of earthly evil. The Devil himself is “cassé par la douleur”, his character physically afflicted by the absence of others’ pain. Characterized by existential ramblings—“Nous clapotons dans la banalité, je m’enslise, j’étouffe”—this melodramatic Devil defies the Biblical tradition of the Devil as a wily seducer or Prince of Darkness. Rather, he’s feeble and depressed, a product of turn-of-the-century nostalgia and hesitancy for the brave new world promised by a new epoch. Furthermore, despite the fact that this Devil is responsible for all of mankind’s woes, from “maladies mortelles” and “famine” to “prisons [qui] sont pleins” and “la peine de mort [qui] triomphe” (234), he is presented as being stunningly sympathetic. Given that the Devil is more often used as a cautionary tale than comic relief, this particular satiric characterization of Satan appears unorthodox and serves as a stark contrast to the human suffering discussed so casually in the play. The Devil’s humorous suffering is characterized primarily by short, despairing sentences—“Il n’y a plus d’avenir pour nous. Le mal est fini.”—and familiar exclamations—“Foutaises !”. Even the stage directions encourage a light interpretation of the Devil, suggesting that the most despised biblical figure himself is capable of feeling “maussade” or “gêné” (241). This comic, and even sympathetic depiction of the Devil runs parallel to that of the Devil in La Comédie du Diable, published by Honoré de Balzac in 1830. Balzac’s Devil, also “visiblement distrait et ennuyé” at the state of affairs, decides to conjure evil in a new way—through theater.
While the Devil’s suffering is the fulcrum of the satirical play, the comical supporting characters discuss the pain of the world in dialogue that verges on absurdity, thus heightening the striking contrast of humor and pain in the text. In the beginning of the play, the Butler and the Doctor muse over the root of their diabolic overlord’s melancholy. The Butler unfurls a massive scroll and reads sans irony a neatly-compiled and updated list of all of the earthly horrors currently tormenting mankind. The stage directions note that the act of consulting these ghastly statistics is meant to “donner plus de poids à ses dires” (234). By enumerating human suffering, the Butler effectively dismisses the Devil’s own pain. He reads, “Nous avons actuellement plus de quinze guerres sur le globe...un bon million de situations tendues qui font plusieurs morts et quelques blesses graves par mois; trois tremblements de terre; deux cyclones,” and continues until nearly every natural disaster, war, and violence imaginable has been exhausted. Ironically, the Butler concludes by crying, “Je ne vois vraiment pas ce qui pourrait le déprimer !” (235). The violence of the human world, however, is not the source of the Devil’s pain—rather, it is his failure to traumatize mankind in new ways that drives his misery. It’s a striking and ironic moment in the play. Despite the fact that the Devil, a wholly inhuman creature, derives his pleasure from human suffering, he is ultimately incapable of escaping the very human experience of depression. By fretting over the Devil, the supporting characters of the Butler and the Doctor effectively highlight the irony of the situation, ultimately serving to heighten the absurdity of the play’s contrast between humor and pain.
In effect, the whole of the play adopts a light and satirical tone, despite its philosophical discussion of human suffering. Schmitt’s imagination of hell—where the Devil is overcome by sadness and his servants struggle to understand why anyone could be sad when all of mankind is suffering—is a humorous interpretation of the traditionally diabolic underworld. Perhaps the most comedic element is the notion that the biblical conception of evil, the root of man’s original sin, is no longer as frightening as it once was, at least in the late 1990s. Rather, it has become redundant and predictable, each war or famine like the last, and the only way to keep it relevant going into the twenty-first century is by enlisting the help of three strategic brand managers, Agaliarept, Sargatans and Nebiros. This diabolic trio defies the Butler’s antiquated principles, suggesting instead that in order to proliferate evil, they must “changer leur [les humains] regard sur le mal” (237) by suggesting that the Devil himself must no longer be spoken of. The playwright’s comedic conception of a hell struggling to remain relevant in modern times adds to the paradoxical humor of the depressed Devil, balancing the gravity of the piece with equal amounts of humor.
While “L’École du diable” is a play that functions in contrasts, the distinction between what is diabolic and what is human is increasingly blurred over the course of the story. The story commences in a milieu that is simultaneously human and uninhabitable, a mélange of steel and stalactites. The Devil himself is one part demonic and another part human—despite a raging temperature and no pulse, he is capable of experiencing the range of human emotion, from elation to despair, even in spite of his diabolic motives.
Despite the fact that the Devil takes responsibility for the propagation of evil and suffering, the strategies suggested by his three lieutenants rely on a total shift in mentality: “[I]l faut intervenir là où les homes ne nous attendant plus: dans leurs esprits” (237). They suggest that the first step is to remove his name from discourse surrounding evil and replace it with three systems of thought—idealism, pragmatism, and psychologism—by which mankind will seek to justify and minimize human culpability for evil. The first theory of idealism is one in which “le mal n’existe pas" (238). Idealism, explains Nebiros, allows for humans to pardon their follies—evil becomes minimized as nothing more than “une erreur de jugement, une peccadille” (238). If reality is nothing but an immaterial construct, then evil too must be fleeting and ephemeral. The second theory, pragmatism, is philosophically mutually exclusive to idealism, but equally threatens to minimize human culpability. Saragatan argues that it is “une théorie selon laquelle le mal n’est jamais qu’un moindre mal” (239). By refusing to acknowledge evil when a greater evil has been committed, man allows for horrors to go by unnoticed: “La froideur et l’absence de sentiments, chez les hommes, cela passe facilement pour l’éthique” (239). The dichotomy of idealism and pragmatism serves as evidence that humans remain cognitively capable of minimizing mankind’s evil, even if their philosophical justification differs. The third theory of psychologism is Schmitt’s final critique of man’s pardoning of wrongdoing: this philosophy is “une théorie selon laquelle un mal n’est jamais volontaire, mais provient d’un ailleurs non humain” (239). This final tenet of the lieutenants’ plan is the most provocative—if even the human subconscious is freed from culpability, then men have discovered a way to evade responsibility entirely for their misdeeds. The three modifications to the human psyche, as proposed by the lieutenants of hell, then ultimately serve as a replacement for the Devil. If man can invent new ways to avoid evil, then evil can continue to fester and poison humanity. In short, man’s disavowal of culpability—“Jamais coupable. Jamais responsable.”—is another form of escapism, a frame of mind even more diabolic than the Devil himself. If man allows his own shortcomings to be a scapegoat for the evil previously blamed on the Devil, then evil will propagate into the next century and beyond.
These new forms of diabolism are housed, fittingly, in the bodies of three cherubic infants. While neither the Devil, nor the other servants in Hell, are expressly described as appearing more or less human or demonic, the apparent humanity—and even divinity—of these three children is crucial to their assimilation on earth. They are taken by the ferryman Caron to transport them from Hell to the world of the living in a “voyage à l’envers” (241). Caron is an allusion to Charon, the mythological Greek figure who serves under Hades to transport the newly-deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron to the world of the dead. This reversal of mythology, in which Caron takes creatures of Hell to the world of the living, is an unprecedented transgression of order, and by introducing the children to mankind, the once-disparate categories of diabolic and human are effectively indistinguishable. This is the point that Schmitt built up to throughout the entirety of the play: the moment that the Devil disappears as the sole scapegoat of evil, it is humans who must necessarily be culpable for their own sins. “L’École du diable” culminates in the final words of the Butler to the Doctor. Asked what the children could bring to Earth that could possibly be more dangerous than anything invented before, the Butler pauses and replies, “Des penseurs” (242). This provocative conclusion complicates the entirety of the play. On one hand, the philosophical reasoning used by men—represented by the three children—to escape their own culpability is utterly dangerous and poses a threat to mankind. On the other hand, thought that is critical and honest will shake the foundations of humanity’s presuppositions about their own capacity for evil. Schmitt thus poses a complicated paradox: if humans are necessarily culpable for their own evil, they are equally responsible for ridding the world of it.
“L’École du diable” effectively transgresses the traditional role of the Devil as the antithesis of holiness as a means to critique the flaws of human philosophy and religion, which the play gently suggests serve frequently to minimize human culpability. The nearly sympathetic figure of the Devil has become a leitmotif of modern literature and theater, and Schmitt employs this character to come to the humanist conclusion that humanity itself is solely responsible for its pain as well as its joy, and that the Devil is nothing but a construct through which we relieve ourselves of blame. Historically, the piece having been written on the precipice of the twenty-first century explains its preoccupation with an unknown future, as well as its attention to the juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity, suffering and humor, and the human and the diabolic. This blurring of ideological borders is provocative and forces the reader or audience member to reconsider their preconceived notions of good and evil. The children who transport idealism, pragmatism, and psychologism to earth are physically indistinguishable from men, and evil is thus detached from original sin or diabolic escapades. From war to famine, the evil of the twenty-first century is a creation of mankind—and perhaps it has always been.
Balzac, Honoré de. The Human Comedy. P.F. Collier, 1893.
Plato. The Republic. Harvard University Press, 2013.
Schmitt, Eric-Emmanuel. “L’École du diable.” Théâtre, 2013.