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Medievalist Existentialism and Emotional Ethics in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Useless Mouths

Speaker: Paul Megna (UWA)
Date: Friday 25 November 2016
Time: 1-2pm
Venue: Philippa Maddern Seminar Room (1.33, first floor, Arts Building), The University of Western Australia.
Enquiries: Dr Joanne McEwan (joanne.mcewan@uwa.edu.au)

First performed in 1944, Simone de Beauvoir’s first and only play, The Useless Mouths (Les bouches inutiles), is set in medieval Flanders in the fictional city-state of Vaucelles. Having revolted against the Dukes of Burgundy, the citizens of Vaucelles are under siege and slowly succumbing to starvation and despair at the play’s outset. At the climax of its first act, the Aldermen of Vaucelles decide to expel the eponymous ‘useless mouths’ – i.e., old men, women and children – condemning them to die so that the town’s dwindling stores of food might last until the King of France’s arrival in several months. During its second act, Beauvoir’s play grippingly explores the ethical implications of this horrible decision as they relate to existentialist themes of love, death, meaning, freedom and responsibility. Composed in Nazi-occupied Paris, The Useless Mouths belongs to the movement of ‘mythic theatre’, much of which covertly criticises the occupation by staging pertinent stories set in the distant past. Consequently, The Useless Mouths is most frequently interpreted as speaking to Beauvoir’s immediate historical moment. The play’s medievalism, however, is not simply a shrouding mechanism designed to skirt the Nazi censors. Indeed, her thoughtful engagement with medieval history is evidenced everywhere in The Useless Mouths – even its title refers to an actual term callously employed by besieged medieval subjects. My presentation will explore the intersection of medievalism, existentialism and identity politics in Beauvoir’s play, focusing on its portrayal of painful emotions including love, shame, fear and anguish.

Paul Megna received an MA in English from the University of Rochester and a PhD in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara where he wrote a dissertation on emotion and ethics in Middle English literature. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions at The University of Western Australia where he is developing a research project on emotion’s role in medieval drama. He has published articles in ExemplariaThe Yearbook of Langland Studies and PMLA.


Image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effeti del buon governo in città, 1338-1339. Siena, palazzo Pubblico. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.