Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Molière (1622-73)

[pseud. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]

Molière, re-imagined by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752)

You can easily read through Molière, mildly entertained, but thinking, how hackneyed all this is! When two people are at cross-purposes for pages at a time (e.g. Harpagon and Valère in Act V of L’avare), it seems a weak sort of entertainment, like a sitcom before the watershed. Then the sun shines, you feel a little more apt to join the human race, and all the jokes get deeper, they put down roots and extend into the play around them.

Scene from Tartuffe directed by Dominique Serrand, photo Michal Daniel 2006

Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur (1664, revised several times to 1669)

A famous play, but the text that grew out of its difficult history is rather a bodge. Orgon seems to impose on himself, and this utter stupidity distracts from Tartuffe's power. When we eventually meet Tartuffe he seems a bit dim himself, merely a snake in the grass. The main point of the drama, Tartuffe's deception of his host, is hardly dramatized.

"Tartuffe himself is a titanic creation, one who makes our own 'Heap of Infamy' seem by comparison a mere cringing shadow" (John Wood). Strange remark. I really have a problem with seeing Tartuffe as a titanic creation. A role that doesn't appear until Act III more or less cedes any claim to be a protagonist. All we see him as is a conventional seducer. His power as a hypocrite is known only indirectly, and deceives no-one but Orgon and his mother. (Wood's allusion dates him - he is referring to Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.)

[This is a useful free Tartuffe, with introduction by Roger W. Herzel, translation by Prudence L. Steiner.



Dom Juan: from the production by Compagnie Aigle de Sable, directed by Milena Vlach

Dom Juan (1665)

[Dona Elvira.] ... But be assured that your infidelity will not go unpunished, and that the Heaven you mock at will find means to avenge your perfidy to me!
Don Juan. Ah! Sganarelle, Heaven!
Sganarelle. Ay, ay, little we care for that! Fellows like us!

The story of Don Juan, unlike Dr Faustus perhaps, could never be other than disturbing to the orthodox. Its hero holds far too many cards, is unrepentant, courageous, a gentleman. Molière’s play was first cut, then discreetly banned, then restored in censored form, and the original cannot be fully recovered. The well-meaning Sganarelle is unable to articulate his beliefs or to persuade his master; his position and the play itself coerces him into a friendly companionship that partly depends on his own disapproval. Juan and Sganarelle are symbiotic, Juan ever outraging Sganarelle’s feelings (his outrage involving deep admiration), Sganarelle able to speak out yet always caring for his master and each giving the other a sense of who he is. Here Juan alludes gracefully to Sganarelle’s earlier sermon. Juan, by pitting himself against Heaven, makes Heaven more real, brings a little of it down to earth. His end is, perversely, saintly in its dedication, his earthly servant distressed and betrayed, not just about the wages but about their companionship. Sganarelle at last is to experience what it means to be abandoned by Juan. 

[Perhaps he sang "Days", the Ray Davies song that, like a perfectly-poised farewell card for miscellaneous occasions, remains in heart-piercing good taste no matter how you choose to understand the nature of its dear one and the dear one's departure.]

L’amour médecin (soon after Dom Juan)

Lisette. Oh, go on, you mustn’t let him have things all his own way. So long as a girl does nothing to be ashamed of she has a right to use her wits to get round her father. What does he expect you to do? Aren’t you of an age to be married? Does he think you’re made of marble? ...

L’amour médecin is a brief impromptu in three scenes, with music. Sganarelle (no connection with the previous play) is to find out what Lucinde, his daughter, is made of. When she feigns sickness the doctors are brought in. Their best moment is when, supposedly discussing the case, they discuss such professional matters as getting around Paris and the importance of not contradicting a senior. That’s only natural. As Dr Tomés says,

When a man’s dead he’s dead and that’s all it amounts to, but a point of etiquette neglected may seriously prejudice the welfare of the entire medical profession.

Death is indeed both the most serious thing and a nothing. Within the institution, you disable the user account and you recruit. Death comes sooner or later anyway. The doctors are there to manage it, not to eliminate it. In the mean time, Clitandre sallies in like the quack of all quacks and marries Lucinde under her father’s very nose. 

Jean Rochefort as Alceste in a French TV production of 1970 (Photo: Georges Chevrier / INA)

Le Misanthrope (1666)

Molière's serious comedy, in which Philinte has the positive values and
Alceste has painful ones, combined with a perverse infatuation for the delightful but distinctly unsuitable Célimène.

Le Misanthrope is a masterpiece, but is so unlike his other plays, or any other play of the period, that it gives us a sense of improvisation. It struck me that it's his Brat Pack thing, and also a bit like "The Only Way is Essex". Fly-on-the-wall is the right way to see life in Célimène's house, very splintered and unexplained, eg. those letters -we don't ever really find out who either of them is addressed to, or whether what anyone says about either of them is true. In this case observation of the unities creates a slice-of-life that is distinctively open-ended. So far as the play is a portrait of Generation X this all works out. But it leaves Alceste a bit out of the picture, and Philinte too.

Considering how tolerant Philinte is, his judgment of Célimène is a bit damning. He's jealous, don't you think? Philinte's sanity is attractive, but he doesn't get everything right. For instance he credits Arsinoé's virtue, but we see that she's an interfering old bat, even if we're also aware she doesn't quite deserve all the payback that Célimène delivers with such relish (and to our delight). Philinte is a bit too in with Eliante, who can also be sharp-tongued against her cousin. A sort of tacit distance lies between Philinte and Célimène. He is never the object of her satire. He never says anything exceptionable to her, but he listens to those who do. 

(If you think you'd do better with a less informal account, forget it. Wikipedia needs a step change on its canonical literature articles. I've seen two recently - one on "The Misanthrope", one on Joyce's "The Dead" - that seem to have been written at the back of the class by someone who didn't understand the story. Wikipedia's methods of cross-improvement based on certain ground-rules - e.g. full references, objectivity - don't apply well to literary interpretation. If someone thinks it worth while to tell us that Oronte's reaction to his sonnet being criticised reveals his low self-esteem, you can't exactly dispute it as not true; more that Oronte's character just isn't the point here. If someone claims that Gabriel fails at first to recognize his wife on the staircase - well, I feel perfectly certain that this isn't what Joyce means us to understand, but how could I objectively demonstrate it? In each case what is being revealed is that the writer isn't inward with the kind of work they're describing, not because they haven't read it but because they don't belong to the traditional literary community that the text in part projects and that in part has slowly developed through centuries of polite criticism. But is that wrong? Does one need to belong to some sort of informal club of informed readers, i.e. informed of what is loosely called the critical context, to be qualified to write the Wikipedia entry? It seems that that's in fact my level of expectation, but the grounds for it are open to question.)

Le Médecin Malgré Lui (1666)

Excellent farce, with a little too much domestic violence to be quite comfortable.

Le Sicilien, ou L'Amour Peintre (1667)


L’avare (1668)

Cléante. Confound it! What use is that to me?
La Flèche. Patience, please. ‘Item – three muskets, inlaid in mother-of-pearl, with three assorted rests; item – one brick furnace with two retorts and three flasks, very useful for anyone interested in distilling; item –‘
‘.... item – one crocodile skin three foot six inches in length and stuffed with hay, a very attractive curio for suspension from the ceiling...’
Cléante. ... The miserable rogue! Did you ever hear of such usury! Not content with charging outrageous interest, he must rook me three thousand francs for his collection of old junk...

The unnamed lender turns out to be Harpagon, Cléante’s father. Harpagon is far too comic, foolish and intelligent to be unlovable, and his relationship with his son, though they are always at loggerheads, is clearly a fond one. The liberating zest of the play (somewhat intermittent, it is true) consists of its treatment of both money and possessions as a social game, where personal peculiarities are to be observed, as in Valère’s wonderfully mealy-mouthed hypocrisies, and both truth and value are exposed as subjective. Cléante and Harpagon are in fact at one; money is worth much more as money than when translated into this alarming collection of things that someone else once thought well of.    

Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670)

M. Jourdain. The natural sciences? What have they to say for themselves?
Philosopher. Natural science explains the principles of natural phenomena, and the properties of matter; it is concerned with the nature of the elements, metals, minerals, precious stones, plants, and animals, and teaches us the causes of meteors, rainbows, will-o’-the-wisp, comets, lightning, thunder and thunderbolts, rain, snow, hail, tempests, and whirlwinds.
M. Jourdain. This is too much of a hullabaloo for me, too much of a rigmarole altogether.

This is from Act II (the first two Acts are like a sort of massive prelude to the intrigues that constitute the regular story). Jourdain is an idiot but his childlike naivety is often appealing. The distaste for natural science that he articulates so well is the same thing that makes John Aubrey, the English antiquary, defensive about his interests. The philosopher does a poor job of marketing – with the enthusiasm of the inward he overpowers Jourdain with a noisy catalogue of fascinations, and inevitably produces a “rigmarole”.

When the intrigues get going, the highpoint is during the dinner-party when Dorimène refers, very naturally, to her new diamond (Act IV). Dorante, the only person who fully knows what is going on, is momentarily not in control. Then the estimable Mme. Jourdain arrives. It’s a contrived situation, basically farcical, but at this moment Molière has four developed characters in motion at once. 

Les fourberies de Scapin (1671)

From Act I – Scapin has just entered for the first time, his character is being established:

Scapin. Well, to tell the truth, there isn’t much I can’t manage when I’m put to it... I had built up a pretty good reputation for that sort of thing, but it’s like everything else today – credit goes to anyone but those who have earned it! I got into trouble over a certain little matter, and since then I’ve sworn I’ll give it all up.
Octavio. What trouble was that?
Scapin. Just a case where the law and I didn’t see eye to eye.
Octavio. The law, was it?
Scapin. We had a bit of a difference.
Octavio. You and the law?
Scapin. Yes, they treated me badly. I was so disgusted with the way things are done nowadays, I made up my mind I’d do no more for anyone.

It sounds like one of Scapin’s dodges led to his nose being slit. Octavio’s re-iterated questions point up the mental contortions that Scapin has needed to make (and has automatically made) in order to survive being judged a criminal. The memory of these lines adds underlying steel to later scenes such as the blissful sequence of exchanges between Leander and Scapin in Act 2, with Scapin at one point proclaiming:

No, no! Don’t forgive me anything. Run your sword through my guts. I should be very glad if you would kill me.

Scapin is triumphant. He has learnt to lay his own life on the table, he even enjoys it.

Le Malade Imaginaire: Michel Bouquet as Argan

Le Malade Imaginaire (1673)

Brilliant full-length comedy-ballet, in which both doctors and patients are ridiculed.

(2005, 2011)

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