Tuesday, February 12, 2013

HATER: The Playwright

Jean-Baptise Poquelin was born in 1622 to a prominent Parisian family. His father was the King’s upholsterer. As a young man he set up a theatrical troupe that performed in an abandoned tennis court. After a couple of years the troupe went bankrupt, and Jean-Baptise, unable to pay its debts, was sent to prison. When his father paid what he owed and got him out, he disappeared forever.

 In fact he became an actor touring the French provinces, under the stage name of Moliere.

 As Moliere, he acted in French provincial towns for the next 13 years. While based in Lyon, he was fascinated by companies from Italy performing Commedia dell’Arte.

 He returned to Paris in 1658, where court theatre was strictly formal and based on classical models. But he had the good fortune to arrive early in the reign of a new King who liked to laugh. With the patronage of the Duke of Orleans, Moliere brought his new company to perform before the king. The classical tragedy performed first was received politely. But the farce that Moliere staged next was the hit of the evening.

 Thanks in part to the funnybone of King Louis XIV, Moliere survived and triumphed with his comedies, though they were always controversial for their satirical attacks on Parisian pretensions. His mocked the hypocrisy of marriage in The School for Husbands and The School for Wives. He took on clerical and upper class hypocrisy in Tartuffe (which was banned for a time) and the pretensions of medicine in The Doctor Despite Himself. The amoral morass of the wealthy upper class was his target in The Miser.

 During his 14 years in Paris, Moliere often acted in his own plays. In 1673, he starred in the Imaginary Invalid about a hypochondriac, and performed his famous coughing fits. But this time they were real. After coughing up blood on stage, he finished the performance, but died later that night. He was a victim of pulmonary tuberculosis, perhaps contracted when he was imprisoned as a young man. He was 51.

 Moliere wrote and produced The Misanthrope in 1666. Widely considered his best play, this first production was a commercial failure. It is known as a departure from farces (and Commedia dell’Arte) that depend on stock characters and action. The story progresses by the revelation of character and off-stage events rather than disguises and mistaken identities, comic coincidences and confrontations, and other conventions.

 “Misanthrope”—from the Greek words meaning “one who hates mankind”—was a fairly new word in Moliere’s time (its use dates from 1650.) In Moliere’s play, Alceste is cursed by the inability to say anything other than what he actually thinks and feels. Does this make him a fool or a hero?  French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau felt he was a hero, and complained that he was always played as a fool.

 Should Alceste be admired for his honesty and perceptiveness? Or should he be mocked for being unrealistic, narcissistic and impractical? That the play offers evidence for both points of view is perhaps one reason it has endured.

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