Moliere Comedies

Moliere Comedies - Moliere Moliere has long been on my to-read list because his comedies were on a list of "100 Significant Books" I was determined to read through. The introduction in one of the books of his plays says that of his "thirty-two comedies... a good third are among the comic masterpieces of world literature." The plays are surprisingly accessible and amusing, even if by and large they strike me as frothy and light compared to comedies by Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw and Rostand. But I may be at a disadvantage. I'm a native New Yorker, and looking back it's amazing how many classic plays I've seen on stage, plenty I've seen in filmed adaptation and many I've studied in school. Yet I've never encountered Moliere before this. Several productions of Shakespeare live and filmed are definitely responsible for my love of his plays. Reading a play is really no substitute for seeing it--the text is only scaffolding. So that might be why I don't rate these plays higher. I admit I also found Wilbur's much recommended translation off-putting at first. The format of rhyming couplets seemed sing-song and trite, as if I was reading the lyrics to a musical rather than a play. As I read more I did get used to that form, but I do suspect these are the kinds of works that play much better on stage than on the page. The Pretentious Young Ladies (Les Précieuses ridicules) - is a one-act satire about two girls who are taken in by their own social pretensions and made ridiculous. This is an early work, and especially having read before this such works by Moliere as The Misanthrope and Tartuffe this comes across as rather slight. The School for Husbands (L'École des maris) - has a similar plot to The School for Wives but isn't nearly as good, although still amusing. It has many of the stock elements of Moliere's comedies. In this case, Sganarelle, a foolish and tyrannical man of middle age, is determined to keep his ward Isabelle isolated and restricted and force her to marry him. I thought a particularly nice touch was the device the young lovers used to fool Sganarelle and make him their inadvertent go-between. The School for Wives (L'École des femmes) - The introduction calls it a "burlesque tragedy" for how the hopes and pretensions of the prospective husband Arnolphe are smashed. He's groomed his foster daughter Agnes to be his wife from age four, sending her to a convent to be kept docile and ignorant. He says that "to say her prayers, love me, spin and sew" is all she needs to learn, and he's disappointed that she learned to read and write. The way Agnes grows out of her simplicity and outwits Arnolphe made me think of this as a kind of anti-Taming of the Shrew. In this one the woman becomes very much un-tamed. The Critique of the School for Wives and The Versailles Impromptu - Apparently The School for Wives attracted quite a few detractors. Another man faced with such a response might publish essays defending himself--Moliere instead wrote and produced two One-Act plays on the subject. In The Critique Moliere has characters representing his critics argue with a character that defends his play and in the course of which defends the ordinary theater-goer and the genre of comedy--it's an "accomplishment to make people laugh" and his purpose is "to please." The Versailles Impromptu features Moliere and his company playing themselves and showing them rehearsing, and features a "play-within-a-play." Tartuffe - of the five Moliere plays I now have read, this one, about over-religiosity and hypocrisy is my favorite. The title character Tartuffe is a conman who prays on the religious sensibility and man-crush of his patron Orgon. The scene in particular where Orgon responds to reports of his wife's illness by repeatedly asking, "But what about Tartuffe" nearly had me laughing out loud. The character of the pert and shrewd lady's maid Dorine is particularly delightful. Don Juan or The Stone Guest - although it has comic elements doesn't strike me as a comedy. The whole plot reminded me very strongly of Mozart's Don Giovanni on the subject with very similar characters. There's a Donna Elvire, a Commandant Don Juan kills whose statue he invites to supper, and Charlotte reminds me quite a bit of Zerlina. It did think funny this bit of business where Don Juan plays off two lovers against the other. What I didn't particularly care for in Donald Frame's translation was his attempt to suggest different dialects by making Spanish peasants sound like characters out of Mark Twain with Pierrot using phrases such as "Doggone it!" Misanthrope - this was the first Moliere play I ever read, and arguably the most famous of all his plays. The introduction in what might seem an oxymoron calls it a comic King Lear, and I can see that side of it. As comic as this might read, it is basically a tragedy about the young man Alceste, the "misanthrope" of the play, who makes such a fetish of always being honest he alienates everyone around him. The character I enjoyed the most was definitely the malicious Arsinoe who plays the prude. The catty scenes between her and Alceste's love Celimene is particularly hilarious. The Doctor in Spite of Himself (Le Médecin malgré lui) - involves a trick played by a wife on her husband Sgaranelle that causes him to be mistaken for a doctor who then undertakes to continue the impersonation. As with almost all the other plays by Moliere I read this then involves tricking tyrannical parents into letting young love take its course. This strikes me even on the page as pretty slapstick and I think would do better in performance than it reads. Even on the pages it's often amusing and I can understand why this is Moliere's second most staged play after Tartuffe. The Miser - by now after reading almost a dozen plays by Moliere, I can see the formula. A foolish tyrannical parent develops a mania that causes him to endanger his family's welfare, bring himself to the brink of ruin and involves him in trying to arrange marriages for his offspring they very much oppose. In this case Harpagon's mania is for money--which he values far above his own family. His monologue about his money-box is memorable and funny, and the play has some wonderful comic characters--Frosine was a particular favorite. I wasn't fond of the denouement with its piled up coincidences, but it might be one of those things that plays better than it reads. The Would-be Gentleman (Le Bourgeois gentilhomme) - in this play the mania displayed by Monseiur Jourdain is to become the social equal of the nobility. He's determined to marry off his daughter to one, to make one his mistress, and "dying to be learned" he's hired teachers in music, dancing, fencing and a philosopher. From whom he famously learns that he's been "talking prose for over forty years without knowing it." It's a very witty and amusing play. The Mischievous Machinations of Scapin (Les Fourberies de Scapin) - Scapin is described in the listing of characters as a "trickster." He's a servant but a master manipulator and schemer in the tradition of Figaro. Otherwise the play is very much along the usual lines with Moliere, with tyrannical parents determined to make their children marry against their wishes. And, well, as one of the characters, Hyacinthe, notes: O Heavens! What a lot of extraordinary coincidences. The Learned Ladies (Les Femmes savantes) - On the surface this play that pokes fun at women with scholarly aspirations and pretensions to authority may seem misogynistic. But given my reading of other plays by Moliere, I think it just plays against the very idea of pretensions and deceptions--both of self and those of swindlers who target the gullible--and in defense of common sense over pedantry. In that sense it plays as the distaff version of Tartuffe, where its the male parent who is bamboozled and almost forces a daughter to wed a charlatan. And the daughter in Learned Ladies, Henriette, is among the more witty Moliere heroines. The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade imaginaire) - this was Moliere's last play--he died of the all-too real malady of tuberculosis within hours of performing the title character of the hypochondriac. That reminds me a bit of Jane Austen--whose last unfinished novel written while she was dying centered on hypochondriacs and quack cures. And I think that says a lot about the sense of humor of both writers. Argan is a great comic character--such a hopeless hypochondriac he tries to force his daughter to marry a doctor just to have one on call.