Home > French Literature, Molière, Theatre > The School for Wives by Molière.

The School for Wives by Molière.

L’école des femmes by Molière. 1662. The School for Wives.

L_ecole_des_femmes_001_image_article_detailleI’ve seen a brilliant production of The School for Wives by Molière, directed by Jean Liermier and I can’t wait to share this with you. It’s a play I’d never read and the French title misled me. When I heard L’école des femmes, I thought The School for Women as in French we only have one word for woman and wife. I assumed it was something about educated women like in The Learned Ladies. Not at all.

The main character of this play is Arnolphe. He’s a middle aged bourgeois, a rich merchant. He recently changed his name into de la Souche, to give it a noble resonance. Arnolphe is a bachelor and his greatest fear in life is to be married to an unfaithful wife. He abundantly made fun of husbands among his acquaintances when they were unfortunate cuckolds.

Arnolphe is now ready to settle down and his friend Chrysalde warns him against the risk of ridicule if his wife eventually deceive him. Arnolphe then exposes his plan: he took the young Agnes away from her peasant family, had her raised in a convent and now keeps her in a separate house until he marries her. He made sure that she’s as stupid as possible as he doesn’t care for an intelligent wife. Quite the contrary. His assumption is that a silly wife will be less tempted to flirt and betray him. So Agnes is naïve, so ignorant that she recently asked whether babies are born in a woman’s ear. Arnolphe is more than delighted by her stupidity.

When Arnolphe comes home to see her, he stumbles upon Horace, one of his friends’ son. The young Horace doesn’t’ know that Arnolphe is now M. de la Souche and he tells Arnolphe that he’s madly in love with Agnes and that she returns his affections. Arnolphe is devastated and confronts Agnes. She has met Horace quite innocently and relates the origin of their acquaintance. He flirted with her, sent a messenger to win her heart with sweet paroles:

Agnès. “Have I wounded any one? ” I answered, quite astonished. “Yes,” she said, “wounded; you have indeed wounded a gentleman. It is him you saw yesterday from the balcony. ” “Alas!” said I, “what could have been the cause? Did I, without thinking, let anything fall on him? ” “No,” replied she; “it was your eyes which gave the fatal blow; from their glances came all his injury.” “Alas! good Heaven, ” said I, “I am more than ever surprised. Do my eyes contain something bad, that they can give it to other people? ” “Yes,” cried she, “your eyes, my girl, have a poison to hurt withal, of which you know nothing. In a word, the poor fellow pines away; and if ” continued the charitable old woman, “your cruelty refuses him assistance, it is likely he shall be carried to his grave in a couple of days. ” “Bless me!” said I, “I would be very sorry for that; but what assistance does he require of me?” “My child,” said she, “he requests only the happiness of seeing and conversing with you. Your eyes alone can prevent his ruin, and cure the disease they have caused.” “Oh! gladly,” said I; “and, since it is so, he may come to see me here as often as he likes.’’

Arnolphe(aside). O cursed witch! poisoner of souls! may hell reward your charitable tricks!

Agnès. That is how he came to see me, and got cured. Now tell me, frankly, if I was not right? And could I, after all, have the conscience to let him die for lack of aid?—I, who feel so much pity for suffering people, and cannot see a chicken die without weeping!

Agnes is so ignorant of all worldly manners that she doesn’t catch the figurative meaning of words and takes everything literally. How can she not rescue a poor man who’s dying because her looks almost killed him? Poor Arnolphe is now the victim of his own scheme.  He raised her to be stupid; she behaves accordingly and with such a perfect honesty that he can’t complain. Agnes falls in love with Horace. Like any adolescent, she discovers love and desire. She rebels against Arnolphe and is unhappy to be so uneducated. She resents Arnolphe for keeping her away from the world. He wanted to play God, to be Prometheus and it didn’t work.

Molière is a brilliant playwright, very accessible. He mocks everyone. Arnolphe is ridiculous is his attempt to create his perfect wife. However he loves Agnes and I felt compassion for him and his unrequited love. There are memorable passages about Arnolphe’s vision of women and marriage.

“The Maxims of Marriage; or the Duties of a Wife; together with her Daily Exercise.

First Maxim. “She who is honourably wed should remember, notwithstanding the fashion now-a-days, that the man who marries does not take a wife for anyone but himself.’’

(…)

Second Maxim. “She ought not to bedeck herself more than her husband likes. The care of her beauty concerns him alone; and if others think her plain, that must go for nothing.

Third Maxim. “Far from her be the study of ogling, washes, paints, pomatums, and the thousand preparations for a good complexion. These are ever fatal poisons to honour; and the pains bestowed to look beautiful are seldom taken for a husband.”

Fourth Maxim. “When she goes out, she should conceal the glances of her eyes beneath her hood, as honour requires; for in order to please her husband rightly, she should please none else.”

Fifth Maxim. “It is fit that she receive none but those who visit her husband. The gallants that have no business but with the wife, are not agreeable to the husband.”

Sixth Maxim. “She must firmly refuse presents from men, for in these days nothing is given for nothing.”

Seventh Maxim. “Amongst her furniture, however she dislikes it, there must be neither writing-desk, ink, paper, nor pens. According to all good rules everything written in the house should be written by the husband.”

Eighth Maxim. “Those disorderly meetings, called social gatherings, ever corrupt the minds of women. It is good policy to forbid them; for there they conspire against the poor husbands.”

Ninth Maxim. “Every woman who wishes to preserve her honour should abstain from gambling as a plague; for play is very seductive, and often drives a woman to put down her last stake.”

Tenth Maxim. “She must not venture on public promenades nor picnics; for wise men are of opinion that it is always the husband who pays for such treats.”

The audience – full of teenagers as this play is studied in school –guffawed at the words. Heartily. This sounded so ridiculous. I’m glad French men find it funny and improbable. However, I thought about the film Wadjda directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour from Saudi-Arabia and I recalled that Wadjda wouldn’t find this so funny but rather close to her everyday life.

I love Molière because he’s always an advocate of moderation. He makes fun of  Arnolphe in this play and of learned ladies in another one. He shows his contemporaries that ignorance isn’t a solution; only balance can be a viable path. In the end, Arnolphe hurts someone to save himself from a potential ridicule, for honour’s sake. Chrysalde tells a great speech about how to react when your wife cheats on you. To make a long story short: shrug it off. I’m not saying I approve of it but this might explain when the French are rather relaxed about extra-marital affairs. It’s a personal matter and the betrayed partner is the only person entitled to assess the importance of the affair on their relationship. From outside, nobody will judge the cheating partner the same way as they would judge them for being a thief.

In this play, Molière speaks directly to the cuckolds in the audience, which is unusual for him and it initiated laughter across the room. The production was excellent, timeless. The clothes were nice, each character wearing a coherent ensemble and yet they were hard to attach to a century or another. It was a patchwork of fashions across the centuries without looking like a weird costume.

Jean Liermier gave a comical and lively pace to this play. I forgot the alexandrins and the text is rather neutral regarding contemporary references like living in a kingdom or driving carriages. It highlighted the universal themes of the text. To picture Agnes’s isolated house, the director chose to build a house in a tree. I thought it was an excellent idea. Agnes was above the ground, kept prisoner in her wooden cabin. It gave the play the eternity of a fairytale, it reminded me of Rapunzel, kept in her tower. I also thought about Oedipus who stayed away to avoid fate, all in vain. Myths and fairy tales tell us it’s useless to try to protect someone from life.

An excellent time in the theatre.

  1. April 27, 2013 at 12:49 am

    Molière’s is difficult for the non-French speaker. As are the great 17th century tragedians – Corneille and Racine. For their plays just don’t work in English. And for that reason, they are rarely performed in the UK. While there is no shortage of productions of works by Ibsen, Strindberg., Chekhov – or even the classic Greek dramatists – Molière, Corneille & Racine are rarely performed. I think I really need to get beyond the broken French I currently peak, and learn the language properly. Reading your billet, I really want to get to know Molière, but I don’t think that’s possible without reading (or seeing) his plays in the original French.

    Actually, I *have* seen one uccessful performance of Molière in English: many, many years ago, Scottish come an Rikki Fulton played “L’Avare” in a BBC Scotand production. But he changed the setting to Scotland, and re-wrote many of the gags. No – there’s nothing fr it: I ave to learn French!

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    • April 27, 2013 at 8:26 am

      I don’t understand why Shakespeare would work in French and Molière wouldn’t work in English. Isn’t it more a question of translation and of habits? The quoted I added are from a free translation; more recent ones are probably better.

      I’m not a specialist of Shakespeare but I think Molière is more subversive. After all, he makes fun of Pharisees (Tartuffe), snobs (The Learned Ladies, The Bourgeois Gentleman), of curmudgeons (The Miser), of doctors (The Imaginary Invalid) Don Juan is something else, questioning religion. Wasn’t he too subversive for Victorian society and thus not played in theaters? (For example, there are direct references to sex in The School of Wives)

      The Misanthrope is extremely modern, questioning the faith in other humans and the temptation to stay by oneself when they’re too disappointing. It also addresses the issue of social rules: do I have to comply with social rules and if I don’t want to put up with the white lies accompanying politeness, do I have to live like a hermit?

      Take marriage. When I read The Taming of the Shrew, I thought that some passages had not aged well and I didn’t manage to see how they could apply to our modern world. Perhaps it’s my being French that made me miss the innuendos, but if I saw the comedy in the text, I had the impression it was meant to be a literal comedy. It’s not the case in The School for Wives or The Learned Ladies. There are theatrical tricks that make it funny in a vaudeville sense of funny but the text has a subtle humor and a way to mock every character that go pass the vaudeville. I think it’s that subtle humor, that indirect way to tell the audience that Molière himself doesn’t believe in his characters’ arguments and the timeless observation of the human heart that appeal to contemporary spectators. I remember, in school, even non-readers enjoyed Molière. That’s his strength.

      Anyway, I can only encourage you to learn French.

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  2. April 27, 2013 at 1:42 am

    Though I have not seen or read this I love thinkers who advocate moderation.

    Himadri’s comment about this not working in English is all the more encouragement to cooperate with my wife as she attempts to teach me French.

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    • April 27, 2013 at 8:29 am

      Are you creating an “improving my French” work group with Himadri and Guy?

      I think I saw bilingual editions of Moliere’s plays online. That could be a great solution.

      I realize that most of the regular readers of my blog speak French.

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  3. April 28, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    This sounds like such an excellent production. I’m sure I would have liked it as well.
    I have read and seen other plays by Molière but not this.
    I’m very surprised by Himadri’s comment. I never thought the three great paylwrights wouldn’t work in English. Too bad really.
    I wonder if Molière is really more subversive. I find he is more accessible and maybe more down-to-earth than Shakespeare.

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    • April 28, 2013 at 10:42 pm

      It was an excellent production.
      In the program I received at the theatre, they say that this play was re-discovered by Jouvet in 1936.

      I hope Himadri will reply because I don’t know why Molière couldn’t work well in English.

      I think he’s subversive because he really mocks his contenporaries. The characters he portrays exist in every society (after all, The Miser is based on a play by Plaute). But perhaps I don’t have enough knowledge of the history of England and of its society to perceive how subversive Shakespeare is.
      For me, Shakespeare is in the middle between Molière and Corneille/Racine. More into deep questionning than Molière but not only that, contrary to Corneille/Racine. For example, the question of avenging someone with blood is not in Molière’s repertoire whereas it is both in Shakespeare’s and Corneille/Racine’s.

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  4. April 28, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I’ve seen this in a wonderful production. I remember finding it really very funny. Well Moliere is a favourite.

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    • April 28, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      Glad to hear that good productions of his work are available for the English-speaking public.

      Like

  5. David Nicholson
    April 28, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    Molière is, in fact, often produced in English translation around the world. My own translation of Tartuffe is faithful to the original save in one respect: it’s written in prose instead of verse (a “robust prose translation” one reviewer called it) – it’s accessible without being ‘dumbed down.’ I couldn’t be more pleased with how well it has worked in both modern and period dress.

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    • April 28, 2013 at 10:50 pm

      Hello,
      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      I’m glad Tartuffe is plays abroad. It’s an excellent play and it won’t age as long as there will be religions.
      I like that he doesn’t mock faith or spirituality but only the excesses of too devout (and hypocrit) people.

      I have translations of Shakespeare in prose instead of verses; it works well, I suppose it’s the same for Molière in English. I think it’s a good idea to change alexandrins in prose for the translation. Oddly, in the original Molière’s alexandrins sound more natural that Corneille’s, for example. After a while, you really forget it’s in verses. Is is the same for you with iambic pentameters?

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      • David Nicholson
        April 28, 2013 at 11:40 pm

        I think it all depends on how it’s played, Emma. I’ve seen Molière productions in French where the alexandrins are spoken in too ‘sing-songy’ a manner and some where they’re delightful. It’s the same with Shakespeare in English.

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        • April 29, 2013 at 8:34 pm

          I guess you’re right, it depends on the actors and the director. The only Shakespeare I’ve seen in English is Macbeth and it was fantastic.

          Like

  1. May 30, 2013 at 9:44 pm

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