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Theatre : George Dandin by Molière

George Dandin by Molière (1668)

George Dandin is a play by Molière, created in 1668, the same year as L’Avare (The Miser) and Amphitryon. It’s a comedy about George Dandin, a rich peasant who married Angélique, the daughter of an impoverished gentleman, Monsieur de Sotenville. They wanted the match for the money, he wanted it to become a gentleman. It’s a miserable marriage for him because his parents-in-law despise him and Angélique was forced to marry him. They humiliate him any time they want and Angélique is being courted by a neighboring gentleman, Clitandre. He slips her love notes (billets doux!) through their respective servants, Claudine and Lubin. George Dandin learns about the affair and tries to make his parents-in-law aware of their daughter’s behavior but each time he tries, the tables are turned against him and it only results in more humiliation for him.

Molière wrote a comedy with a dark side that leaves no character unscathed.

Molière is not kind for Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. They are small nobility from the country, like the Bennets or the Lucas. They are ruined and their situation was dire enough to accept this marriage. They are insufferable snobs, they are sure that their linage and the good education of their daughter are intangible assets that have more value than Dandin’s very tangible properties. Seeing how petty and narrowminded they are, how flirtatious her daughter is, I’m not sure their asset would successfully pass any impairment test. They certainly don’t throw any goodwill in the transaction. They are conceited and vapid, relying on their daughter’s purity to secure their financial future. When you come down to it, they’re not so different from their son-in-law, selling their daughter to an older stranger as if she were rare breed of cattle.

In appearance, George Dandin is the victim of proud and insensitive noblemen that consider him as a non-entity. It’s true and I’d feel a lot sorrier for him if he weren’t an oaf. He reminded me of Charles Bovary. His wife and her parents show him no respect but his attitude doesn’t concur to a change of heart on their side. He’s loud, brutal sometimes and totally lacks finesse. He’s dealing with people for whom appearances, customs and traditions are crucial, their only asset, the only thing they have left. Instead of playing the game and respect the rules, he doesn’t want to change. But then, what was the real aim of his marriage? You’d think he’d want to absorb anything he can from his wife’s family to try to fit in his new social class, a pass he paid a steep price. Not at all. He lacks social intelligence and instead of learning the codes of his new milieu, he wants Angélique to fit in. Instead of taking the social elevator up, he wants his wife to hop in the carriage with him and take the lift down.

This play was first shown in Versailles, in front Louis XIV and the court. I suppose Molière had to create a ridiculous parvenu. It would have been too harsh on the nobility if the man they constantly humiliate was good and intelligent.

Molière drew up Angélique as a cunning and frivolous young woman. She gets around her husband’s back and is ready to anything to keep on seeing Clitandre. She’s unfaithful and doesn’t hesitate to lie to his face, to her parents and let them humiliate Dandin. But Molière is fair to her as he lets her speak her heart and tell that she didn’t want this marriage. Nobody asked for her opinion, her parents married her off to the highest bidder and her wishes and happiness were never taken into consideration. Does she have to live the rest of her life buried in a house with an older husband she never chose? I thought that it was very modern of Molière to point out how society treated women.

The lover, Clitandre, is also a living proof that good manners don’t always go with a good personality. He uses his good manners to ridicule Dandin and his title as a viscount to silence Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. And he’s hitting on a married woman which is immoral in itself. But in his eyes, is she really married ? Dandin is such a non-entity for him that he probably doesn’t think it’s dishonorable to court her.

Dandin is considered and treated as a citizen of second zone. Actually, in this era, the idea of “citizen” didn’t exist. The concept became popular during the French Revolution. Going out of the theatre, the violence toward Dandin was such that I couldn’t help thinking “Not surprising that 120 years after, the Sotenville of this world had their heads cut off”. We have racism, antisemitism, sexism, homophobia but I don’t think we have a word to qualify the action of writing someone off because they come from a lower social class. The Dandins of the world are dismissed. The idea that they could be intelligent, kind and worthy of acquaintance never crosses the Sotenvilles’ minds. Try to imagine a girl from high bourgeoisie bringing home someone from a lower income neighborhood. See if they behave well to this newcomer.

George Dandin is a thought-provoking play and as often with Molière, these deeper thoughts are wrapped up in comedy. It’s fun, in the text and in the comedy of manners. It’s a lively play even if it’s terribly sad.

The names of the characters enforce the comic side of the play. Angélique is far from angelic. Her parents are named de Sotenville, which could be translated as Sir / Lady Sillytown. In the 15th century, a dandin is a simpleton who has no composure, something the audience knew and something that fits George Dandin like a glove. He also gets knighted as George de la Dandinerie after his marriage, which means something like Sir George the Strutter. Since être le dindon de la farce (literally, to be the turkey of the farce or in good English, to be the fall guy) evokes what happens to George Dandin and seeing how turkeys walk…

I saw a very good version of this play. It was directed by Jean-Pierre Vincent. Dandin was dressed as a would-be nobleman, with an outfit that seemed to match Molière’s costume for this role. (He was the first Dandin and the description of his clothes was found) Vincent Garanger was an excellent George Dandin, with a great acting palette. His impersonation of the character felt right, not excessive, with the appropriate touch of pathetic, obnoxious and stupid. The other members of the cast were well in their roles as well. The two domestics brought out the comic in their scenes, bringing lightness to alleviate this George Dandin bashing.

  1. March 18, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    This kind of ‘class discrimination’ is alas all too common in the UK, as I find they are still obsessed by class. I remember this from school, we also went to see a performance of it in French and I’ve since always been quoting: ”Tu l’as voulu, Georges Dandin…’ as a sort of ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’.

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    • March 18, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      It’s a terrible example of class discrimination but not shocking for the time. And yes, he’s made his made and now he has to lie in it.

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  2. March 18, 2018 at 5:56 pm

    I think I would have loved this.

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    • March 18, 2018 at 6:16 pm

      Probably.
      There must be a version available on YouTube.

      PS : They broadcast plays from the Comédie Française in cinemas sometimes. Us provincials can watch the plays too!

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      • March 18, 2018 at 6:23 pm

        I have a collection of Moliere on DVD. I’ll see if this one is included

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        • March 18, 2018 at 7:38 pm

          Let me know if you have it and what you think of it.

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  3. March 18, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    The lead actor was outstanding. Poor George Dandin. “Lacks social intelligence” is a good description of him. He knows what a mess he has made but cannot see a way out. Maybe there is no way out. The wife’s character was also quite interesting.

    Full of surprises, this play. A standard farce, like several Molière had written, but made deeper in a number of ways.

    I have been reading those farces because they are short and simple. “George Dandin” did not have such complex language, either, but ethically it is pretty complex!

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    • March 18, 2018 at 7:53 pm

      I don’t think there was a way out, other than not living together. But he has not reached the stage where he thinks he’s better off if they live apart.

      I liked the wife’s monologue when she explains that she didn’t choose him, that they never asked her anything about her marriage, that it was a transaction and that she wanted to live, to enjoy her youth, her life. In a way, Angélique’s dilemna is the same as the wife’s dilemna in the play Cooking With Elvis : Do my circumstances allow me to behave callously because these circumstances are unfair? Do I stop living my life because I’m chained to a husband that I didn’t choose or to a husband who is too disabled to interact with me?

      George Dandin is a farce and that part was really well done on stage. (the night scene was fantastic) The actors’ tone conveyed all the irony and fun of the text. And yet, it is quite complex, as you say. The audience laughs a lot but there’s a lot of fuel for thoughts too.

      Molière was really a genius.

      PS : You’re right, the language is quite simple and even modern.

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  4. March 19, 2018 at 1:37 am

    The upper classes always make fun of parvenus, the more recently they arrived themselves the louder and more nervously they laugh. I can see Clitandre and the young bride hamming it up behind Dandin’s back, though I’m sure Clitandre had no doubts about Angelique’s marriage – it just made her more available as a mistress.

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    • March 19, 2018 at 10:01 pm

      They will always make fun of parvenus but in this case, Dandin saved them from bankruptcy. They could be grateful.

      I think you’re right: I imagine that at the time it was easier to have a mistress who was a married woman. They had more freedom than single young ladies.

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