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Theatre: Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes. Simply brilliant

October 21, 2018 9 comments

Scapin the Schemer by Molière. (1671) Original French title: Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Theatre evenings have resumed! My season started beautifully with a version of Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes and played by actors from the Comédie-Française.

For foreigner readers, a few lines about La Comédie-Française. It’s an institution, a theatre founded by Louis XIV in 1680. Molière had died in 1673 but it is still considered as his legacy, as Molière’s house. According to Wikipedia, it is the oldest still-active theatre in the world. It works differently from others with actors being permanent members of the troupe. It’s prestigious to be a member of this troupe.

La Comédie-Française is in Paris, of course but the troupe has been touring in Province this autumn and I had the chance to see their latest version of Scapin the Schemer. It’s one of the last plays Molière wrote in 1671. At the time, his usual theatre was closed for renovations and he wrote this play in prose for the good people of Paris and not for the court of Louis XIV.

It’s a comedy, based on the commedia dell’arte tradition. Octave and Léandre are two young men. Octave has secretly married Hyacinthe and Léandre is in love with Zerbinette. Their respective fathers Argante and Géronte were together on a business trip and now they are back. They have decided that it would strengthen their business if Octave married Géronte’s daughter. Problem? Octave has married Hyacinthe without his father’s consent and Léandre doesn’t know how to break the news about Zerbinette to his old man.

That’s where Scapin comes in. He’s Léandre’s valet and well-known for his audacious schemes. If he sets his mind on helping the two young men, he might just solve all their problems.

Scapin the Schemer is one of Molière’s most famous plays. It’s also one of the easiest ones. We usually read it in school when were twelve or thirteen and it’s often our first Molière. It’s a comedy of errors where Scapin lies to Argante and Géronte to get some money from them to help their sons’ love lives. He manipulates the two old men for his young masters’ sake but also seeks some revenge for himself. It’s the play with the famous Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère ? (What the devil was he doing in that galley ?)

Denis Podalydes has made a masterful production of Scapin the Schemer. I’ve seen it before and it was set in a house. Podalydes decided to set the story in the Naples harbor, where it is actually set in the play. It’s a 17thC classic French theatre play: there’s one location, one plot and one timeline. The décor of the harbor was sober and allowed a lot of movement and range of action to the actors.

Les Fourberies de Scapin, Scénographie Eric Ruff © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

Podalydes thrived to give the play its original feeling. It was written for the small people and destined to be played on the street. It was not meant to be played in a silent theatre and the atmosphere was probably closer to Guignol than to anything else. Podalydes recreated that, making Scapin interact with the audience, making us participate to his cockiest scheme when he beats the hell of Argante.

The costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix and were the right mix of 17th century fashion and contemporary sobriety so that they did not get in the actors’ way.

And as for the acting, it was perfect. Benjamin Lavernhe was magnificent in Scapin. He had everything: the quick pace of a scoundrel, a perfect diction, facial expressions to make the public laugh out loud. He managed to blend contemporary moves into the 17th century text and story. Gilles David was Argante and Didier Sandre was Géronte. They were excellent in their interpretation of two frustrated fathers who see their plans derailed by their unruly sons.

Gilles David (Argante) face à Benjamin Lavernhe (Scapin) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

The whole play was alive with raw energy, giving back what I think was Molière’s goal: to make a great spectacle for everyone with comical twists and turns. Podalydes managed to bring us back to the original spirit of the play and spectators were grinning in the corridors of the theatre when they left the premises.

Last but not least for us in Lyon. The Théâtre des Célestins is one of the oldest Italian theatres in France, along with La Comédie-Française and the Théatre de l’Odéon. It has been operating for more than 200 years. It was a treat to see this play with this troupe that perpetuates Molière’s spirit in this old theatre.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

Theatre : George Dandin by Molière

March 18, 2018 11 comments

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.

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni

May 30, 2013 11 comments

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni 1753 English title: The Mistress of the Inn. Directed by Marc Paquien.

Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) is an Italian playwright who wrote 159 plays and 83 operas. I still wonder why I’d never heard of him before watching La Locandiera last month.

goldoni_locandieraLa Locandiera is a comedy with a rather simple plot. Mirandolina is the mistress of an inn. She’s a pretty coquette and enjoys being wooed by men. She currently has two suitors, the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita. The first comes from impoverished nobility. He tries to put forward his nobility and his title to seduce Mirandolina. The second is of minor nobility but he’s very wealthy and tries to ravish her with expensive gifts. They fight for her, each of them convinced that his assets give him the best chance to win her heart. Both men are guests at Mirandolina’s inn and have stayed there before. Mirandolina doesn’t fancy any of them; she’s just a flirt and she enjoys the attention. As a single woman running a business, the society expects her to get married to rely on a husband. She’s not so eager to give up her freedom for marriage and for a man so she keeps them at arm’s length.

This time, a third man stays at the inn, the Knight of Ripafratta. He’s a confirmed bachelor who loathes women. He thinks they are useless creatures, too high maintenance for him and that he’s better off without a wife. In other words, he enjoys his freedom and openly makes fun of the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita for being smitten with Mirandolina. He mocks their attitude, their devotion and their petty fight over her.

On her side, Mirandolina resents Ripafratta’s attitude and decides to seduce him, just to defend her sex. Instead of being coy, flirtatious or fulfilling his expectations of the female behaviour, she acts exactly the opposite. She offers sensible conversation, makes blunt comments and lets him understand she’s not on the market for a husband. He starts thinking she’s different. He seeks her company and quickly falls for her.

Goldoni admired Molière a lot and his master is present in this comedy. Mirandolina uses her charms to get something from men, like Béline in The Imaginary Invalid. Ripafratta is as grouchy and disenchanted with women as Alceste in The Misanthropist. His illogical distaste of women sounds like Arnolphe in The School For Wives. Like Arnolphe, he shapes his life around a misconception of women and a hasty generalization of their nature.

Goldoni’s characters are caricatures, something Molière excelled at painting. A conceited marquis thinks that nobility can forgive miserliness and justifies looking down on people. A rich count behaves like a nouveau riche and is firmly convinced that money can buy him love. All these elements link Goldoni to Molière and the tradition of the comedia dell arte.

LA LOCANDIERA (Marc PAQUIEN) 2013But Goldoni doesn’t belong to the 17thC. In Molière, characters don’t toy with other people’s feelings. They lie, they use their charm, they play on seduction to have power or marry a rich man or go around a father’s choice of a husband. They don’t play with emotions to prove a point, they play tricks to get something for themselves but not to harm someone else. The tricks are mostly to serve a cause that the spectator supports. It’s Scapin helping with a marriage between two young people in love and preventing the girl’s father from marrying her to an older man. It’s not cruel. Moreover, Molière always strives to point out the trials of his contemporaries. I don’t think Goldoni has this intention in his play.

In La Locandiera, Mirandolina is a little cruel and doesn’t mind hurting Ripafratta for the sake of her argument. This is where Goldoni joins his century and sounds like Marivaux in The Game of Love and Chance or Laclos in The Dangerous Liaisons. In Marivaux, characters play dangerous games where feelings are involved and people can get hurt.

Goldoni is a mix of Molière and Marivaux and since I love both playwrights, I had a great time watching La Locandiera. It was directed by Marc Paquien who has also directed Happy Days by Samuel Beckett and The Learned Ladies by Molière which I found very good too. I enjoyed what he’s done with the play. He respected traditional clothes, but the text could have been transposed in today’s world. Dominique Blanc played Mirandolina and it was a pleasure to see her on stage. She’s as excellent as you could imagine. André Marcon was a wonderful Ripafratta, frowing at the right places and genuinely at loss when his heart betrays him and goes to Mirandolina.

Have you ever watched or studied Goldoni?

The School for Wives by Molière.

April 26, 2013 13 comments

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.

The Narrator and Molière: comedy in Sodome et Gomorrhe

September 11, 2011 13 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. Translated into English as Sodom and Gomorrah or Cities of the Plain (C.K. Scott Moncrieff) I used this translation for the quotes.

I thought that this volume is the most comedy-oriented so far and I imagined it deserved a special review. There’s no thinking or admiring hawthorn bushes. Molière and vaudeville hover over the book; the Narrator interacts with the reader:

« Tout ceci, dira le lecteur, ne nous apprend rien sur le manque de complaisance de cette dame ; mais puisque vous vous êtes si longtemps arrêté, laissez-moi, monsieur l’auteur, vous faire perdre une minute de plus pour vous dire qu’il est fâcheux que, jeune comme vous l’étiez (ou comme était votre héros s’il n’est pas vous), vous eussiez déjà si peu de mémoire, que de ne pouvoir vous rappeler le nom d’une dame que vous connaissiez fort bien. » C’est très fâcheux en effet, monsieur le lecteur. All this,” the reader will remark, “tells us nothing as to the lady’s failure to oblige; but since you have made so long a digression, allow me, gentle author, to waste another moment of your time in telling you that it is a pity that, young as you were (or as your hero was, if he be not yourself), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not recall the name of a lady whom you knew quite well.” It is indeed a pity, gentle reader.

Reading it again, it resonates with theatre too. In Molière’s play, a character can be alone on stage, talking to the public and explaining the situation or his intentions.

The evening at the Princesse de Guermantes is clearly the opportunity to mock the aristocrats. The Narrator is more used to them now and the awe is gone. He observes them with a caustic eye and sees how vapid, snobbish and silly they can be. They are down from their pedestal. This stems from a double phenomenon: on the one hand, the Narrator is more mature and on the other hand, he’s used to them now. The repetition of diners dispels the magic.

Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was ‘no help,’ they had made up their minds not to be silent but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia; without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to breathe, the interval was filled by the murmurs of the Grandee of Spain who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

The bourgeois world, ie the Verdurins, isn’t better. Madame Verdurin may have good taste in art, her world is as codified and as narrow as the aristocratic circles. The Narrator ridicules them too. He also makes fun of the employees at the Grand Hotel, but the tone is kinder. Comedy is spread through the novel in the description of characters or in particular scenes. References to Molière are frequent and that’s why I think there’s an assumed aim at comedy and irony in Sodom and Gomorrah. I could quote many comical passages, I laughed a lot and Proust proves again how funny he is. I thought that in the previous volumes, he was observant and amused. In this one, I thought he was still incredibly observant but also more nasty. The Narrator himself is never nasty but he reports other people’s speeches. Here is M. de Charlus unleashing his irony on Mme de Surgis:

Peut-être aussi M. de Charlus, de qui l’insolence était un don de nature qu’il avait joie à exercer, profitait-il de la minute pendant laquelle il était censé ignorer qui était le nom de ces deux jeunes gens pour se divertir aux dépens de Mme de Surgis et se livrer à ses railleries coutumières, comme Scapin met à profit le déguisement de son maître pour lui administrer des volées de coups de bâton.

Perhaps too M. de Charlus, whose insolence was a natural gift which he delighted in exercising, took advantage of the few moments in which he was supposed not to know the name of these two young men to have a little fun at Mme. de Surgis’s expense, and to indulge in his habitual sarcasm, as Scapin takes advantage of his master’s disguise to give him a sound drubbing.

I really thought there was a deliberate constant reference to Molière who used comedy to violently criticize his time. Proust isn’t soft with his world either. In the previous quote, Scapin is a valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière. He’s a scoundrel who plots against his master to help the son’s master marry the girl he loves. Now, the Narrator describes the lift-boy’s way of speaking, using a comparison with Molière:

J’ai pas pour bien longtemps, disait le lift qui, poussant à l’extrême la règle édictée par Bélise d’éviter la récidive du pas avec le ne, se contentait toujours d’une seule négative. Haven’t any too much time,” said the lift-boy, who, carrying to extremes the grammatical rule that forbids the repetition of personal pronouns before coordinate verbs, omitted the pronoun altogether.

Oops, Bélise, the pedantic character of The Learned Ladies was lost in translation. And now Céleste and Marie, the two chamber maids, playfully chiding the Narrator:

Ah! Sac à ficelles, ah! Douceur ! Ah perfidie ! Rusé entre les rusés, rosse des rosses! Ah! Molière!

Oh! The story-teller! Oh! The flatterer! Oh! The false one! The cunning rogue! Oh! Molière!”

This sounds like the passage in L’Avare. (Ma cassette!) or in Les Fourberies de Scapin (“What the devil was he doing in that galley!”) or maybe Toinette, the energetic maid in Le Malade Imaginaire. It reminds me of the scenes where characters yell and dupe others which are rather frequent in Molière’s plays. The English version is slightly bowdlerized, btw.

Medecine and physicians are attacked, as the Narrator sees his doctor more often than he’d wish to and as Cottard is a famous physician. It starts softly with a general sentence like this one:

C’est que la médecine a fait quelques petits progrès dans ses connaissances depuis Molière, mais aucun dans son vocabulaire.

The fact is that medicine has made some slight advance in knowledge since Molière’s days, but none in its vocabulary.

It’s an allusion to a famous scene in Le Malade Imaginaire where Purgon stabs Argan with complicated medical words and words in Latin and Greek. Purgon’s power over Argan partly lays in his supposedly superior knowledge. But he’s totally inefficient as a physician. This play is also present in the following phrase:

Il est tombé de la neurasthénie dans la philologie, comme eût dit mon bon maître Pocquelin. He has lapsed from neurasthenia to philology, as my worthy master Pocquelin would have said.

Pocquelin was Molière’s real name and it’s another allusion to the Malade Imaginaire. He died on stage when he was playing Argan. And another one, directed at Cottard:

L’éminent professeur, dit Brichot, s’exprime, Dieu me pardonne, dans un français aussi mêlé de latin et de grec qu’eut pu le faire M. Purgon lui-même, de moliéresque mémoire ! The eminent Professor,” said Brichot, “expresses himself in a French as highly infused with Latin and Greek as M. Purgon himself, of Molièresque memory!

Argan, the main character of Le Malade Imaginaire, thinks he’s sick and is in the power of his doctor, named M. Purgon. This play is a strong attack against charlatans and so-called doctors. It’s not exactly flattering for Professor Cottard, who’s an eminent physician too.

On another tone, here is Cottard speaking:

Vous avez, dit Cottard, une veine de… turlututu, mot qu’il répétait volontiers pour esquiver celui de Molière. You have,” said Cottard, “the luck of… turlututu,” a word which he gladly repeated to avoid using Molière’s

The missing word is “cocu” (a “cocu” is a deceived spouse) There’s a French idiom that says “avoir une chance de cocu”, ie to be very lucky. It’s colloquial. I hope you have a footnote in your English edition for that sentence or it must be rather obscure. One of Molière’s plays in entitled Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire.

What is really interesting is that characters from all social classes (employees at the hotel, artistocrats and bourgeois) refer to Molière. As a great fan of Molière too, I wanted to point out the wonderful tribute Proust does to that playwright, the most popular of French theater, the one that even the dullest French teacher cannot ruin. I didn’t remember all these references to Molière and honestly, Molière isn’t the writer I’d associate to Proust at first thought. Proust’s image is more linked to digressions, thoughts and reverie than to comedy. I suppose that it comes from the first volumes but Sodom and Gomorrah anchors Proust in the tradition of French literature and French “spirit” in other ways than his love for Balzac. It’s all in the nasty but witty observations and descriptions. I don’t know how to call that, but I can hear the particular tone used to utter those cutting remarks that are the basis of French sense of humour. In the 17th C literature, the Narrator’s grand-mother may worship Madame de Sévigné, the Narrator himself prefers Molière.

The Learned Ladies by Molière

April 27, 2011 17 comments

Les Femmes savantes by Molière (The Learned Ladies). 1672.  

Recently, I’ve watched The Learned Ladies for the first time. As often with Molière, it was a thought-provoking comedy. In the 17th C imagery, the “Learned Lady” is the female of the Pedant.

In that play, the main family is composed of two parents and two grown-up and single daughters. The mother, Philaminte and the elder daughter, Armande are the learned ladies. They’re under the spell of a ridiculous pedant named Trissotin. He acts like a guru; they think he hung the moon and swoon over every single verse he writes. The father, Chrysale and the younger daughter, Henriette have more matter-of-fact concerns, are far from well-read and totally accept it. In between stands Clitandre, once infatuated with Armande and now in love with Henriette. The plot is centred on Clitandre and Henriette who want to get married and need to obtain her parent’s consent. Chrysale agrees with the project while Philaminte would rather marry Henriette to Trissotin.  

Several themes are quite modern in this play. In the opening scene, Armande and Henriette argue about marriage. Armande can’t understand why her sister rejoices in marrying Clitandre. She thinks she should have higher goals than taking care of a family and run a household. She preaches an interest in philosophy, that Henriette should study to improve her mind. But Henriette is perfectly satisfied with the fate of a housewife.  

Chrysale is the model for the bourgeois vision of life when Philaminte would be more the spoke-person of the Parisian literary salons. The play reflects the discussion of the time, the bourgeois being despised and the salons praised. (The spectators of Molière’s plays did come from the court and he was their protégé.)

Marriage was abundantly discussed in salons: was it an honest or a degrading situation? The question was also debated in the famous novels by Mlle de Scudéry. Philaminte and Armande want to promote a mind-over-matter attitude. Love must be ethereal, without physical contact and the mind must overcome instincts and natural desires. Armande lost Clitandre on the Map of Tenderness because she fancied a cerebral love. He gave up on her. However, she can’t help being jealous when she realizes that her former lover eventually fell in love with her down-to-earth baby sister. Molière seems to remind us that it’s not easy to shut out feelings, perceptions and act rationally all the time. I also saw in this attitude a disguised critic of Cartesianism. On the contrary, Henriette is happy with every day life routine and she doesn’t want to ignore the needs of her body. As she points out, Armande should be happy that their mother followed her desires at least twice or they wouldn’t be here to talk about it. She also states that someone needs to give birth to the future scientists and philosophers.  

The other great issue is the education of young girls. In the foreword, we are reminded that in 1672, a girl would be hardly taught how to read and would receive a religious education. Things were changing in the 17th C as scholars began to write in French instead of Latin. Their work became accessible to women who wanted to study and in fashionable salons, women became more educated. Molière mocks the Learned Ladies, not because he thinks women shouldn’t be educated but because their excesses make them ridiculous. He mocks their blindness, the way they worship Trissotin. It could be sexist but I didn’t think it was since he also makes fun of Trissotin himself. Clitandre is the most sensible character who manfully holds the middle ground: flesh and mind should live in harmony; temperance in everything is the key; learned women are respectable and even desirable. He only criticizes pedantry. Trissotin represents the old school of thought: he refers to Ancient philosophers like Aristotle; Clitandre represents modernity.

Another theme is followed all along the play: the roles of husband and wife in a marriage. Chrysale argues that the man should command but he’s not the master in his own house. Philaminte wears the trousers and he’s afraid of her. His challenge will be to gain power to impose Clitandre as his choice of a husband for Henriette. There are enjoyable scenes during which he tries to re-gain the lost ground and face his wife. He needs a lot of encouragements from his brother and his daughter to do it. 

In the foreword and afterword of my edition, it is explained that the condition of women was abundantly discussed in the 17th C. The ideas that women were doomed to ignorance and servitude, that marriage wasn’t always fair, that the education of young girls needed to be improved started to stem from these discussions. The roots of feminism were born in that century and will be developed in the 18thC.  

The Learned Ladies is a play in “alexandrins” which are to classic French theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. I hardly noticed them when I watched the play. It is full of comical devices which are Molière’s trademark. It’s funny, witty, thought-provoking. The questions regarding the position of women in the society, their access to education and the opposition between motherhood and work still exist nowadays. This play talked to me as a woman, despite the time distance. Obviously, in our Western world, the situation of women has improved immensely since the 1970s. However, in some countries, women still have to choose between their job and motherhood. And there’s a lot to do in developing countries to promote equality.

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