By Pannill Camp
Assistant Professor of Performing Arts
Molière's The Misanthrope presents irresistible challenges. An early model of “high comedy,” it provokes more reflection than laughter. It was, upon its debut in 1666, only modestly successful, but was quickly seen as Molière’s best play. The revered critic Nicolas Boileau in 1674 began to call Molière “the author of The Misanthrope.” The playwright himself also saw this play as preeminent among his works, and according to Voltaire, this view was shared across Europe in the 18th century. Frequent revivals, including one by the Belgian avant-garde director Ivo van Hove in 2007, attest to the fact that it is still considered to be Molière’s chef d’oeuvre.
The recognition the play has garnered since the age of Louis XIV, however, does little to illuminate what Molière hoped audiences would see in the title role of Alceste. The character, which Molière played himself, is defined by an extreme aversion to duplicity. He can’t bring himself to flatter anyone in the least degree, so that even the most trivial everyday falsehoods that ease our dealings with others (“Nice haircut!”) are impossible for him. Besides this social disability, Alceste suffers from spells of “deep gloom” and “bearish ill-humor” because he exists in the elite sphere of Parisian high society, where boasting and hollow compliments are keys to social maneuverability. The play’s animating conflict lies in the fact that Alceste is hopelessly in love with Célimène, a rich and popular young widow who showers acquaintances with coquetry and blandishment, and with great verve ridicules the same people behind their backs.
One might expect, given this scenario, that Alceste would be exalted as a martyr in a morally dissipated age. But Molière paints him with many of the colors from the palette of Italian comedy that he uses in his other plays. So, Alceste’s unbending scrupulousness can be seen as a flaw, as a sort of deformity of character similar to what defines Harpagon in The Miser, or the craven social climber Mr. Jourdain in The Would-Be Gentleman. Alceste’s signature trait, immoderate honesty, seems both to be a virtue, and to make Alceste ridiculous. As Rousseau put it in 1758, “In all the other plays of Molière, the ridiculous character is always detestable or contemptible. In this one, although Alceste has real failings at which it would not be wrong to laugh, one cannot help feeling respect for him deep in one’s heart.” So, a real quandary presents itself: What combination of sympathetic moral paragon and splenetic crank makes sense in the character of Alceste? Furthermore, regardless of what Molière may have had in mind on that question, what approach to Alceste works best when reviving the play in 2015?
Questions such as these are only part of the process of reviving a classic play like The Misanthrope. The whole theatrical experience has to be designed and executed. At Washington University, student designers closely mentored by faculty take charge of the scenic design, costumes, lighting, sound and stage management. But these facets of the production ought to be in step with the dramaturgical contours of the play and the director’s rationale. Another immediate challenge, then, is how to imagine what Elinor Fuchs calls “the world of the play,” a fictional world pictured in detail that is suggested, if not entirely prescribed, by the play itself. Do we imagine this play staged amid material trappings of the mid 17th century? Is it inextricably rooted in the conditions of the 1660s, or can it be transposed to another reality for reasons that are truly warranted by the play itself?
On this question, we have followed the latter path. The Misanthrope debuted in 1666, the year after Louis XIV took Molière’s company under his protection and granted them the stage of the Palais-Royale. Writing and playing Alceste himself, Molière was certainly in part reacting to his sudden immersion in the rarified social world of the Sun King’s court. Rather than situating our production in this alien historical milieu, we decided to understand its world as ultra-contemporary. The idea is not to bend The Misanthrope into a commentary on today’s moral deformities with a crowbar; the play is about phoniness and the consequences of moral inflexibility, not individualism, greed or narcissism. But because Molière signals that he was concerned with his own immediate social world (in the first scene, Philinte mentions The School for Husbands, a play Molière wrote in 1661), we decided to try to entirely close the temporal distance between the world of the play and our own.
In this country, we are unfamiliar with aristocratic rank and inherited title, but the 21st-century analogue — a tiny, guarded social realm of immense wealth and rarified social connections — is quite accessible to the imagination. Lindsay Eisold’s (Class of 2017) set design transforms Célimène’s Parisian residence into a rec room in an immensely expensive private residence colonized by Célimène and her friends. The audience is arranged in seating sections around the intersection of two long alleys of playing space that extend to the corners of the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre. Besides bringing audience and performers into intimate proximity, this environment replicates certain features of 17th-century French theater space. It was common practice, until 1759, for audience members to sit onstage on highly priced bench seats where they were extremely close to the actors (reports survive of audience members being asked to move to permit an entrance), and where they would be easily seen themselves. Eisold’s set reproduces the “intervisibility” that ancien régime spectators enjoyed. The long alleys cutting through our shoebox-shaped theater also recall the bisected space of the tennis court, a type of building that most French theaters inhabited before a wave of purpose-built theater construction in the 1750s–80s. The set thus reproduces the major spatial features of viewing theater in Molière’s time, masking them in an environment that has a highly contemporary feel.
No less than the scenic design, the costuming of the actors provides a crucial, tangible sense of the play’s imagined world. Chloe Karmin (Class of 2016) used social media to locate hundreds of images of 21st-century socialites and created highly detailed renderings of each character. The “marquises” Acaste and Clitandre, two preening, name-dropping rivals for Célimène’s affection, materialized in her design as impeccably dressed, brightly colored creatures, equally comfortable at a trendy art gallery opening in Bushwick and at a fundraising gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Modeled on the Brant brothers, this duo sits on the edge between high-fidelity realism and the cartoonish exaggeration indicated by Molière’s Italian-inspired comedy. As with every character in our production of the play, we hope that they will convey an easy but improbable sense of continuity between Molière’s world and our own.
Translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Pannill Camp
November 13, 14, 20 & 21 at 8 pm
November 15 & 22 at 2 pm
A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre