If you are looking for a jolly time
In which some fancy Frenchmen tend to rhyme
Then I suggest you make your plans today,
And get your tickets; oh, you need not pay
For this first show, which will be—how I hope—
A massive triumph! See The Misanthrope!
That’s right—rhyming couplets, men in heels, and a whole lot of French style are being readied for the opening production of the Drama Division’s season: The Misanthrope, by Molière, which opens this month in the Stephanie P. McClelland Drama Theater. The production will be helmed by director Lucie Tiberghien, and will feature members of the Drama Division’s fourth-year class, Group 38, who are fresh from completing the Juilliard Playwrights Festival, for which they performed workshop productions of four new plays by alums and current students of the division’s playwriting program.
Molière, or rather, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by many as “the father of French comedy,” lived in 17th-century France during the reign of King Louis XIV. Raised in a rather well-to-do family (being the son of the royal upholsterer), Poquelin was expected to join the family business. When he was 21, however, he veered off his father’s course and decided to make a living as an actor. This was a very difficult decision, for, although the profession was no longer vilified as it had been for centuries, being an actor barred one from being buried in hallowed ground, and brought disgrace upon that person’s family. For this reason, Poquelin adopted the pseudonym of Molière, presumably to protect his father from the embarrassment of having an actor for a son.
Molière became the leader of several theatrical troupes over the course of his life, for which he served as actor, administrator, and (to much more lasting fame) playwright. Highly influenced by the Italian style of commedia dell’arte, a form of improvised performance with a set of stock characters, Molière started as a writer and master of French farce, but later delved into plays of scathingly pointed social commentary (which sometimes got him into a lot of trouble). These social comedies constitute the most popular and lasting of his works, including The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and The Imaginary Invalid.
Molière had to spend a lot of time earning a name for himself in the provinces, but when he finally made it to Paris, he garnered great success and acclaim, eventually earning the protection of the king himself. This would be an important asset to him, as the subject matter of his plays (especially Tartuffe, which is about a religious hypocrite) would at times stir up a great deal of controversy and rancor. He was, however, overall, very popular until his famous death. During the final scene of a performance of The Imaginary Invalid in which he was playing the title role, he suddenly collapsed onstage in fit of coughing. Hours later, he died from tuberculosis.
The Misanthrope is a comedy of social manners that centers around a man named Alceste, who, as the title suggests, is quick to criticize others for their flaws, and society as a whole for its hypocrisy and lies. His frank manner earns him many enemies as he offers others his honest, but unflattering, opinions. He even reproaches the woman he loves, Célimène, for being flirtatious and a gossip. The plot gets underway as Alceste is asked by the fashionable gentleman Oronte for his opinion on a poem he has written. Alceste, as always, is brutally honest in telling the gentleman that his poetry is terrible. When Oronte sues him for slander, Alceste is summoned to court. Meanwhile, Célimène is cavorting with her friends, gossip-crazed fops. When a fashionable woman-about-town, Arsinoé, arrives, she and Célimène trade the current gossip being whispered about each other. But when Alceste returns and Célimène excuses herself, Arsinoé weaves a tale for Alceste to convince him that his Célimène has been unfaithful. From there, the plot unfolds in waves of confusion and humor. But ultimately, as fourth-year actor Anthony Wofford (who plays the fop Acaste) will tell you, “This play is about love—a timeless subject, with a multitude of hilarious people thrown into the wrong situations at the wrong times, which makes for an endless supply of comedy.” Also, he adds, “It’s about when our morals and ideals get challenged by the one we love, and what we choose to do with ourselves afterwards ... there is a lot of comedy in that. It’s a huge-ass comedy.”
Tiberghien, a dancer turned director, is most familiar to Juilliard audiences for directing Group 37’s workshop production of playwriting alumnus Tommy Smith’s Air Conditioning three years ago. Born and raised in Switzerland, Tiberghien worked for years as a professional dancer in Paris. Being fluent in French allows her to refer frequently to the original French text, giving her rich insight into the rhyming verse of Molière that a director dealing only with translations would lack. “The play reveals itself and cracks itself open when one really just pays attention to punctuation,” says Tiberghien; the “commas and periods and exclamation points are the only ‘stage directions’ that Molière provides us with, but when we are vigilant, they tell us everything we need to know—about the story, the psychology of the character, the mood of the scene, even the blocking seems to simply fall into place when we are faithful to the text as it is on the page. As a result, I am finding my job very easy and the play seems to make itself available to us as we go.”
Tiberghien says it is exciting for her that in this production, for the first time in her experience, the actors are all of the appropriate age for their characters. Speaking about the personalities Molière created, she observes that “the characters are young and playful and idealistic and decadent in ways that I didn’t expect them to be. Somehow, working with this particular group has brought this to the forefront, and dramaturgically, I buy it! This has shed light on an aspect of the story that I didn’t know was there.”
The production will be an exciting one, including (just as a teaser) the intriguing front-and-center set feature of a pool for Célimène to bathe in—but the most important aspect of this production is best stated by Wofford:
We’ll have you laughing, you’ll be crying tears,
So come enjoy the first Molière in years!