drama: Molière – The Misanthrope (1666)

Amidst the calls of John McCain in the last debate, “now, there’s just another example of Senator Obama’s eloquence” it’s rather fitting to read Alceste making the same arguments just about now, and to consider how Molière presents him. A friend mentioned that she’d heard Molière described as the French Shakespeare–I disagree, because Shakespeare, in my opinion, in his best work concentrates on the person rather than on the idea. There are, as I recall, some of his plays that seem rather to in a way typify ad absurdum, e.g., Titus as revenge play, Comedy of Errors, but as one moves through his work, there is something always very human about his characters–although most would disagree, I find even his Joan la Pucelle or Aaron worthy of our sympathy. But then, as I’ve stated before, I’ve been accused of naturalistic readings of Shakespeare, so I suppose I’m not particularly worthy of interpreting them. Meantime, I’m not even sure how one stages The Misanthrope, its scenes ending mid-conversation, and beginning again right where they left off, except now the room is filled with more players. Perhaps French drama demanded the players never enter or exit the stage mid-scene? Shakespeare’s comedies always use marriage as a device to end a play quickly, as love never seems very sincere here–and this is a comparison I can make easily: even the deepest love suffered by Alceste is easily broken off at the play’s conclusion. This leads me then to Peters’ discussion (‘The Rhetoric of Adornment in “Le Misanthrope”‘, by Jeffrey N. Peters The French Review) that one’s essence is cloaked beneath one’s social presentation.

So, what of language? There is the language of court, the language unadorned by rhetoric, which is later paralleled by the language of poetry, and the language of letters between friends. And what makes it all the more interesting is that the whole play is written in rhyming couplets, so that even the barest prose is rendered ornate by that which represents it. Alceste makes a reference to an old poem that, although simple, is passionate–and I can identify, considering the deep song lyrics presented by Lorca in his lectures–simple and breathtaking, anonymous authors, poor us.

But then…how much am I supposed to extract from a comedy of manners except what is obvious, the same criticism we always hear, that outward appearances are more highly valued than inner substance, even today on Wall Street, that we thought was a meritocracy until we found ourselves beset by misvalue.

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