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4 october 2016

One of my regrets about my brief high-school acting career is that I was never in a Shakespeare play. I was in plays by Shaw and Ibsen, and a range of contemporary straight and musical plays, but I never experienced the Big Guy. On the other hand, not all high-school actors get to perform in Shaw or Ibsen, and few get to be in a play by Molière, still the highlight among my memories.

I was in a little production of a little play called The Precious Damsels (Les précieuses ridicules), as a servant who pretends to be an effete gentleman in order to fool two pretentious women. The language wasn't exalted, the situations were frankly goofy, and the audience loved it.

Molière has held the stage for 350 years because of the no-nonsense construction of his great farces. They are neoclassical in the sense that they take Plautus and Terence as models, setting up crisp plots where characters are at cross-interests. They are hip and ageless, timeless and timely, all at once.

My university will produce L'avare (The Miser) later this fall, and I will "teach" it in the spring to World Lit students, so it's time I think aloud a bit about this elemental comedy. L'avare is written in direct, unflowery prose that gives actors and directors maximum latitude to draw humor from the situation, not the language. (Hence, of course, the play translates well.) Shakespeare and Shaw are full of jokes and witty byplay. There's a joke or two in L'avare, but most of the laughter comes from people saying fairly straightforward things that in context sound ridiculous.

We see this technique in the second scene of the play, when Cléante repeats some standard conduct-manual advice to his sister Élise:

Je sais que je dépends d'un père, et que le nom de fils me soumet à ses volontés. … qu'il en faut plutôt croire les lumières de leur prudence, que l'aveuglement de notre passion …

[I know that I'm dependent on a father, and as a son I must submit to his wishes … that we should follow our parents' prudent guidance instead of the our own blind passion.] (Act 1, Scene 2)
Et cetera, et cetera, and this is all well and good (and boring) except that the brother and sister are better placed than anyone else to know that their father is an idiot, carried away by the strongest and most irrational passions when it comes to money.

Irony, whether intentional or circumstantial (when a character says something straightforward and everyone else onstage misinterprets them), is the main mode of L'avare. The crowning example comes in Act 3, scene 7, when Cléante and Mariane, the woman he loves, talk elaborately in the presence of the miser/father Harpagon, who has announced his intention to marry Mariane himself. He doesn't know about the affair between Cléante and Mariane, so they are free to take advantage of his misunderstanding. They set themselves up as opposed to the idea of becoming step-relations, and when Harpagon doesn't like the way that's going, Cléante turns on a dime, or a sou I guess, and starts to praise Mariane in terms that will please his father:

Souffrez, Madame, que je me mette ici à la place de mon père; et que je vous avoue, que je n'ai rien vu dans le monde de si charmant que vous.

[Allow me, Madame, to take the part of my father here, and to tell you that I've never seen anything in this world as charming as you.] (Act 3, Scene 7)
Delivering nothing but stilted formal dialogue, the characters can generate endless tension and humor by playing that dialogue in counterpoint to the absurd situation. Cross-purposes are the order of the day.

The plot is of course irredeemably silly, but so were the plots of classical comedies and of Shakespearian comedies, which also draw inspiration from the classics. Is a play like L'avare therefore pure escapism? It's hard to reconstruct its political value in early modern France, and harder still to put a political value on it today. The play is about patriarchy, and shows patriarchs to be greedy and stupid. It is full of women characters who eventually get what they want (though what they want is a man to perpetuate the very patriarchy they subvert). It's about following your heart instead of the money, upon which a good patriarch pops up (a last-minute arrival named Anselme, who turns out to be long-lost father to both Mariane and Valère, Élise's lover), and gives everybody all the money they could want anyway.

Above all, farce may tell us that social pretentions are not serious. All forms of role-playing, inevitable though they may be in any community, are farces. Social posturing papers over our urges and desires, turns them into acceptable pursuits that are all the more ridiculous for meeting with so much societal approval. Impulses to laugh at and to mock the ridiculous are inherently revolutionary even as they seem most content-free, even when they are officially approved as carnival excess. Escapism is rarely pointless.

Molière. L'avare. 1668. iBooks.