Paris, Monday, 21 April.
Now that sounds exotic. Originally, I wasn’t going to write this one up. On the other hand, I’m here, and I did take myself to the Comédie Française for a matinee performance of Le Misanthrope. And since I use this blog to explore my own responses to theatre performances, why stop now?
I won’t go into why I’m here, except to say that I discovered a discount flight and a nice little hotel in Paris for four nights that totaled only slightly more than my more habitual four nights in New York. Besides, I lived here for two years as a boy. The compulsion to visit it again combined with an inexplicable urge to finally go to see the cathedral at Chartres, and also to fight my way through the crowds at the Louvre to see renowned art first hand, neither of which had attracted me as a boy.
Sadly for me, Joan was tied up with some pretty intense editing of her challenging new book, Me, Myself, And Mom, A Journey Through Love, Hate, And Healing. But meanwhile, the trip became irresistible.
“So what’re ya gonna do?”… (as declared by one of the Mr. Joneses quoted in my last post.) So here I am! (… and already planning a return visit with Joan.)
I guess it’s reasonably required of any serious theatre buff when in Paris to visit La Comédie Française. It’s a genuine landmark in the history of the theatre. The main auditorium, La Salle Richelieu, is an absolutely beautiful, carefully preserved, gilded treasure, dating from 1789.
But, one thing you may NOT want to feel obligated to do is to attend a performance at La Comédie Française … that is not unless you are fluent in classical French and adore Molière wherever and however you can find him. It’s too damn much like work. I can still do all right in a casual conversation with a patient Frenchman, but not with rapid-fire satire in classical seventeenth century French in rhymed iambic hexameter, or whatever it is.
So for this I’d done my homework, reread the play in English, studied up my Cliff notes, and was prepared to keep up appearances by laughing in all the right places. It didn’t happen. … not even with Le Misanthrope, perhaps Molière’s best known work. Maybe I should have picked Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), on the schedule for that following evening. No, not French enough.
In my own defense, it didn’t happen with the rest of the audience either, the laughter, that is. Up until the intermission, there was not a single out-loud guffaw. And I counted only maybe a dozen suppressed giggles. This was not the Molière I expected: No just plain silliness, and certainly no slapstick. I’ve never been a huge fan, but in the past he has provided me with many good guffaws along the way, and his work is the very foundation of the modern biting sitcom.
My hotel was just down the street from from where he died, and I thought it wouldn’t hurt my muse if I took a selfie with the master looking down over my shoulder. I can always use the inspiration. And there he was again, sprawled all over the sidewalk in chalk next to the Hotel du Louvre.
Clearly, Molière remains a prominent staple in French culture. And I felt under considerable obligation to pay my respects.
So back to this particular production: What happened to the notoriously comic antics of Alceste, the misanthrope, the critic of all mankind, the curmudgeonly grouch and negativist, as he insists on exposing all the lies and hypocrisies that surround him? Judging
from the audience’s response (and from my rat’s eye point of view in the front row, the last to go, and for good reason, as I found out)? Gone! But why? Alceste is a one-man truth squad, loaded with potential for laughter. But here, what was funny about him or his “victims”? Nothing!
It’s true that a more serious tone than I was prepared for is there in the writing. This is supposed to be one of the less frantic, more character-driven of Molière’s works, and rumor has it that the story is somewhat autobiographical. He had already learned too well that there is a price to be paid for insulting society by being brutally honest. His last play, Tartuffe, had provoked violent reactions, so this time he had determined to leave the higher echelons of society alone. Consequently, in Le Misanthrope, first produced in 1666, nothing much happens, relatively speaking. There’s not a lot of exaggerated movement and foppishness to make fun of. Instead, his aim here was presumably higher (and safer), attacking human nature itself.
The director, Clément Herview-Léger, had wonderful talent to work with. The resident acting company is of course superb, providing a tightly controlled blend of precise movement and contemporary realism. And the seasoned actors have figured out how to make conversation sound astoundingly real and modern, despite their poetic artificiality. The somewhat off-putting contemporary setting was in some kind of abandoned, white-washed palatial ballroom, and in modern dress. Alceste (Löic Corbery) came across not with pompous self-assurance, but as a never-satisfied, handsome young whiner, a kind of late-in-life student idealist, full of doubts and self-hatred, constantly depressed over the universal hypocrisy of mankind, and frustratingly in love with the wrong woman (Georgia Scalliet as the holier-than-thou Célimène). (I still can’t figure out why a brutally honest man of Alceste’s nature, a professional at seeing through sham, can’t see through the blatant phoniness of Célimène). C’est l’amour!
With a stiff neck from looking up at shoes onstage, and in a narrow, uncomfortable seat, it was not easy to watch a depressed man going through his paces in a “comedy” stressing what’s wrong with all of us. Despite the plays relative “maturity” in its approach to satire, I’d go so far as to say the pacing itself was even more painfully depressing, full of long pauses, and so slow as to be downright “anti-comedic.” And somehow that just doesn’t fit with my notions of Molière.
To the best of my knowledge, neither myself nor the sell-out audience, who are presumably far more accustomed than I am to what goes on in this sacred hall of humor, ever indulged in a decent belly-laugh! It was hard to say what we recognized in ourselves, which to my mind is the whole point of satire. This was a disappointing come-down from the noisy laughter elicited by The Realistic Joneses two days earlier.
There is a great deal more positive to be said for my experience with Le Misanthrope. It is after all a masterpiece. And it was quite wonderful to hear the exceedingly clever rhymes and rhythms actually work in conversation … not in the sing-songy pedantic cadence usually heard in classrooms. And most of all, the wonderful tingling that comes from sitting in that space, in the company of the three-and-a-half-century-old spirit of Molière himself, can not be lightly dismissed.
Even so, I must end with a confession: I happily slipped away during the intermission. So there it is. A cardinal sin, I know. Maybe the director and his company were preparing to lay it all on us in the second half. But after all, I already knew how it would end: Alceste goes on being misanthropic, alone, isolated from all the corruption and hypocrisy he has insisted on criticizing and exposing, unable to live in human society.
And there were old neighborhoods to walk!