I never really liked Molière.
Hold on, don’t leave, this is going somewhere.
In early 2016 I was approached by Benita de Wit, a friend and talented director I’d met during graduate studies at Columbia. She wanted a Misanthrope. Maybe not THE Misanthrope. I’d whacked up a bit of street cred as a go-to for punch-ups of classic texts, but I balked at Molière. To me, this was puff and fluff, something I associated with Period Movement and broad, splashy commedia stylings. It also felt, dare I say, too surface—a lot of moralizing on a set of easy themes. Fake.
I was wrong. But we’ll get there. First, a field trip.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.” This was in The Importance of Being Earnest, about two centuries post-Misanthrope, but Molière would’ve had some thoughts. Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Molière became Molière to save his family the shame of having an actor in the family, and dove into a world of surfaces headfirst.
See, French comedy at the time was mostly surface, based on Italian commedia dell’arte with stock characters and wacky hijinks.
Molière was having none of it. His characters existed in that Marx Brothers world of big schtick but displayed, in their exquisite language and action, an individualism that startled his bewigged and bodice’d audiences out of their wigs and bodices. It seemed that Molière was straddling two worlds in his work—the playful province of pure theatre and that of the squirmy all-too-real. Comedy was supposed to be just unreal enough to laugh at, expressions of le vraisemblable (a semblance of truth) but not just vrai. Some, like Jean Donneau de Visé, were miffed at Molière’s rule-breaking mix of the realism reserved for tragedy and the bawdry of farce: “When you paint heroes, you can do what you want.… But when you paint men, you must paint from life.”
But Molière made the critics eat their enormous feathered hats—his plays were real and funny. Audiences, it turned out, loved to laugh at the truth.
Now let’s be clear, when I say Molière understood surfaces, I also mean that he could play the surface game with the best of them. He loved to rouse a rabble, and his plays attacked the aristocracy, the church, the medical profession, academia, he had a whole (S)Hit List. But he never went after the monarchy, knowing that his best bet was to keep His Majesty batting for his team. Louis Quatorze (he of the gaudy furniture and frequent wars with everyone else in Europe) was a Molière stan of the first degree, and kept him from the teeth of detractors. Molière’s work brought him to verbal blows with a host of other writers and critics, some who attacked his style for being vulgar and inelegant, some who attacked his personal life. Molière sorta walked into that by marrying a famous actress 20 years younger who was also the daughter of a woman he might’ve had an affair with, so.
But Molière was a success! And unlike some writers who slipped into the canon after living obscure, Molière was #trending in his own lifetime. He went out in a fitting blaze, collapsing onstage during a performance of his own play The Imaginary Invalid—about a man who thinks he is dying of countless diseases. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin died on a punchline, and with his final breath he merged art and truth one last time.
So, let’s bop back to 2016 for a second.
I’m sitting in my closet-sized apartment in Upper Manhattan. I skim a few translations. Richard Wilbur’s is famously delightful and sparkly, if very old-fashioned. In-yer-face Brit dramatist Martin Crimp penned a ’96 adaptation that updated the setting to a world of media-slathered 20th Century showbiz, with Misanthrope Alceste as a playwright dating an actress (Celimene-now-“Jennifer”) who has barbs ready for contemporary politicians, news networks, and other Real Life playwrights (including “Tom F*cking Stoppard”). Crimp’s version, scathing in the extreme, felt however like it had dated itself.
For a moment, I despaired that this was the only way in. It had to be about something REAL. Then Benita had some pretty sound advice (which I’m paraphrasing because this was three years ago probably over a beverage): “Just make it about real people, and make it fun.”
Suddenly it was all, as Shakespeare says, “an art as lawful as eating”—the words flowed and the rhymes danced and, wow wow wow, I was having fun. No longer trying to figure out what the characters stood for, I fell in love with each of them. No longer panicky to freight each line with some Big Issue I wanted to take down, the sheer mastery of Molière’s words became a playground. The characters stumbled and bumbled over iambs and rhymes in a way that felt real. Or rather, it felt like real people faking it. Real people trying to sound like heroes.
The Misanthrope is about a world in which we all low-key follow the Kardashians on Twitter. It’s about how we watch those two Fyre Festival documentaries with horror and think: “That couldn’t be me. Could that be me? That’s not me. Is it me?” The reality is that Molière’s characters have the verve, intellect, wealth, and laissez-faire lives that we wish we had, but their foibles are our own magnified. We see in them both our ideal self and our worst iteration. They’re the High Comedy version of our own surfaces, our Insta handles and curated SoulCycle/juice cleanse selves and the masks we wear to apologize for being late to coffee or a meeting or not replying to a text.
And in this realism Molière takes pure joy. The satire may be as sharp as a set of stainless steel Cuisinart knives, but it’s also equal opportunity. No one is safe, so we might as well all laugh together.
By the time I was finished, I liked Molière. We did a few loosey-goosey “salons” of the adaptation by having friends assemble in apartment living rooms and serving French wine as actors blazed delectably over the words. It was joyful. The surface between Molière and me had gently crumbled.
I’ll admit, at mine own peril, that I still seldom see productions of Molière that tread this twanging tightrope effectively. Like a lot of the other classics, I think there’s a lot to be said for versions that embrace the vraisemblable (remember?) of Molière, big wigs and brocade coats and wide skirts and facing out and speechifying to the middle distance. But some of the vrai is what I miss. The truth under the surface. The us under the them.
When Martin Crimp’s adaptation was remounted in 2009 (with Keira Knightley fresh off Atonement), Crimp wrote a piece for The Guardian about his own crisis moment with Molière. In the article (you can find it here, it’s fun!), Crimp interviews Molière himself, who is bustling around modern London reading about David Cameron and staying at a budget hotel in Covent Garden. Crimp-as-Molière is worried that his play isn’t relevant. He’s worried that now people tell the truth too much, that the age of surfaces is over. He’s worried that there’s nothing for Alceste to be mad about. Crimp-as-Crimp reassures him. No there’s plenty to be pissed about. Politics. Social media. Theatre critics.
But the age of surfaces isn’t over. It might never be. I think Crimp probably would disagree with, oh, everything I’ve said? Good for him, he’s quite well-known. He and many others might argue that Molière was a man whose plays were angry shish kebabs of the things he hated in the world. They’d say that Molière himself was The Misanthrope who hates society, but I think a fella doesn’t write a play that tells people what’s wrong with the world because he hates it. I think he writes that play because he loves the world, and wants everyone to look at themselves and make it better.
Matt Minnicino’s work has been developed around the country. Besides Molière, he has adapted Chekhov (three times), Strindberg, Ibsen, Gorky, Genet, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Homer, The Book of Genesis, poems by Rilke, art by Magritte, and more. He is an alumnus of Pipeline Theatre’s PlayLab, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, and SPACE on Ryder Farm and is the winner of the Arts & Letters Prize.
A Misanthrope begins previews May 30, 2019, and runs through June 30. Performances are at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206.
Tickets are $40 and available online or by calling 703-418-4808. Advance-purchase Pay What You Will tickets are also now available online for previews, and will be on sale online for all other performances beginning the Monday before.