A nouveau riche attempts to acquire high culture and makes a fool of himself. A health-obsessed hypochondriac falls for a series of quack doctors and their remedies. A religious huckster preys on foolish aristocracy to obtain money and sexual favors. A young, snarky hipster mocks everything and anything, but finds nothing to believe in - not even his own misanthropy.
Are these plots from the late Twentieth Century perhaps? Quite the contrary. They come from the Seventeenth Century comedies Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Le Malade Imaginaire, Tartuffe, and Le Misanthrope, by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, commonly known by his stage name, Molière.
Born in an era when the profession of actor was considered to be morally suspect, Molière lived the sort of dramatic life one might associate with penny novels. He married the daughter of his (female) business partner, a girl half his age who is generally thought to be the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman. The Seventeenth Century equivalent of the tabloids accused him of marrying his own daughter, naturally, as Molière probably had an ongoing affair with the mother. (Reading the biographies of French intellectuals during this period is like watching the Jerry Springer show.) While performing in his last play, Le Malade Imaginaire, he was suddenly stricken, and died soon thereafter. Although the cause was almost certainly his tuberculosis, the popular rumor of the time was that he was poisoned at the behest of composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Molière and Lully worked together on many of Molière’s plays, which included music and dance sequences. The two had a falling out, and Molière switched to Marc-Antoine Charpentier, causing a bit of drama at the time.
I first read Tartuffe in high school, and loved it. Since that time, in addition to the plays I have read, I have seen excellent local productions of Le Misanthrope (California State University Bakersfield) and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Empty Space, a local theater). I never ceases to amaze me how modern and relevant his plays seem. As much as I love Shakespeare for his glorious language and timeless understanding of human nature, I must admit that his plots speak of long departed eras. Thus, I am somewhat surprised that Molière isn’t more popular today.
The School for Husbands was Molière’s first full length play, although it is still shorter than most of his best known works. Two brothers, Ariste and Sganarelle have been given the care of two orphaned young ladies, Léonor and Isabella, respectively. Each hopes to win the love of his lovely ward. Ariste is fairly laid back, and allows Léonor and her maid Lisette to attend fashionable parties, and generally treats her as an equal. Sganarelle, in contrast, prefers to keep his intended in a box, and governs her in an overbearing manner.
From the very beginning, it is clear that Sganarelle has no use for pleasure or society. He argues with Ariste over his antisocial behavior.
Ariste: That surly humor, whose severity
Shuns all the pleasures of society,
Gives all your actions an eccentric air,
And lends uncouthness even to what you wear.
Sganarelle: Of course, I must be fashion’s slave! Oh yes!
And not content myself in how I dress!
Wouldn’t you like to see me ape the ways
Of your young fashionable popinjays,
Wear one of their ridiculous chapeaux
That bare weak brains to every breeze that blows,
And a blond wig that takes up so much space
As quite to obfuscate the human face?
A tiny doublet, like to disappear,
And a great collar reaching down to here?
Those sleeves, at dinner sampling every food,
Those petticoats, as breeches misconstrued?
Those ribbons on the shoes, which look as sweet
As feathers look upon a pigeon’s feet?
And those great canions, reaching from the knees,
Which rob the legs of freedom and of ease,
And give our gallant fops a straddling gait
As though on shuttlecocks they ambulate?
This is the way you’d like to see me dressed:
Wearing this trash, like you and all the rest.
This is, of course, a brilliant and cutting takedown of the fashion of the time, and an excellent example of Molière’s cutting wit. However, Ariste’s response is sensible, and cuts to the heart of the issue.
Ariste: Aways we must accept the general ways,
And never draw on us the public gaze.
In clothes as well as speech, the man of sense
Will shun all these extremes that give offense,
Dress unaffectedly, and, without haste,
Follow the changes in the current taste.
I have no wish to set men on the road
Of those who always overdo the mode
And, loving its extremes, would feel distress
If anyone outdid them in excess.
But I maintain no reason makes it right
To shun accepted ways from stubborn spite;
And we may better join the foolish crowd
Than cling to wisdom, lonely though unbowed.
In context, I think Ariste’s use of the word “wisdom” is sarcastic. The point is that Sganarelle is drawing attention to himself through his aggressive disregard of fashion. He is seeking to make an impression every bit as much as the most fashionable. I am reminded of groups like the Amish and others who intentionally adopt fashions from the past. The problem is that this decision is held out as being somehow more “moral” than modern fashion choices - just as Sganarelle does here. He clearly thinks he is a better person, as becomes clear as the play progresses.
Not only does Sganarelle adopt this philosophy for himself, he also imposes it on his ward. After Ariste indicates that he intends to continue to give Léonor her freedom, Sganarelle relies:
Sganarelle: Do as you will. But I intend that mine
Live not by hers, sir, but by my design.
Dress in a decent woolen serge or baize,
And wear black only on the proper days;
That closeted, as girls should be, indoors,
She put her mind all on household chores,
Mending my clothes when other work is done,
Or knitting me some stockings just for fun;
And that, completely deaf to all sweet talk,
She never go unchaparoned to walk.
Lest one mistake this idea for a relic of the Seventeenth Century, I will note that there is a subculture familiar to me that advocates this exact idea.
Molière recognizes the logical result of this plan. In typical fashion, he lets the servant have the cheeky response. I might even go so far as to say that the servants have all the best lines in any Molière play.
Lisette: Indeed, I am appalled at all these quirks.
Imprison women? Are we among Turks?
I hear they treat them there like slaves, or worse,
And that is why God marks them with his curse.
You must think us quite ready to discard
Our honor, that you put it under guard.
Come, do you really think all these precautions
Are any obstacle to our intentions,
And that, when we’ve an mind, we can’t prevail,
And make a fool out of the smartest maile?
You act like madmen when you spy on us.
The greatest danger is for you to hector:
Our honor wants to be its own protector.
You almost give us a desire to sin
When you take such great care to hem us in;
And if a husband used constraint on me,
I might let him see what he should see.
Ariste, too, thinks this is ludicrous.
Ariste: Suspicions, locks, and bars are all misplaced,
And will not keep our girls and women chaste.
‘Tis honor that must hold them to their duty,
Not our confinement of their beauty.
It must be a strange woman, I confess,
Who owes her virtue solely to duress.
We hope to rule their every step in vain;
I say the heart is what we have to gain;
My honor would I think in jeopardy,
For all my worry, in the custody
Of one who, if temptation should assail,
Would lack only a ready chance to fail.
Sganarelle cannot understand this apparent laxity, but Ariste replies:
Ariste: At least thank God I am no martinet.
I’d hate to practice those forbidding ways
That force children to count their father’s days.
A brilliant and piercing line, that.
Unsurprisingly, Sganarelle’s austerity has not exactly won Isabelle’s heart. Rather, she loves Valère, a young man that Sganarelle disdains. While Valère bemoans the fact that Isabelle is kept under wraps, his servant Ergaste notes that “That helps your cause, and you have grounds for hope, In that he gives your love so little rope. Be steadfast in the course you have begun: A woman that is watched is halfway won.”
The majority of the play from this point forward involves Valère and Isabelle plotting to get married to each other. They both use Sganarelle to unwittingly pass messages to each other, and indeed, to set up the marriage ceremony itself. This, like the other mad schemes that Molière is fond of, makes for a delicious farce at the expense of the sanctimonious Sganarelle. The lovers use words charged with a double meaning, using Sganarelle himself to convey their love for each other, and he never suspects it. Their plots eventually lead to a situation in which Sganarelle is convinced that Léonor is attempting to elope on Ariste. While Ariste is shocked that his ward did not confide in him, he has no wish to interfere.
Ariste: I never will accept the weakling’s part,
Of wanting to possess a loveless heart.
Ariste need not fear, of course. Léonor is bored by the overeager young men chasing her.
Lisette: Each one tries hard to please your eye, I’m sure.
Léonor: And that is just what I cannot endure.
I’d rather hear good plain talk any day
Than all the silly empty things they say.
To them their blond wig is a smashing hit;
And they assume they are the soul of wit
When they come up with some ironic jest
To the effect that older men love best.
As Le Misanthrope proved, Molière anticipated the hipster by about 350 years. In the end, of course, everything turns out fine for everyone. (It is a comedy, after all.) Except for Sganarelle, but he gets his proper comeuppance.
Lisette’s words conclude the play:
Lisette: [to the audience] If any husband is a churlish fool,
This is the place to send him - to our school.
I highly recommend Molière as an entertaining and amusing author, but also as a piquant commentator on our own times. The School for Husbands is not a bad place to start, although all of his major works are enjoyable and well worth a read.
Note on the translation:
My version of these plays was translated by Donald M. Frame in the 1960s. As one can tell from the quotes, he attempts to retain the rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, which actually works pretty well. I am not sure which translations were used for the live versions that I saw, but the language worked well there as well. I found that Molière generally wrote in a simple enough style so that the translations did not need to search too much for a good English equivalent. I will admit, however, that I have not read them in the original French, so I must go by what I have noted in the English versions.
Note on the music:
Jean-Baptiste Lully is considered to be the father of the French Baroque style. Immensely popular during his lifetime, and a favorite of the aristocracy, his works are largely forgotten today. He, like Molière, was a frequent subject of the tabloid, being a notorious libertine with a taste for both women and men. His death was also oddly ironic. While beating time with a staff, he accidentally smashed his toe. It turned gangrenous, he refused an amputation, and the infection killed him.
Lully’s music accompanies most of Molière’s plays, although it is practically never heard in that context today, which is a shame.
Lully’s successor, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, in contrast, was more famous for his sacred than for his secular music. His style is more backward-looking, often using the modes and counterpoint from Renaissance era music in combination with the newer Baroque styles. Modern musical judgment generally considers Charpentier to be the superior composer to Lully, although both were excellent and influential within their own spheres. Lully influenced opera and ballet for centuries thereafter, while Charpentier established the sacred style that would be perfected by Bach and Handel a half century later.
For comparison, here are the Te Deums by each composer, performed on period instruments. I find both to be inspiring and delightful in their own way. I will admit that Charpentier managed to write one of the most memorable trumpet themes of all time.