Molière’s Enigmatic Comedies
// Micheline’s Blog
- Dom Juan
- Le Misanthrope
Molière wrote several enigmatic comedies, but Tartuffe, Dom Juan and Le Misanthrope are the better known. All three feature masks and all three present daring and, occasionally, incongruous juxtapositions.
Tartuffe is our first case. Tartuffe feigns devotions to ruin a recoverable father, Orgon, and his family. In Reynard the Fox, Reynard escapes a death sentence by claiming he has converted and will go to the Crusades. False devotion is not a new mask. However, given Jansenism, Casuistry and Protestantism, 17th-century France was put to a test that imperiled Molière’s portrayal of feigned devotion on the part of Tartuffe, who is also a casuiste. Tartuffe was first performed in the summer of 1664 during Les Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée, multi-day festivities held at the newly built Versailles. The play was banned by Louis XIV and Molière had to revise his comedy twice, in 1667 and in 1669, before it was considered as acceptable.
Our second play is Molière’s Dom Juan, which premièred the following year, on 15 February 1665. Dom Juan’s valet Sganarelle describes his master as a “grand seigneur méchant homme,” (“a great lord but a bad man”) and “un épouseur à toutes mains,” (“one who’ll marry anyone”) (I, 1). Given his rank, it seems unfitting on the part of Dom Juan to stoop to infidelities with peasant girls. Molière’s Dom Juan does not seduce Charlotte and Mathurine, but he has left his home and his wife, Done Elvire, and there was already a Dom Juan of legend who lingered in the mind of spectators.
Most importantly, however, Dom Juan was calling for the wrath of God by trivializing unacceptable behaviour. Molière’s Dom Juan would therefore suffer the fate awaiting the trompeur of all farces. The plot of farces is that of the “deceiver deceived,” or “trompeur trompé,” and, in Dom Juan’s case, the trompé, is heaven itself. Consequently, although Molière’s Dom Juan is less of a seducer than an audience might expect, he will be engulfed into the earth. A “machine,” a theatrical device, is used and he is led to perdition by the hand of the dead-yet-alive stone guest, the commandeur he has killed.
Dom Juan’s father reminds his son that “noblesse oblige.” In other words, there is incongruity in Dom Juan’s behaviour and although he is a “grand seigneur,” it was arrogant on his part to ignore the commandments of a greater lord, our Lord.
Our third case is The Misanthrope (4 June 1666). In a letter to d’Alembert, on theatre, Lettre à Monsieur d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778), who was an admirer of Molière, criticized the Misanthrope (4 June 1666) because Molière had ridiculed Alceste, a good man. In Rousseau’s opinion, “l’homme de bien” should not be subjected to ridicule. Doing so is discourteous and such a juxtaposition is incongruous.
Where Alceste is concerned, gallantry is a factor, the beau monde, no sooner does the curtain lift than Alceste pounce on gallants. He tells Philinte, the raisonneur, that “he hates
- … nothing so much as the bowing and scraping
- of those great makers of protestations,
- those affable givers of trumpery kissers,
- those obliging praters of empty words,
- who strive to outdo each other with civilities,
- and treat an honest man and a scoundrel with the same air and manner.”
The Misanthrope, Internet Archive
(see also the The Misanthrope, Wikisource)
- Et je ne hais rien tant, que les contorsions (1)
- De tous ces grands faiseurs de protestations, (2)
- Ces affables donneurs d’embrassades frivoles, (3)
- Ces obligeants diseurs d’inutiles paroles, (4)
- Qui de civilités, avec tous, font combat, (5)
- Et traitent du même air, l’honnête homme, et le fat.” (6)
Le Misanthrope, I, 1, v. 43-48
It is difficult not to agree with the six lines quoted above. Alceste’s criticism of the society he lives in is accurate. However, it is conditioned by the sixth line. In a world where everybody praises everybody, good persons and scoundrels, “l’honnête homme et le fat,” how can he, Alceste, believe those who praise him and whose praise he needs?
No one needs to explore Alceste’s hatred of humanity. Let him continue speaking down to the sixth line at which point he will disgrace himself irredeemably.
“But what advantage is it to you if a man courts you,
swears friendship, faith, zeal, honor, tenderness,
makes you some fulsome compliment,
and than turn round to the first rascal he meets, and does the same.” (I, 1)
The Misanthrope, Internet Archive
(also see The Misanthrope, Wikisource)
- “Quel avantage a-t-on qu’un homme vous caresse,
- Vous jure amitié, foi, zèle, estime, tendresse,
- Et vous fasse de vous un éloge éclatant,
- Lorsqu’au premier faquin il court en faire autant ?” (I, 1)
We are in Célimène’s home, the young widow with whom Alceste has fallen in love and who loves Alceste. But the individuals he despises, threatening to find a refuge in one of the many “deserts” of French 17th-century literature, are the very people Célimène entertains by depicting their faults gracefully: “Les rieurs sont pour vous, Madame…” (“The laughers are on your side Madam…”) Yet, Célimène’s “portraits” match Alceste’s depictions of others. She makes fun of the very people Alceste criticizes. In other words, they are the opposite sides of the very same coin.
Alceste and Célimène differ however in that Célimène can survive at court. She is twenty, pretty and witty. He’s older, he growls, and he demands frankness not on moral grounds, but because he wishes to be certain that compliments addressed to him are true. Alceste is not a misanthrope; he is vain and insecure.
Ironically, a little gallantry would benefit Alceste, both morally and esthetically. No, as Philinte exclaims, one does not tell a woman that she is too old to wear the makeup she chooses. And would that Alceste had not criticized Oronte’s poem (I, 2) but simply changed the subject while escorting Oronte to the door.
Alceste does combine, in one character, not only “l’homme de bien” (the good man) and “le personnage ridicule,” (the ridiculous character) but also the young lover of comedy, le blondin, barely out of boyhood but whose marriage is awaited, and the barbon, the bearded older man, who opposes his wishes. Alceste combines two functions, a most incongruous juxtaposition.
Célimène doesn’t feel she can follow Alceste into a “desert,” not at the age of twenty, but she will marry him. He insists on taking her to a “desert” and rejects her:
- “Non ; mon cœur à présent vous déteste,
- Et ce refus lui seul fait plus que tout le reste. ” (V, scène dernière)
No; my heart detests you now.
This one rebuff does more than all the rest. (V, last scene)
(see Wikisource, The Misanthrope)
Monsieur Loyal, Tartuffe
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
- Dom Juan
- the use of a deus ex machina
- Le Misanthrope
The above-mentioned plays may seem and are problematical, but Molière is writing comedies. In comedies, the Shakespearean “all’s well that ends well” prevails. God punishes Dom Juan. As for Tartuffe, a prince who hates fraudulent activities, “un prince ennemi de la fraude,” sees that Tartuffe is in the process of defrauding Orgon and strikes. Monsieur Loyal, pictured above, is about to take Orgon’s belongings away, when an “Exempt” arrives and arrests the faux dévot.
But it’s a close call, too close a call. A comedy ends well, but a prince, a “deus ex machina,” should not have to intervene so that Orgon’s family is freed of its faux dévot. Nor should Molière have to use une machine. Dom Juan is led to eternal perdition by the dead-yet-alive commandeur whom he killed. Such remedies are too drastic. A guilty finger is pointed at society and, in Tartuffe’s case, Orgon empowered Tartuffe.
In the Misanthrope, no machine is required. Alceste is precisely as Célimène describes him in the portrait scene (II, 4): “il prend contre lui-même assez souvent les armes” (“He often takes up arms against himself[.]”)
(see Wikisource, The Misanthrope)
In an insightful analysis of Dom Juan and The Misanthrope, Professor Jules Brody described, as follows, the problematic of both plays. In Dom Juan and the Misanthrope, we witness the victory of the esthetically right, Célimène makes people laugh by mocking them in her portraits, which is esthetically right but morally wrong. As for Dom Juan, he is un grand seigneur.
I will simply add that, in Dom Juan and Le Misanthrope, Molière pushes comedy as a genre to its very limits. In the Misanthrope, by virtue of its structure, le blondin (the young lover) is le barbon (the blocking character), or the eirôn is the alazṓn (Greek comedy). In The Misanthrope, Molière may have replaced the forgiving “All’s well that ends well” by comedy’s other schéma: the farcical deceiver deceived.
As you may know, I am attempting to write a book on Molière. Hence the delays. I have just shared a few thoughts.
Love to everyone. ♥
Sources and Resources
The Misanthrope is an Internet Archive publication
The Misanthrope is a Wikisource publication, translated by Curtis Hidden Page
http://fresques.ina.fr/jalons/fiche-media/InaEdu05426/le-misanthrope-de-moliere.html (the portrait scene II, 4, video) FR
 Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot were the co-founders of l‘Encyclopédie.
 Jules Brody, “Don Juan” and “Le Misanthrope,” or The Esthetics of Individualism in Molière,” PMLA, 84 (May 1969), p. 559 – 575.
 Micheline Bourbeau-Walker, “Le Misanthrope, ou la comédie éclatée,” in ed. David Trott & Nicole Boursier. L’Âge du Théâtre en France /The Age of Theater in France (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1988), p. 53 – 61.
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© Micheline Walker
6 May 2016
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