23 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (2)

... of course, the answer might simply be that all their fine words about artistic value are almost immediately undermined by their panicked reaction when there's any kind of threat to their gravy train.

But the purpose of this post is to note a contribution to the debate on vraisemblance. In Act 1 Scene 2, the Dancing Master proposes a musical sketch featuring shepherds and shepherdesses. Why is it always shepherds? Jourdan asks.

Lorsqu’on a des personnes à faire parler en musique, il faut bien que pour la vraisemblance on donne dans la bergerie. Le chant a été de tout temps affecté aux bergers ; et il n’est guère naturel en dialogue, que des princes, ou des bourgeois chantent leurs passions.

which is obviously a parody of  a certain theory of theatre. But it's basically true in recognising that what is accepted as realistic is very changeable.


Since writing the above, I've finished the play and what has struck me most is the slightness, the inconsequentiality of the plot. Jourdain's clumsy attempts to woo Dorimene come to nothing, as do his attempts to marry his daughter to Dorante. It all falls apart much too easily, with very little real peril. Jourdain is made to look a bit of a fool, but is materially pretty much unaffected. As with Amphitryon, it's as if the narrative itself gets bored and calls a halt. Perhaps that's why I found I had little memory of the story, but just recognised a few smart phrases. I don't even remember being upset by the lack of plot-complication: didn't we notice it?

If you were to compare this play with The Alchemist for example, you'd see exactly what I mean. Clearly a French 17th century comedy was a quite different thing to an English one. Perhaps it's just intended to be a series of amusing scenes, interspersed with music and dance, and we shouldn't expect anything else. So any coherent "plot" is a bonus, or even a distraction. Maybe, too, there's an influence of the orthodox 17th century French view that tragedy and comedy don't mix.

11 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1)

Again, I'm reading this online, here.

And already I've got something to go on. The first scene is peculiar. The Music Master and the Dancing Master have an unnecessarily long discussion about their patron. Partly it's exposition: we're told that Jourdain
 ...est un homme à la vérité dont les lumières sont petites, qui parle à tort et à travers de toutes choses, et n’applaudit qu’à contre-sens

and that he is driven by his pretention to be quasi-noble.

But the two Masters also have a brief debate on where the real reward for their work is to be found. Both recognise that Jourdain pays them well, which is important, but they agree that informed, educated appreciation of their work is the highest reward. The Dancing Master puts it most clearly:
Pour moi, je vous l’avoue, je me repais un peu de gloire. Les applaudissements me touchent ; et je tiens que dans tous les beaux arts, c’est un supplice assez fâcheux, que de se produire à des sots ; que d’essuyer sur des compositions, la barbarie d’un stupide. Il y a plaisir, ne m’en parlez point, à travailler pour des personnes qui soient capables de sentir les délicatesses d’un art ; qui sachent faire un doux accueil aux beautés d’un ouvrage ; et par de chatouillantes approbations, vous régaler de votre travail. Oui, la récompense la plus agréable qu’on puisse recevoir des choses que l’on fait, c’est de les voir connues ; de les voir caressées d’un applaudissement qui vous honore. Il n’y a rien, à mon avis, qui nous paye mieux que cela de toutes nos fatigues ; et ce sont des douceurs exquises, que des louanges éclairées.

It doesn't take up long, this discussion, but I'd bet it gets cut out of a lot of productions. The question is, why is it there in the first place?


Clearly, there was something wrong with my education, in that it failed to spoil French literature for me. Despite studying Candide for A level, I can still read it for enjoyment, and now I've started reading Molière's Amphitryon, a play I've never read before. It's one of those random readings. Petroc Trelawney on Radio 3 played Lully's overture the other day, and pronounced it in a way that I thought couldn't be correct. So I looked it up, and he was wrong (he had put the stress on the penultimate syllable, and rhymed it with lie on, the fool!) So a link or two led me to an online text of the play.

And what's really sad is that I can laugh at an exchange like this, where Sosie has been out-argued by Mercury, disguised as him.

L’action ne vaut rien.
370 Tu triomphes de l’avantage,
Que te donne sur moi mon manque de courage,
Et ce n’est pas en user bien.
C’est pure fanfaronnerie,
De vouloir profiter de la poltronnerie

Sosie was apparently played by Molière himself; of course he gets the best lines.

In another act of disguise, Jupiter is pretending to be Amphitryon, driven by lust for Alcmene. He says to her:

590 Vous voyez un mari ; vous voyez un amant :
Mais l’amant seul me touche, à parler franchement ;
Et je sens près de vous, que le mari le gêne.
Cet amant, de vos vœux, jaloux au dernier point,
Souhaite qu’à lui seul votre cœur s’abandonne ;
595 Et sa passion ne veut point,
De ce que le mari lui donne.
Il veut, de pure source, obtenir vos ardeurs ;
Et ne veut rien tenir des nœuds de l’hyménée :
Rien d’un fâcheux devoir, qui fait agir les cœurs,
600 Et par qui, tous les jours, des plus chères faveurs,
La douceur est empoisonnée.
Dans le scrupule enfin, dont il est combattu,
Il veut, pour satisfaire à sa délicatesse,
Que vous le sépariez d’avec ce qui le blesse ;
605 Que le mari ne soit que pour votre vertu ;
Et que de votre cœur, de bonté revêtu,
L’amant ait tout l’amour, et toute la tendresse.

While this is clearly a transparently cynical lotharism, I can't help but wonder if there's a general meditation going on, about duality of people, possibly also about theatrical representation. And of course, Amphi...  Duplicity. More to follow ...

Act 2 scene 2

Si sa bouche dit vrai, nous avons même sort ;
Et de même que moi, Monsieur, vous êtes double.

In Act 2, both Amphitryon and Sosie find that the actions of their doubles have damaged their relationships with their wives (Alcmene and Cléanthis). Jupiter has been playing as the lover, not the spouse, while au contraire Mercury has been cold with Cléanthis. The word transports is used a lot. Amphitryon thinks Alcmene has been unfaithful - but who with?


So, having finished reading, what of it?

The play ends quite abruptly. Jupiter and Mercury both tire of the imposture. Jupiter tells Amphitryon that Alcmene will bear a heroic son, Hercules. The gods return to the heavens. That's it.

It seems more like an entertainment than a real play, because of this ending. The intrigue unravels too quickly and easily.

Can we still see it as mythologised psychology? Amphitryon needs to learn to express the amant within: the result will be Hercules. In an imaginary staging, I'd like to see the two doubled characters played by actors who have very little physical resemblance, to stress the fantasy of it, the feeling that a blinding power is being exerted, not necessarily by the presumed gods even.

But I'm finding hard to have a definite view. Let's read some more Molière, and why not start with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, another school set text, which I'd expect to still enjoy.