A modern prose translation of Molière’s 1666 classic, Le Misanthrope
by David Nicholson ©
[4 women; 4 men; +1 small role that could be doubled by either]
approximate running time: 60-75 minutes
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When Molière wrote Le Misanthrope at the peak of his craft in 1666, many theatre-goers were caught off guard by its difference from his previous comedies. In the long run, it became his most critically acclaimed play, often compared to Hamlet. It has also been one of his most frequently produced: it’s been seen over 2400 times at the Comédie- Française alone, including a modern-dress production running until March, 2017.
Plot and characters:
Le Misanthrope is driven more by character than by plot. It takes place entirely in the home of Célimène, a beautiful young widow, and opens with Alceste infuriated at his friend Philinte for engaging in such social niceties as paying insincere compliments. We meet bad poet Oronte, wealthy wastrels Clitandre and Acaste, prude Arsinoé, and Célimène’s sensible cousin Éliante.
A Modern Play
Le Misanthrope is Molière’s most modern play, and not only because there are no daughters to be married off. It’s a play about a strongly principled if psychologically troubled man, an independent woman, and the men and women who surround them. It raises questions, but provides few answers. In translating Molière’s French verse into English prose, I deliberately used a contemporary, though generally non-colloquial, level of language to match that modernity. I chose a new title, Truth Hurts and So Does Love, to underline my belief that there’s more to the play than Alceste.
Not a Comedy Like the Others
Modern English-speaking audiences are often as surprised as 17th century Paris theatre-goers to realize the play is not a Molière comedy like Tartuffe or The Miser – changing the title is one way of changing expectations. I’ll leave the rest of the explanation to three theatre reviewers:
- “The story is one of the least conventionally comic in Molière’s canon”
~ Canadian critic Christopher Hoile, 2007
2. “part of the Misanthrope’s greatness lies, then, in its pushing comedy as far in the direction of tragedy as it can go”
~ American critic John Simon, 1975.
3. “The Misanthrope’s brand of comedy makes solid citizens laugh without the kind of tasteless tired jokes they’ve become accustomed to. It elicits fewer guffaws, to be sure – it’s humour that engages the mind in a more lasting way; it evokes laughter in the soul [“rire dans l’âme.”]
~ translated from Jean Donneau de Visé, in his review of the 1666 opening night of Le Misanthrope.
Excerpt from ACT II:
I like people to like me. Does that make me a horrible person? If someone walks in with a big smile, would you prefer I beat him back with a stick?
No – I’d prefer you beat him back with self-control. Right now you give your affections away to everyone. Your eyes invite them in, your smile makes them stay, and your oh-so-captivating laugh has them coming back for more and I . . . I have no idea why you want them to. Clitandre – just for one. Is it the artistic fingernails, the different hair colour every week, or the way she preens when she’s convinced she’s tossed off an exquisite bon mot? You could find better at an upscale zoo.
That’s not fair, Alceste . . . not fair to me. You know Clitandre has powerful friends who can make or break my current court case on a whim.
I’d rather lose the case than court a whim like that.
That’s you. I’d rather win.
Clitandre’s not even the worst.
You’re jealous of everybody.
You flirt with everybody.
Of course I do. That’s how little it matters to me. If I didn’t spread my flirting around, you might have cause for concern.
And what do you offer me that you don’t offer all of them?
You have to ask?
The happiness of knowing you’re loved.
I want to believe it. . . .
Then why don’t you?
For all I know, you’ve said the same to dozens.