Molière's Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays

Molière's Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays

Molière's Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays

Molière's Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays


Exploring each of Molière's 33 plays (including the divertissements) for its theatrical possibilities, Bermel deals with dramatic structures, settings, roles and their interactions, original productions, and outstanding recent stage performances in France, Britain, and the United States. His emphasis is theatrical rather than literary, philosophical, or biographical, although he necessarily brings these considerations to bear when discussing certain plays.

Bermel introduces a new methodology, one featuring the type of scrutiny directors, actors, and designers apply to any play before and during rehearsal. Thus he studies the dramatic implications of each scene or part of a scene by noting which characters are present, which ones are absent, and why. He analyzes each role, explores interactions among characters, traces the significance of structure, considers how much information is provided and who provides it, and examines such notable background factors as setting, season, and scenic arrangement. Using this methodology, Bermel provides new interpretations of Molière's most celebrated plays and demonstrates that many of the less famous plays also deserve attention.

Previous Molière critics have been conservative, especially in that they favor traditional stagings; Bermel, however, encourages new explorations of the plays. His main intention is to keep Molière alive and vital for present and future readers and audiences. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his attention to, and sympathy for, female characters and their points of view.


I n this book I describe in more detail than is usual the incidents that make up the action onstage and the events that complement them with offstage contributions from the story. Readers familiar with the plays will, I hope, recognize that these are not routine summaries but attempts to redefine those incidents. In The Criticism of the School for Wives and The Rehearsal at Versailles, Molière shows his own irritation with misunderstandings of what he meant that go back to faulty readings of what has taken place between the characters. He allows ample room for disagreement about the incidents, before we get to the meanings, and readers who dissent from my versions of those incidents will at least notice exactly where we begin to part company. There is an additional reason for recapitulating at least some of the action of each play and that is the repetition of names. Dorante, Valère, Cléante (Cléonte), Géronte, Dorimène, Gorgibus, Angélique, Oronte, Clitandre, Léandre, Mariane, and, most often, Sganarelle, recur as different roles, that is, as new implements of Molière's plotting. It seems to me desirable to remind readers of their special functions in each instance.

The book's three main divisions have been arrived at for the sake of convenience; they do not offer my granitic taxonomy of Molière's collected works. It is possible to slice the totality in different ways for critical purposes. As with any breakdown, this one includes many overlapping or marginal cases. The title of part I, "Preliminaries," should not be taken to imply that the earlier writings are inferior theatre. They accomplish admirably what Molière seems to have set out to do, and I see no value in comparing them unfavorably with plays written under other circumstances and for other audiences when Molière was an older, and therefore different, man and author. Their characters, situations, and themes may supply him with material he will reshape in his later plays, for he plundered his own work as unapologetically as he did other writers'; but one of his most fascinating qualities is his gift for transforming old material into new by an artistic process akin to the assembling of found objects into collages. The Flying Doctor succeeds in its own right, but it also leads to The Doctor in Spite of Himself and The Imaginary Invalid. From the early farcical romp The Jealous Husband, he retains the farce while adding a pathos that verges on tragedy when he opens it up into . . .

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