I've been meaning to read the French dramatist Molière for years now, and finally I've read what is regarded as one of his finest places - The Misanthrope (Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux), first performed in 1666.
In this the 'misanthrope' is Alceste who, at the beginning of the play, tells his friend Philinte he is tired of society's falseness and it's sycophantic and pretentious ways. As he explains,
You [speaking to Alceste] ought to be mortally ashamed of yourself. What you did was beyond all possible excuse, absolutely shocking to any honourable man. I see you loading a fellow with every mark of affection, professing the tenderest concern for his welfare, overwhelming him with assurances, protestations, and offers of service and when he's gone and I ask you who he is - you can scarcely tell me his name! Your enthusiasm dies with your parting. Once we are alone you show that you care nothing about him. Gad! What a base, degrading, infamous thing it is to stoop to betraying one's integrity like that. If ever I had had the misfortune to do such a thing I'd go and hang myself on the spot in sheer self-disgust.
|Front cover of the 1877 edition.|
After that confrontation, Alceste decides to confront Célimène, the woman with whom he is in love, about her equally false and flattering behaviour. She is unwilling to change her ways and proves it when they are joined by Acaste and Clitandre, along with Philinte and Eliante. Much to Alceste's horror they all begin gossiping; this episode is abruptly ended with the arrival of Basque who directs him to an officer regarding his squabble with Oronte requiring him to appear before the Marshals of France. Meanwhile, poor Alceste will learn just how false Célimène truly is...
This is a great play on the hypocrisies of society and the consequences of not conforming, as well as a good snapshot of high society in France in the mid-17th Century. It's also a tale on unrequited love (and on just how irrational love can be) and having the strength and courage of mind not to change oneself for one's love interest.
I am, in short, so pleased I've finally read Molière!.I have four other plays by him which I'm looking forward to read in 2016: The Sicilian, Tartuffe, A Doctor In Spite of Himself, and The Imaginary Invalid. Until then, here are two illustrations from the 1909 edition published by Little, Brown &co. Unfortunately I don't know who the illustrator is.