The Misanthrope by Molière.


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.
During this conversation a French marquis, Oronte, arrives and asks for an appraisal of his poem. As Philinte lavishly praises it Alceste is aghast; when Oronte asks for Alceste asks for his candid opinion Alceste delivers, and as Philinte observes, "A nice awkward business" has arisen.

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.

Comments

  1. I love the Misanthrope - but didn’t you find John Wood’s 1950s prose translation a bit antiquated? How about this for that same speech by Alceste:

    PHILINTE So I’ve already been tried and convicted?

    ALCESTE If you had any self-respect at all, you would already have pleaded guilty. You fawned over that man in there as if he’d dedicated his entire life to healing the sick and feeding the poor. And when I asked you who he was, you could barely remember his name - in your mind he had already returned to the nothing he really is. Were you afraid to say what you think? If you were, you’re no better than he is. It’s . . . it’s despicable. If I’d acted that way, I’d hang myself.

    PHILINTE And now I’ve been sentenced. I wish I’d known it was a hanging offence. In that case, your lordship, would it be too forward to ask for a stay of execution?

    ALCESTE I’m serious.

    PHILINTE You always are, Alceste.

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    1. I actually like Wood's better (if that's the quote from O's review). The words are more powerful and it takes me back to that time. It's always interesting to compare translations. I've been looking at translations for Herodotus' Histories, and even one word choice can alter the meaning of a sentence.

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    2. I did like the translation by Wood, as you say Cleo it did take me back to that time. That said, David, the translation you've quoted somehow seems a lot livelier! I think I'd actually rather read that one - who is the translator? :)

      My Herodotus translator is Aubrey de Sélincourt - have you heard anything good or bad his version?

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    3. I've actually been looking at a few Herodotus translations, but rather than clutter your comments, I'll pm you. It's quite interesting.

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    4. As you might already have guessed, o, it was my translation. :-) It's not quite finished (after 8 years), but I can send you my prose translation of Tartuffe or Educating Women (Les Femmes Savantes) if you want.

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    5. Yes, that would be great, thank you! My email address is o.beholdthestars@gmail.com :)

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  2. I read each of your revews and particularly enjoy them as they are so different from the others. And I like your love of "classics". This play by Molière is an important one as are "The Imaginary Invalid" (he almost died on stage when playing the title role - he died off stage at the end of the performance) and "Tartuffe", which is a masterpiee. The two others are less corrosive and belong to the first period of his writing. If you could find "Dom Juan" ,"Les Précieuses Ridicules", "L'Ecole des Femmes", "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme", you would have other great plays to read. Thank you for this review of a great French dramatist.

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    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoy my reviews :) I think after I've finished this volume of plays I'll definitely want to read more so I'll check out the titles you suggest - thank you :)

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  3. It's so funny this year that you keep picking up books/authors that are high to my TBR. I need to get more focus as I seem to be straying off into all sorts of genres and periods. Your review is really my first exposure to Molière, but I've heard so many positive comments about him lately that I can't wait to read him.

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    1. It is odd that at the minute we seem to be on the same bent! I was thinking that the other day :) Mind, that said, I think I want to read some Trollope today and I don't think he's on your radar right now, so there's one deviation :)

      I've been meaning to read Molière for ages, so happy I finally have. "Molière" was just a name I knew but I knew nothing about him or his works, so I'm glad to be a tad more familiar :)

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