28 July 2016

'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme' (Lincoln Center Festival 2016)

Molière may be more popular with theater folk—actors and directors—than audiences, at least on this side of the Atlantic.  His plays are read in college courses, particularly French language and literature classes, and they appear on university and rep company stages around the country, but commercially, I don’t know that they sell so well.  Except for the raucous adaptation of the commedia farce Scapino in the mid-1970s, nearly all Broadway revivals of Molière plays have had very short runs.  (The non-profit Off-Broadway subscription troupes, like the regional reps, have mounted many productions, 24 since 1956, but no Off-Broadway productions were commercial runs.)

Still, Molière is the most famous theater name in France.  He is to the French stage what Calderón is to Spain, Schiller and Goethe are to Germany, or Shakespeare is to Britain.  France’s national theater, the Comédie-Française, is known as the House of Molière and the country’s national theater award, the counterpart of our Tony and the U.K.’s Olivier, is the Molière, first presented in 1987. 

As part of the 2016 Lincoln Center Festival, C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the Paris-based international troupe, has brought its  production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, billed as a comédie-ballet with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (a division of the City University of New York) on West 59th Street west of Columbus Circle.  The visit from Paris provided five evening performances in French with English supertitles between 20 and 24 July; Diana, my usual theater companion, and I caught the 7 p.m. show on Thursday, 21 July.  The production débuted at C.I.C.T.’s home theater on the Boulevard de la Chapelle near the Gare du Nord in Paris’s 10th Arrondissement from 19 June to 21 July 2012 and again from 26 June to 26 July 2015. 

The Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (C.I.C.T. – International Centre for Theatre Creation), formerly known as the International Centre for Theatre Research (C.I.R.T.), was founded in 1970 by Peter Brook, British director, experimentalist, and theoretician, and Micheline Rozan.  (I posted a research paper about “Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research” on ROT on 23 August 2011.)  This multicultural and multinational company, an assembly of actors, dancers, musicians, and other performing artists, travelled widely in the Middle East and Africa in the early 1970s on a three-year quest to explore the “common stories” of world culture.  In that period, Brook’s troupe presented some very large, experimental productions around the word, such as Orghast I & II, performed in 1971 at the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran in the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam, and The Conference of the Birds developed in West Africa in 1972.  In 1974, C.I.C.T. took over Paris’s Bouffes du Nord theater, a derelict former music hall and variety theater, built in 1876.  In 2008, Brook announced that he would gradually hand the reins of C.I.C.T. over to Olivier Mantei, Bouffes du Nord’s head of musical programming and former deputy director of Paris’s Opéra-Comique, and Olivier Poubelle, a theater entrepreneur specializing in modern music.  Mantei and Poubelle assumed leadership of C.I.C.T.in 2011 and the company now focuses on a mixture of popular music, opera, classical music, dance, and theater.  (In September and October this year, Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne will be bringing C.I.C.T.’s Battlefield, an excerpt of Jean-Claude Carrière’s monumental stage adaptation of The Mahabharata, to the Brooklyn Acadamy of Music, where, in 1988, they staged the full nine-hour, three-part spectacular.) 

Molière, the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-73), was born in Paris to an upholsterer, a prosperous member of the bourgeoisie, the French middle class.  At 21, he left the family business, abandoned the study of law and took up a career in the theater as an actor and, eventually, a playwright.  His first appearances on stage were with the Illustre Théâtre, a short-lived venture which soon went bankrupt in 1645.  After a brief stint in debtors’ prison, Molière adopted his professional name and rededicated himself to a life in the theater, spending most of the next dozen years barnstorming the French provinces with Madeleine Béjart, the Illustre’s leading lady and his mistress, and other itinerant performers, honing his skills as a comic actor and playwright (though he longed for success as a tragedian), and turning out a number of farces inspired by the Italian commedia dell’arte troupes he encountered in his travels. 

The company returned to Paris in 1658 with Molière as their manager and had a great success with his farce Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies or The Pretentious Young Ladies).  Invited to perform before Louis XIV (b. 1638, reigned 1643-1715), Molière’s troupe quickly won the king’s favor, and was granted the use of the Petit Bourbon (a court theater adjacent to the Louvre) and later the Palais-Royal for their farces, character comedies, and lavish court entertainments.  In 1662, Molière married Madeleine Béjart’s younger sister (or perhaps daughter), Armande, who became a leading actress in his company, beginning with his next play, L’École des femmes (The School for Wives), which propelled the playwright into the ranks of France’s greatest dramatists.

In 1661, Molière introduced the comédies-ballets in conjunction with Les Fâcheux (The Mad), called a diversion for the King’s amusement. These ballets were one of the first steps toward musical comedy in which dialogue, music, songs, and dance were combined in a coherent whole.  (We’ll see that in the case of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, I don’t really feel this is actually accomplished.)  Commissioned to mount both a play and a ballet in honor of Le Roi Soleil, Molière decided to combine the two.  The idea succeeded and Molière was asked to produce twelve more comédies-ballets before his death.  Molière’s collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87), the king’s court composer, began with Les Fâcheux, to which Lully contributed one song.  But Lully was also a dancer and choreographer and the king brought the two artists together to create more comedy ballets.  These musical theater pieces demand that the dancers and the actors both play important roles in advancing the plots.  Molière and Lully created Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, their ninth collaboration, in 1670, followed by several lesser-known pieces, but in 1672, Lully and Molière split and the playwright collaborated with composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) on the last play Molière wrote, The Imaginary Invalid.

A number of Molière’s plays were critical failures, however, and both Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur (1664) and Dom Juan ou Le Festin de pierre (Don Juan or The Feast with the Statue, 1665—usually simply called Don Juan in English) were censored despite the patronage of the Sun King.  Nonetheless, by 1665, Molière’s company was awarded regular pensions from the crown, and awarded the title of La Troupe du RoiLe Misanthrope ou L’Atrabilaire amoureux  (The Misanthrope, or the Cantankerous Lover, usually simply The Misanthrope in English) and Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself) premièred a year later, followed by L’Avare ou L’École du mensonge (The Miser—the subtitle, not used in English versions, means “The school of lying”—1668) and Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies, 1672).  

Molière’s next play, Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid, 1673), which ironically featured the playwright as a grousing hypochondriac, was to be his last: Molière, who was debilitated by tuberculosis (possibly contracted while in prison) since about 1665, collapsed on stage with a coughing fit.  The great writer insisted on finishing the performance, but died from severe hemorrhaging shortly afterwards.  He hadn’t received last rites because two priests refused to attend him (because he was an actor, an outcast profession), and a Christian burial was initially denied him.  The archbishop of Paris, however, responded to petitions from Molière’s widow and grudgingly allowed a private nighttime burial in the parish cemetery.

Just about all of Molière’s titles are well known, even if the plays themselves aren’t: The Miser, The Misanthrope, The Imaginary Invalid, TartuffeLe Bourgeois gentilhomme, the writer’s farcical send-up of social-climbing and class pretentions, belongs in this category (between 1879 and 2003, only three productions of The Would-Be Gentleman were mounted on Broadway, including one in French; none have been staged Off-Broadway).  

Unlike most of Molière’s other works, though, the title of Bourgeois gentilhomme often goes untranslated because it’s a little tricky.  One common rendering, The Would-Be Gentleman, is accurate but clumsy, another, The Bourgeois Gentleman, is misleading.  The title’s meant as an oxymoron.  A brief (if grammatical) explanation, then:  the word bourgeois in the title is a noun rather than an adjective.  A bourgeois, which is what Monsieur Jourdain is called in the list of characters, is a wealthy member of the middle class—a member of the Third Estate of the French- realm.  The word gentilhomme is used adjectivally (in English grammar, it’d be called an “attributive noun”).  A gentilhomme is an aristocrat, a man of “gentle birth,” often called in the play “une personne de qualité”—a member of the Second Estate.  Neither word refers to a man’s character, discernment, or social demeanor.  It’s solely a matter of birth and lineage: a “gentleman” in France was by definition nobly born, so there couldn’t be such thing as a “bourgeois gentleman.”  The meaning of the play’s title, then, isn’t ‘the gentleman who is bourgeois,’ but ‘the bourgeois who would be a gentleman.’   

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, commissioned by the king for performance by La Troupe du Roi at his hunting retreat at the Château of Chambord on the Loir River, satirizes attempts at social-climbing and both the bourgeois and aristocratic personality, poking fun on the one hand at the vulgar, pretentious middle-class and on the other, the vain, snobbish aristocracy.  Though Molière was always careful not to attack the monarchy itself, and the theme of Bourgeois gentilhomme is the fatuity of the bourgeois who would become a gentilhomme, it shouldn’t be lost on the spectators that the aristocrats in the play, Dorante and Dorimène, are scoundrels, liars, parasites, and dissemblers while the admirable characters, Cléonte and Madame Jourdain, are proud members of the middle class.  The members of the original audiences for Molière’s farce, all part of France’s Deuxième État, laughing at the foolishness of M. Jourdain, played by Molière, himself an actual member of the bourgeoisie, were, in fact, laughing at the mockery of their very own class.

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme takes place at Monsieur Jourdain’s house in Paris.  Jourdain (Pascal Rénéric) is a middle-aged bourgeois whose father grew rich as a cloth merchant.  The foolish Jourdain now has one aim in life: to be accepted as an aristocrat.  To this end, he orders splendid new clothes and is delighted when the tailor (Alexandre Steiger) mockingly addresses him as “Monseignieur” (“my Lord”).  He hires instructors to educate him in the gentlemanly arts of fencing (Manuel Le Lièvre), dancing (Thibault Vinçon), music (Julien Campani), and philosophy (Francis Leplay).  (Elisabeth Vincentelli, the reviewer for the New York Times, called Jourdain “the original culture vulture.”  Jerry Hochman of the website CriticalDance even suggested that in his 17th-century get-up, Vinçon resembled court dance master and Bourgeois gentilhomme choreographer Pierre Beauchamp, 1631-1705, and Campani looked like Lully—but I wouldn’t know and I wonder how may theatergoers today, even among the French audiences, would recognize these figures.)  

In pursuing his refinement, Jourdain continually manages to make a fool of himself, to the dismay of his hired teachers.  His philosophy instruction becomes a basic lesson in French elocution and language in which he’s surprised and delighted to learn that he’s been speaking prose all his life without knowing it.  (Of the elocution lesson, Vincentelli quipped that it was “a riotous scene that should haunt every American who has ever struggled with the French ‘u’ sound.”  I can relate to that, but what it called to mind more for me was distinguishing the German ü, which, when I mastered it, I felt a palpable sense of accomplishment.)

Madame Jourdain (Isabelle Candelier), the bourgeois’s down-to-earth wife, sees that he’s making a fool of himself and urges him to return to his customary middle-class life, and to forget all he’s learned.  A cash-strapped count named Dorante (Campani) has attached himself to M. Jourdain, though he secretly despises the man.  Dorante continually flatters Jourdain for, by telling the fool that he mentioned Jourdain’s name to the king at Versailles, the count can get Jourdain to pay his debts.  Jourdain’s hopes of being upper-class go higher and higher.  He dreams, for instance, of wooing a Marquise, Dorimène (Bénédicte Guilbert), and having his daughter, Lucille (Elodie Huber), marry a nobleman.  But Lucile’s in love with the middle-class Cléonte (Vinçon), a former soldier, while Cléonte’s valet, Covielle (Steiger), is in love with Lucile’s maid, Nicole (Manon Combes).  Of course, M. Jourdain refuses his permission for Lucile to marry Cléonte.

To hoodwink Jourdain into letting his daughter follow her heart, Cléonte, assisted by Covielle  and Mme. Jourdain, disguises himself as the son of the Sultan of Turkey and presents himself to Jourdain to ask for Lucile’s hand.  Jourdain, thrilled to have his daughter marry royalty, is taken in.  He’s even more delighted when “Son Altesse Turque” (‘His Turkish Highness’) informs him that, as father of the bride, he, too, will be officially elevated to the noble rank of Mamamouchi (a nonsense title) at a special ceremony.

Jourdain is invested in la cérémonie turque, an absurd Orientalist masque of dervishes, turbans, and carpets in a sequence that was especially requested by Louis XIV to travesty the snobbish behavior of the Ottoman envoy to the French court a few months earlier.  (These scenes proceed with the “Turks” speaking Sabir, a kind of pidgin used by sailors and traders around the Mediterranean basin from the 11th to the 19th centuries.  Based on various Italian and Iberian dialects of the late middle ages and early Renaissance, it borrowed also from North African languages and Turkish, French, Greek, and Arabic.  Sabir would have been intelligible to French-speakers, but translation is difficult, so English renditions often use Pidgin English for the comic effect.)  The play ends with this absurd ceremony, the “Ballet des Nations,” with much singing, chanting, and dancing.  (Denis Podalydès’s staging significantly truncates this intermède apparently.)

(A note about the travesty of Turkish and Muslim rites: my companion wondered how such obvious ridicule went unanswered by France’s often volatile Middle-Eastern populace.  The cérémonie turque and Le Ballet des Nations were certainly meant to be insulting—that’s what Louis XIV had wanted, after all—and Molière’s script even called for a Koran to be used as a comic prop, a bit that the Bouffes du Nord wisely cut.  As far as I know, no French reviewer made any mention of this cultural misstep, but also, no group or individual protested this aspect of the play.  This was apparently so even though I understand that the 10th Arrondissement, Bouffes du Nord’s home district, is heavily Muslim in population.)

A five-act comédie-ballet written mostly in prose, unlike Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope, the language of Bourgeois gentilhomme is very simple and its structure is almost elementary.  (It was good I still remember the play from reading it many years ago because the supertitles were useless.  One reviewer made this same complaint.)  It’s often criticized as comprising three acts of comedy, the first two of which are a nearly plotless series of lazzi, and two of extraneous comic buffoonery.  Diana called the play “vacuous nonsense,” but that’s just a (negative) take on Molière.  The playwright’s farces, unlike the high wit and comedy of manners of the next century, were founded on the low physical comedy of the Italian-style commedia dell’arte that was still popular when Molière was touring the provinces.  Molière had refined the comic clowning and humanized the stock characters of commedia into recognizable denizens of 17th-century French society, but his plays aren’t deep or intellectually challenging.  Diana’s response is a critic’s response—especially a literary critic’s.  Molière knew how to please an audience, however, and his plays, whatever their excesses, work.

Bouffes du Nord’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, however, was interesting, but loooong (three hours and 15 minutes with one intermission).  The music (directed by Christophe Coin) and dance (choreographed by Kaori Ito)—which for this production wasn’t conceived as period-appropriate—for the most part were attenuating rather than enhancing.  (In addition to Lully’s compositions for the original Bourgeois gentilhomme, Denis Podalydès and Coin added music by other composers.)  The exception was the opening intermède (‘interlude’) which is M. Jourdain’s music and dancing lesson and he interacts with the singers, dancers, and musicians.  (This also sets the tone for Jourdain’s buffoonish grasp of the refinements of the Deuxième État.)  The performances, however, were excellent—especially the Jourdain of Rénéric, who’s a brilliant physical comedian.  (The marvelous ensemble cast, in fact, is clearly superbly trained and experienced in physical acting, far more than we Americans are for the most part.)  The company was Peter Brook’s former troupe (he relinquished the directorship in 2011), but director Podalydès, is from the Comédie-Française.

While Podalydès, in collaboration with choreographer Ito and musical director Coin, evoked the world of 17th-century France as parodied by Molière, they created an interpretation that was modern in both movement and behavior.  Set designer Éric Ruf lined the back wall of the upstage area with bolts of fabric on vertical racks, revealing the reality of Jourdain’s life as a tradesman (a fact he desperately denies).  For the most part, though, this is the entire pictorial environment of Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with the exception of occasional chairs, rugs, or other props added and removed as needed.  There was no further period décor.  The large cutting table, which is moved about on casters, became all kinds of platforms for one activity or another. 

At stage left were the instruments of Coin’s musical ensemble (L’Ensemble la Révérence): cello, flute, oboe, violin, and harpsichord.  Costume designer Christian Lacroix used rich fabrics to suggest the excesses of the costumes used in the Sun King’s court's sumptuous entertainments (which Financial Times reviewer Max McGuinness labeled “Versailles-era bling”), and M. Jourdain’s absurd attire was a spot-on visual read-out of his ridiculous efforts to purchase good taste.

As a general rule, I find that seeing a play performed by a company from the culture—French actors doing Molière, Russians doing Chekov, Norwegians doing Ibsen—provides a special pleasure.  Obviously, that’s a generalization, but somehow they just get it in a way that foreign casts simply don’t.  It’s not just the language or the plot elements or even the characters, it’s the whole theatrical milieu endemic to the script.  The Brits, for instance, used to be terrible at doing Tennessee Williams or Neil Simon (they’ve gotten better somehow).  It was always slightly artificial, like Americans doing Restoration Comedy or even Oscar Wilde.  (When I was in Berlin in the army, our theater group got friendly with the Brit amateur troupe.  They came over to our place at Tempelhof and did a reading of some comedy—I don’t remember what it was anymore, but I think it was a modern play rather than a classic, maybe something Noel Cowardy—and they just nailed the style as if it were simply natural for them.  I recall being especially impressed with how expertly they handled throw-away lines.  Remember, these were amateurs: British soldiers and dependents.)  

Classic French comedy demands a style of its own: the slapstick hijinks and frenetic movement and speech are an acquired taste for non-Francophile spectators.  Podalydès’s cast pulled off the style so effortlessly that seeing Bouffes du Nord present Bourgeois Gentilhomme was a true revelation—and that right there was more than worth the price of admission.

Lincoln Center Festival performances have such short stage lives that few papers and websites cover them.  The New York Times is usually there (‘the paper of record”) and a few other review platforms publish notices, but the pickings are often slim.  (For Bouffes du Nord’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, not even Show-Score covered the show and surveyed its reviews so there’s no average score for me to report.)  There are, of course, reviews of the Paris performances, a few of them in English (notably a review by Catherine Young in the Theatre Journal of May 2013), available on line, but I generally stick to local notices when I have the choice.

The Financial Times’ McGuinness, praising “the consummate physicality of classically trained French actors,” declared, “Under Denis Podalydès’s brisk direction, every smirk, grimace, cocked eyebrow and pratfall has a method to it in this touring production.”  McGuinness asserted that “the performances are so wittily demonstrative that we always grasp what’s going on, even without understanding French or reading the surtitles,” giving ample credit to “Kaori Ito’s simple yet elegant choreography and a clear-voiced troupe of singers.”  The FT review-writer also complimented the acting of Rénéric as Jourdain for managing “to seem wretchedly pleased with himself and totally awkward in a comic tour de force reminiscent of Jacques Tati” at the same time, and Isabelle Candelier as Mme. Jourdain for “providing an earthy yet charming foil to her grotesquely deluded husband.”  He dubbed Lacroix’s costumes, “which bring the central theme of material extravagance to sumptuous life,” the “other star of the show.”  With the production’s “sense of pure riotous theatricality,” McGuinness said that “Le Bourgeois remains as weird and wonderful as when it was first performed.”

In the Times, Vincentelli dubbed “the giddy production” at the Lynch, “a grin-inducing delight.”  The production, “opting . . . for a refreshing unfussiness,” boasts an “energetic” director in Podalydès and “sumptuous periodish costumes” by Lacroix, “perfectly suited to Sun King-style ostentation.”  Rénéric, Vincentelli reported, “is a marvel of breathless comedic invention.”  

CriticalDance’s Jerry Hochman declared, “Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was a hit in its initial run in 17th century Paris. It’s a hit again.”  The CD reviewer wrote, “It’s an effervescent production that spares no comic expense, overflows with dry (and not so dry) wit, and is as bright and sparkly as champagne (French of course).”  Expecting a recreation of the 1670 staging the audiences at Louis XIV’s court saw, especially the choreography of Pierre Beauchamp, but finding that “the production is an ‘update,’” Hochman saw “how quality contemporary sensibility grafted onto a 17th century form can make the piece work for today’s audiences.”  He found that “in a lot of ways the staging of this production makes it appear spiritually closer, aside from the costumes, to contemporary farce productions” such as Noises Off (Michael Frayn’s 1982 back-stage farce that played on Broadway in 1983-1985).  “From the opening moments,” noted Hochman, “the pace rarely slows.”   With kudos for Manon Combes’s Nicole and Alexandre Steiger’s Covielle, the CD reviewer felt that Rénéric’s M. Jourdain is “the glue that holds the play together.”

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