Engraving from the 1719 edition
|Date premiered||4 June 1666|
|Place premiered||Théâtre du Palais-Royal, Paris|
|Subject||Behavior of the aristocracy.|
|Genre||Comedy of manners|
|Setting||Grand Siècle, France|
The Misanthrope, or the Cantankerous Lover (French: Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux; French pronunciation: [lə misantʁop u latʁabilɛʁ amuʁø])) is a 17th-century comedy of manners in verse written by Molière. It was first performed on 4 June 1666 at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, Paris by the King's Players.
The play satirizes the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society, but it also engages a more serious tone when pointing out the flaws which all humans possess. The play differs from other farces at the time by employing dynamic characters like Alceste and Célimène as opposed to the traditionally flat characters used by most satirists to criticize problems in society. It also differs from most of Molière's other works by focusing more on character development and nuances than on plot progression. The play, though not a commercial success in its time, survives as Molière's best known work today.
Because both Tartuffe and Dom Juan, two of Molière's previous plays, had already been banned by the French government, Molière may have subdued his actual ideas to make his play more socially acceptable. As a result, there is much uncertainty about whether the main character Alceste is supposed to be perceived as a hero for his strong standards of honesty or whether he is supposed to be perceived as a fool for having such idealistic and unrealistic views about society. Molière has received much criticism for The Misanthrope. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, claimed (in his Letter to M. D'Alembert on Spectacles) that it was Molière's best work but hated the fact that Alceste was depicted as a fool on stage. He believed that the audience should be supporting Alceste and his views about society rather than disregarding his idealistic notions and belittling him as a character.
- The protagonist and "misanthrope" of the title. He is quick to criticize the flaws of everyone around him, including himself. He cannot help but love Célimène though he loathes her behaviour.
- A young woman who is courted by Alceste, Oronte, Acaste, and Clitandre. She is playful and flirtatious, and likes to point out the flaws of everyone she meets behind their backs. Célimène pays much attention to social appearances.
- A polite man who genuinely cares for Alceste, and recognizes the importance of occasionally veiling one's true opinions in a social context. He is mainly thought of as Alceste's foil.
- A young, pompous marquis who believes he is deserving of Célimène's love.
- An outgoing, seemingly confident man who also loves Célimène for a time. His insecurity is revealed when he is unable to handle Alceste's criticism of his love sonnet.
- A highly moralistic older woman who is jealous of the attentions which Alceste pours onto Célimène.
- Love interest to Philinte and cousin to Célimène, who initially pines for Alceste. She possesses a good balance between societal conformity and individual expression.
- Another marquis who attempts to woo Célimène and win her love, and enjoys gossiping with her about notable social figures.
- Célimène's loyal manservant.
- Du Bois
- Alceste's farcically blundering manservant.
- A messenger of the Marshals of France who asks Alceste to answer for his criticism of Oronte's poetry.
Much to the horror of his friends and companions, Alceste rejects the notion la politesse, or the social conventions of the seventeenth century French salon. His refusal to "make nice" makes him tremendously unpopular and he laments his isolation in a world he sees as superficial and base, saying early in Act I, "… Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race.”
Despite his convictions, however, Alceste cannot help but love the flighty and vivacious Célimène, a consummate flirt whose wit and frivolity epitomize the courtly manners that Alceste despises. Though he constantly reprimands her, Célimène refuses to change, charging Alceste with being unfit for society.
Despite his sour reputation, "the misanthrope," Alceste, does have women pining for him, in particular the moralistic Arsinoé and the honest Eliante. Though he acknowledges their superior virtues, his heart still lies with Célimène. His deep feelings for her primarily serve to counter his negative expressions about mankind, since the fact that he has such feelings includes him amongst those he so fiercely criticizes.
When Alceste insults a sonnet written by the powerful noble, Oronte, he is called to stand trial. Refusing to dole out false compliments, he is charged and humiliated, and resolves on self-imposed exile.
His friends forsake him and upon meeting them, he discovers that Célimène has been leading him on. She has written identical love letters to numerous suitors, and broken her vow to favor him above all others. He gives her an ultimatum. He will forgive her and marry her if she runs away with him to exile. Célimène refuses, believing herself too young and beautiful to leave society and all her suitors behind. Philinte, for his part, becomes betrothed to Eliante. Alceste then decides to exile himself from society, and the play ends with Philinte and Eliante running off to convince him to return.
Modern adaptations of the play have been written by Tony Harrison and Liz Lochhead. Lochhead's version is set in the early years of the Scottish Parliament and satirises Scottish Labour's relationship with the media. Originally written in 1973, Harrison's version was updated and revived at the Bristol Old Vic in 2010.
The Grouch, a more modern verse version of The Misanthrope by Ranjit Bolt was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 2008. It is set in contemporary London, and most of the characters' names are recognisably linked to Molière's: in the sequence of the above cast list they are Alan, Celia, Phil, Eileen, Orville, Fay (Arsinoe), Lord Arne, Chris, and manservant Bates. Martin Crimp's adaptation, starring Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley, opened at the Comedy Theatre, London in December 2009. Another adaptation by Roger McGough was premiered by the English Touring Theatre at the Liverpool Playhouse in February 2013 prior to a national tour - this adaptation is largely in verse, but has Alceste speaking in prose.
|French has original text related to this article:
- (full text, in English)
- in London
- Wilbur's translation: