A Note from A School of Lies Director Brian Kulick
THE LONG LOST ART OF ‘LIVELY TURNING’
Modernity and its concomitant cult of originality has given us much, but has also left us bereft of certain pleasures. One such joy is the Elizabethan concept of “lively turning.” An art of copiousness whose basic principle was quite simple:
take a piece of received wisdom (a proverb, phrase, historical incident, or ancient myth) and “turn” it on the anvil of your inventiveness; thus granting new life to what had otherwise seemed old and familiar. Such was the practice of Shakespeare, perhaps Western Literature’s greatest “turner” of familiar material. Almost the whole of his work is, as we know, taken from some other source. Moliere, too, follows in this hollowed tradition; freely borrowing plots from this Italian commedia scenario or that Spanish Golden Age play. We still see vestiges of this creative impulse, but they usually reflect a kind of perennial updating of material and so Romeo and Juliet can find themselves transposed to any number of historical analogs that might capture a director’s fancy. But “lively turning” was more than a quick change in fashion or vernaculars. It was neither the slavish “adaptations” that we have grown accustomed to in the theatre, or the wild, free-for-all that we associate with pastiche, and satire that, in many ways, have become the last gasp of this venerable aesthetic tradition. Turning, in the hands of Shakespeare and Moliere, was more a conversation between the source and the new author’s sensibility, there was no desire to be “original” (i.e., make it thoroughly one’s own) or “faithful” (somehow stay true to the source) but rather to expand upon the materials infinite possibilities, using the foundation of an established text to erect a new imaginary home.
Such is the case with David Ives’ irrepressibly impish “turning” of Moliere’s THE MISANTHROPE which becomes a rich and hilarious conversation between two comic masters.
Of all of Moliere’s work, Ives’ has chosen Moliere’s undisputed masterpiece which was first performed in 1666 and marks the end of Moliere’s great “Middle Phase” as a playwright—a rich creative period that began with the successful production of THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (1662) and moved onto the controversial productions of TARTUFFE (1664) and DON JUAN (1665). These two later plays were immediately banned for their alleged attacks on religion and yet today are amongst Moliere’s most performed works. What one sees in this stunning quartet is a Moliere who is moving away from the stock commedia characters or Spanish Golden Age plots that dominated the stage at that time, and moving toward what we now recognize as the invention of modern comedy. Gone are those stock characters and story lines where young lovers enlist a wily servant to help progress their amorous desires toward the respectable institution of marriage. In its place is a modern drawing room where the recent widow Celimine receives an array of suitors who assemble to win her hand in marriage. Her chief suitor is the infamous Alceste, who is renowned for his wholesale contempt for the hypocrisy of the age.
It is in Alceste that role and author merge (literally and figuratively since Moliere himself first “essayed” the part of Alceste onstage). Pierre Brission notes the immediate resemblance that both author and creation share, each: “seethe, growl, shout, have no time to convince and demand immediate belief.” This portrait matches that of L’IMPROMPTU VERSAILLES where Moliere depicts himself rehearsing his troupe, an artist who, like Alceste, “cannot endure prevarications, indirect polemics, literary trickeries; he is one who throws himself with real violence of the heart into the frankness of his art and who needs, in order to live, this fire that gives movement to his theatre.”
And it is this paragon of “truth” that meets his match in his polar opposite, the seeming coquette Celimine. What ensues is a wooing like none that had quite been depicted onstage at this point in theatre history. The closest couple that might share Alceste and Celimine’s combative psychological complexity would be Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, but even these fabulous lovers pale in comparison to Moliere’s deep understanding of how opposites attract. It is at this level that Moliere seems to anticipate Freud and Lacan in the realm of what has often been called “the pursuit of the impossible object.”
Much of this may come from Moliere’s own blurring of fiction and reality. For many of the audiences first attending the original 1666 production would have viewed Alceste and Celimine as thinly disguised versions of none other than Moliere and his young wife Armand who was rumored to have had many amorous encounters behind Moliere’s own back. But underneath this seeming roman au clef, lies the deeper issue of hypocrisy that had fueled TARTUFFE, DON JUAN and now THE MISANTHROPE. It is almost as if DON JUAN and THE MISANTHROPE were dramatic
correctives to the profound misreading of TARTUFFE where audiences thought Moliere was attacking religion instead of a wide spread hypocrisy that was undoing French Society in all quarters including the Church.
It is society’s move toward hypocrisy that most concerns Moliere in these three masterpieces and makes Moliere more than just a remarkable comic author. Maurice Blanchot, the great French critic notes, “There is in Moliere’s great plays an impatient hostility to artificial constraints, to conventional limits that delay the advancement of real force and interfere with correct decisions. Moliere can make his comedies triumph only by establishing Comedy as a respected art form; he must not only pioneer in a genre, but he must carry this genre to the highest level. These struggles that at each moment call literary traditions into question, these battles whose strategies force him to ever bolder innovations, made Moliere, although scarcely concerned with pure aesthetics, the most audacious conqueror, the essential agent of the literary revolutions of the 17th Century.”
And so it seems appropriate that David Ives, one of our great comic innovators would wish to return to this illustrious literary ancestor to see what has changed and what has, intriguingly stayed the same, in this ongoing evolution that we politely call the human comedy. The result, I promise, is double the laughs.