Monday, May 19, 2014

Molière's Theatre

From Les plaisirs de l’ile enchantée, the play performed on the stage is Molière’s La Princesse d’Elide. It was the first time it was ever performed in public.
Molière’s theatre celebrated the drama of artificiality. Like the literature, art and social customs of the time, the 17th-century French theatre was based on a formal set of rules and customs. While there were touring troupes who would travel through the country, often performing in makeshift spaces and on the streets, attending the theatre in Paris or at the court was a formal social event.

Performances in Paris were held either in public theatres or by special invitation only at the palace court. The theatres had a proscenium arch or a border framing the stage. Behind the arch, the scenery was composed of lavish painted sets, and the actors’ costumes were ornate. The lights remained on over both the audience and the stage, allowing the members of the audience to see and be seen at the event. When performing at court, the king would sit in an enormous throne in the center of the room with the rest of the audience positioned around him.

Like any event at court, strict rules of social behavior were expected to be followed. The creation of theatre also was subject to rigorous guidelines. The Académie Française, created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, was a group of intellectuals charged with regulating French language and culture. Their taste in theatre was firmly Neo-classicist: “Neo” meaning new, and “classicist” referring to the classics, the great works of Greek and Roman drama. The Académie created guidelines for “good” theatre, based on the writing of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle depicted by Raphael, holding his Ethics: detail from the Vatican fresco The School of Athens, 1510 – 1511
Aristotle wrote that a tragedy contains three unities: time, place and action. Unity of time dictated that the action of the play take place in a single day and unity of place that the play take place at a single location. Unity of action determined that the action of the play contribute to the main story, without any distracting subplots. French tragedies were criticized by academics based on how well they adhered to these unities. While these rules might seem limiting, there were several playwrights, including Pierre Corneille (1606-84) the father of French tragedy, who flourished within them. In Corneille’s heroic epic, Le Cid (1637), as well as many of his other plays, the main character makes a moral choice to do what is right, regardless of personal cost. Jean Racine (1639-99) was another highly respected writer of tragedy. His plays, including Phèdre (1677), are very passionate and poetic and often focus on doomed love.

The language of tragedy also was expected to conform to strict rules. French plays were written in Alexandrine couplets—a verse form that consists of two rhyming lines of 12 syllables each. Each rhyming couplet was to contain a complete thought. As the verse form developed, so did rules about when pauses could occur (between the sixth and seventh syllable of each line.)

Molière began his career in the theatre as an actor, but found French tragedy too difficult. Delivering the Alexandrine lines was very demanding on an actor’s voice. As a performer, Molière found he did not have enough breath to perform the Alexandrine verse of tragedy, but instead he excelled as both an actor and writer of comedy. An evening at the theatre often would include a comedy as a companion piece to the more serious tragedy that was considered the main event. Louis XIV and the courtiers often would prefer the lighter fare of the comedies, especially Molière’s. While French tragedies were considered great literature by the academics, comedies were not taken as seriously and therefore not as subject to criticism of form and language. Molière had the freedom to write in both verse and prose, and he was considered the greatest comic writer of his time. (SCR’s production uses David Ball’s adaptation of Tartuffe, which abandons Molière’s use of rhyming couplets in all but a few scenes.)

Molière’s comedies were influenced heavily by Italian commedia dell’arte troupes touring Europe. Commedia dell’arte was based in improvisation and included stock characters in a variety of predetermined scenarios. The actors wore masks to define their character type and performed slapstick gags, called lazzi. Molière’s early comedies were based on commedia scenarios with scripted dialogue, instead of being improvised. They included stock characters and stunts, many of which Molière performed himself. Molière wrote comedies for his company, knowing who would play each part, and generally he would play the lead role.

,Molière also incorporated masks into his work, but instead of simply using them to define character types, Molière used the masks as a metaphor for the masks people wear to hide their true selves. Molière’s comedies were sharp social commentaries, satirizing the behavior and hypocrisies of the nobility. Though Molière’s company had the support of the court, and was frequently asked to perform there, his plays often were censored or banned because they would insult the nobility and the religious clergy.

In a society of artifice, Molière used the theatre to mock the affectations of his audience of socialites. While occasionally getting him into trouble, his satires earned him the reputation of one of the greatest comedians of all time.

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