The Misanthrope at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Sara Topham as Célimène and Ben Carlson as Alceste

(August 2011) Looking around the nearly full Festival Theater just before the play was to begin, we wondered how many folks had bought their tickets for The Misanthrope especially to see Stratford Festival icon Brian Bedford direct and act. Could a seventeenth-century French playwright really have such an impressive fan base? Mr. Bedford was unfortunately a scratch, unable to direct because his The Importance of Being Earnest was still running on Broadway, then unable to perform because of medical issues.

We wouldn’t say that Mr. Bedford wasn’t missed, but this offering of Molière’s 350-year-old comedy was just fine without him.  Molière’s own productions couldn’t have been much more entertaining.  What struck Emsworth was that some in the audience were tickled by certain lines, and some by others.  From the beginning of the play to its end, pockets of half-suppressed laughter were continually erupting in random parts of the theater.

The cast of The Misanthrope

The play is a satire on the society of Molière’s time (although the set and the costumes suggest the mid-1700s, a hundred years after Molière).  The play’s hero, Alceste (Ben Carlson) has lost his patience with his friends because they flatter an acquaintance to his face, then savage him behind his back. “How else are people to behave?” his friend Philinte wonders. Alceste’s sanctimonious reply:

I’d have them be sincere, and never part
With any word that isn’t from the heart.

Alceste declares misanthropically that he wants to go off to live in the wilderness where he’ll be alone and won’t have to endure the hypocrisy anymore.

We see the sort of thing that riles Alceste early in the play when one of his friends, Oronte (Peter Hutt, in the supporting role Brian Bedford would have played), asks Alceste for an “honest” critique of a dreadful love sonnet that he has penned.  Knowing that Oronte merely wants to be flattered, Alceste demurs, but when Oronte insists, Alceste pulls no punches.  This scene alone is worth the price of admission; Ben Carlson is masterful and outrageously funny.

The set for The Misanthrope represented a Parisian salon with panel paintings in the style of François Boucher (1703-1770). This Boucher is from a set of salon paintings in the Frick Collection (New York City) entitled The Four Seasons (Spring)

The play is set in the heavily patronized Paris salon of Célimène (Sara Topham), a young widow with whom Alceste is in love.  Alceste is unfortunately handicapped as a lover by his inability to keep from scolding Célimène for her flirtatiousness and for her biting character sketches of absent acquaintances.  Not to be missed are the verbal fireworks between Célimène and her moralistic “friend” and rival Arsinoé (the indispensable Kelli Fox). Célimène goads her older rival:

When all one’s charms are gone, it is, I’m sure,
Good strategy to be devout and pure.

By the second half of the play, we realized that what initially seemed a fairly simple storyline (much talk, seemingly little action) was in fact multi-layered and complex; this is a very cleverly plotted play. Will Célimène’s romance with Alceste be undone by her two-faced behavior, and if so, who will be mated with whom? The outcome is in doubt to the end.

The catfight between Célimène and Arsinoé, and the social milieu of malicious gossip, brought to mind scenes in Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women, which we saw at the Shaw Festival last summer.  Luce’s 1936 play surely owes much to The Misanthrope.

One notices right away that the dialogue of The Misanthrope is in rhymed verse. Director David Grindley chose Richard Wilbur’s acclaimed 60-year-old translation, which still sounds fresh. What skill it must take not merely to translate rhymed French poetry into English, but to translate it into rhymed English poetry! It took us a few minutes to adjust to the verse; once you catch the first several rhymes, you start to listen for them, but soon you realize that you’re missing the meaning by concentrating on the wrong thing.

Ben Carlson as Alceste

Rhymed verse makes demands on performers as well. Some of them — notably Ben Carlson, Peter Hutt, and especially Kelli Fox, handle Molière’s/Wilbur’s poetry effortlessly, letting the rhymes peek out and take you by surprise, instead of pounding you over the head with them.  It’s the same technique that they’d use for delivering Shakespeare, where an actor needs ever so gently to convey the rhythm of the blank verse, without indulging in overt pauses at the end of the lines.

Not all the actors fare so well, especially Sara Topham, whose unsubtle, sing-song delivery of Célimène’s lines reminded me a little of an eighth-grader reciting Longfellow. Trent Pardy’s Acaste (another suitor for Célimène’s attentions) was little better.  Truth be told, we’re not sold on Sara Topham, although her star seems to be high at Stratford these days.  She looks very well, but she still hasn’t learned how to vary her delivery or to project her voice without straining; by the end of our show it wasn’t pretty.

Alceste was the second on-stage misanthrope we’d encountered within a month; there’s another at the Shaw Festival this summer in My Fair Lady. Neither Henry Higgins (the central character in My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion) nor Molière’s Alceste is willing to make himself agreeable to others. Alceste justifies himself on the ground that he alone is honest and sincere; Henry Higgins does not bother to justify himself at all.

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