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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My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival

When we were ordering our Shaw Festival tickets last winter, it occurred to us that our bodacious granddaughter might well enjoy seeing this year’s production of My Fair Lady. We were not mistaken. The eight-year-old was riveted by the opening ballet-like scene in Covent Garden, thrilled to the waltzing at the Embassy Ball, and laughed out loud at Henry Higgins’s rant near the play’s end, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” (which, she said, was her favorite song from the show).

“It’s the best play I’ve ever seen,” she said before she fell asleep in the car on our way back to Rochester, and “and also the longest!” She wants to come back to Niagara-on-the-Lake next summer and see it again.

She and her eight-year-old cousin are the best of friends, so we brought him too. He was not nearly as riveted as his girl cousin by the singing, dancing, and extravagant costuming, but he bore it manfully. What he liked best was the part where Eliza shied Henry Higgins’s slippers at him.

The kids were fascinated by the scene changes. Having no preconceptions, they didn’t realize that the modernistic set designs were a bit different from what veteran Shaw play-goers might have expected Covent Garden, 27A Wimpole Street, and Ascot to look like. (We liked this show’s visuals a lot; it’s a gorgeous production.) Even though it was late when the curtain fell, we lingered around the orchestra pit anyway so the kids could see the musicians. We explained to them that the conductor, Paul Sportelli, had been conducting the singers on the stage too even though they never seemed to be paying attention to him.

Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle

Taking the kids to the theater was distracting, not because of any misbehavior on their part, but because we couldn’t help watching them to see how they were reacting to the show. Some of it, we know, went over their heads, but they didn’t seem to mind. We wondered afterward how much we might have missed ourselves if we hadn’t known the play so very well; telling the story of this familiar play may not have been the director’s highest priority. But the show moved along smartly, the songs gave us great joy, and the extended dance sequences for the Embassy Ball and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were exhilarating. And Mark Uhre, who sings “On the Street Where You Live,” has a superb tenor voice. All told, this is a glorious production.

The cast took fresh approaches to these familiar roles; Benedict Campbell (as Henry Higgins) and Deborah Hay (as Eliza Doolittle) are nothing like Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Here Eliza is earthy and self-reliant, while Mr. Campbell’s bespectacled Higgins (we were reminded a little of Woody Allen!) is prissy, selfish, and mildly effeminate. It was easy to see why Higgins, a man short on patience, forbearance, and generosity, had never fallen into matrimony. Patrick Galligan brings nervous energy to the role of Colonel Pickering and plays it without the usual stuffiness. The characters were undoubtedly English, but we left the theater thinking that we had seen a decidedly American My Fair Lady.

At the Ascot races: Mark Uhre as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Gabrielle Jones as Mrs Eynsford-Hill, Patrick Galligan as Colonel Pickering, and Sharry Flett as Mrs Higgins

Both My Fair Lady and the Shaw Festival’s other 2011 extravaganza, The Admirable Crichton, involve the theme of romantic attraction across social lines; while The Admirable Crichton considers the possible mating of a butler with a noble lady, My Fair Lady posits a match between a wealthy, educated English gentleman (Henry Higgins) and a penniless Cockney girl. (See Emsworth’s appreciative thoughts about The Admirable Crichton at this post). (The sets for both shows were both designed by Ken MacDonald; seeing them both within a couple of weeks made us really appreciate his talent.)

But while J. M. Barrie had no socio-political agenda in writing The Admirable Crichton (again, see our thoughts about that at this post), one can’t say the same about Bernard Shaw’s agenda in writing Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based. Shaw had a low opinion of traditional marriage, and when we heard Higgins propose to Eliza a relationship in which she would stay with him only as long as it suited her, and vice versa, we heard the propagandizing voice of Shaw himself. We’re glad that went over the heads of the eight-year-olds.

On the same theme, by the way, is the hilarious story with which P. G. Wodehouse opened his 1923 masterpiece The Inimitable Jeeves, in which Jeeves has Bingo Little’s wealthy uncle supplied with popular romance fiction (Only a Shop Girl and All for Love) to put him in a frame of mind to propose marriage to his cook.

In the program, director Molly Smith asserts that there are “only a few Gold Standard Musicals,” which she identifies as South Pacific, West Side Story, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady. We would agree that there are only a few musicals at the very top, but can’t agree with her nominees. West Side Story and My Fair Lady are surely golden, but we would have topped off the list with Show Boat, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof.