One Man in his Time Plays Many Parts: Ariane Mnouchkine’s Molière

Alan Morris

University of Strathclyde

 

For over half a century now, the name of Ariane Mnouchkine has been indissociable from that of the Théâtre du Soleil. Formed in Paris in 1964, this left-leaning troupe has built a reputation for innovative, and often lengthy, productions, founded (although Mnouchkine is its guiding light) on an intrinsically collective approach, in which all members can contribute creatively, and where the barriers between cast and audience are deliberately broken down.[1] Yet despite its predominant commitment to the stage, the company has occasionally turned its hand to cinema, its first, and best-known, feature film being the eponymous Molière (1978), recently reissued as a new two-disk DVD set.

                      

This too was a collaborative venture and a cinematic marathon, coming in at 244 minutes.[2] As the DVD’s jacket makes clear, it was an epic undertaking. It focuses not just on the world-renowned comic playwright, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière (1622-73) — played by Philippe Caubère [3]— but also on his times. The massive production required 120 actors, 600 “participants,” 1,300 costumes, and 220 different sets.

Perhaps understandably, a project of this scope creates some confusion for the viewer. It is hard to tell who many of the characters are, and there is relatively little indication of what happens when. Luckily, this re-release includes an informative booklet, but even here, not everything is explained.

The film itself is divided into two parts, each appearing on its own disk. Part I ranges from 1632, when Jean-Baptiste is ten to 1652/53, when his theatrical troupe tours the French provinces. Part II follows Molière’s successes from 1653 onward, to 1673 when, racked by illness, he collapses on stage and dies.

In counterpoint to this essentially chronological structure, the film opens with a foreshadowing Prologue. A woman walks through a poorly lit, empty theatre. Arriving backstage, she silently helps a coughing actor (Molière) to dress for what will prove to be his final performance. Another member of the company arrives who remarks that he is getting worse, adding: “Today is the 17th… Madeleine died a year ago today.”[4] The observation that “It’s a bad day” having been voiced twice over, the two of them walk away into the darkness.

This Prologue is in many ways a condensation of the narrative to come, gesturing towards its central motifs, and displaying some of its stylistic features. It is the perfect springboard for an analysis of these motifs: the concentration on blackness, silence and emptiness; the mention of Madeleine’s death; the assertion that Molière’s condition is deteriorating (presumably soon to die himself), all establish mortality as a major theme from the outset, and not for nothing does a sense of foreboding and impermanence ensue. As the film progresses, various characters pass away, one scene comprising a burial, and skulls (a stage prop and an actor’s mask) manifest themselves as symbols of transience.

The Prologue as it dissolves into the title additionally underlines the film’s claims to “authenticity,” since the voiceover — itself a documentary device — affirms, in another expression of mortality, that “It is a known fact that Molière died on February 17, 1673 after the 4th performance of Le Malade imaginaire.”[5] Sure enough, in the four hours that follow, the well-established milestones in Molière’s life file past. These include the early loss of his mother; his flirtations with the careers of upholsterer and lawyer; his encounter with the Béjart theatrical company and his decision to join the profession (to the consternation of his father). We learn of his original preference for tragedy, rather than for comedy/farce, at which he excels; of his relationship with Madeleine Béjart and, later, her daughter Armande (rumoured to be his own child). He and  the Béjarts form the Illustre Théâtre, which he will soon head, and which will accumulate debts and cause his imprisonment. There follow his years spent out in the provinces, where he and his troupe join that of Charles Dufresnes; his aristocratic patrons, such as the Prince de Conti and “Monsieur” (the duc d’Orléans, the king’s brother); his evolution from simple actor to actor-playwright. When the company returns  to Paris, he shares a theatre with the Italians of the Commedia dell’Arte, but he will soon rise to become, along with Lully,[6] the chief impresario of Louis XIV’s Court entertainments. There are obstacles along the way as he struggles for artistic integrity in the face of attacks on his plays (most notably on Le Tartuffe), and finally, he dies after a performance of Le Malade imaginaire. A raft of other historical characters, such as members of Molière’s various troupes (La Grange, La Forest, the Du Parcs, the actress wife of Charles Dufresnes, amongst them) put in an appearance as do a host of eminent contemporary figures (Louis XIV, Mazarin, Colbert and Descartes). The film cannot possibly cover every aspect of its hero’s life, so, despite its length, Mnouchkine presents only a succession of “episodes and paradigmatic anecdotes.”[7]

In contrast, a significant role is accorded to imaginative recreations. The Prologue again lights the way, foregrounding creativity as Molière, backstage, starts to slip into the dramatic character he will shortly play. Thereafter, the recourse to fiction recurs. Sometimes, the accepted facts are embroidered, as when the Republic of Venice sends Louis XIV some gondolas for the grand canal at Versailles, and we see these dragged across the Alps.[8] More often, there are moments of pure invention. Since only a number of pivotal “episodes” are included, fabrication has to link these.[9] Similarly, fanciful elements are incorporated for their artistic, figurative value. One such is the improbable flying man, who, as the voiceover suggests, evokes Molière’s upwards trajectory, his destiny to fly, as it were, and to ascend to “glory.”

This typical preference of the Théâtre du Soleil for works whose verisimilitude is subverted from within reflects one of Mnouchkine’s key tenets: “Observe life and you’ll see it’s not realistic.”[10] More particularly, for her, as for Shakespeare, all the world is a stage, and such a symbiosis of life and theatre (a variant of the merging of fact and fiction) underpins the whole film. Once again, the Prologue provides a foretaste when Molière, in a pre-performance rehearsal, is preparing for a role — not just necessarily in Le Malade imaginaire, but also implicitly, in this very biopic. And time after time in this biography, Mnouchkine will present life as theatre, and theatre as life.

                

“Real life,” as she renders it, is full of spectacles. There is the carnival, obviously, but no less “dramatic” here is the Twelfth Night celebration, or the argument between two coachmen, which “functions like a sample of street theatre.”[11] Nor can it be an accident that many “everyday” scenes feature performers still wearing their greasepaint, costumes or actors’ masks, the high point of this conflation coming after the carnival, when Molière and other revellers enter a theatre and become the audience of the on-stage production.

Furthermore, while few performances of Molière’s plays are included (one of the biggest omissions alluded to above),[12] for those already acquainted with his comedies, it will be clear that, in Mnouchkine’s eyes, he has simply drawn on the theatricality of his era. By a process of artistic osmosis, his character types, their obsessions and the power structures that govern them have leached retroactively into the film’s “daily-life” sections. At various moments, Jean-Baptiste encounters a forthright female servant, egoistically exploitative doctors, blue-stocking précieuses, and an autocratic father who, in a “bit of theater,” has no qualms about forcing his daughter into an unsuitable, loveless marriage. But above all, he comes across the dévôts, the arch-Catholic Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, who seek to repress the anti-authoritarian carnival in particular and artistic freedoms in general (as when they attack his play, Le Tartuffe, in which he satirises them).[13] Thus, as symbolised by his using one of his father’s chairs as a stage prop, his theatre, for Mnouchkine, is already indistinguishable from his day-to-day existence.[14]

Perhaps the best example of this is the portrayal of the Court. Since Louis XIV himself took part in entertainments at Versailles, Mnouchkine highlights “kingship-as-theater.”[15] In one sequence, to uninterrupted music, Louis appears first in old-style armour and then in his normal finery. Equally incongruously, he will elsewhere break into song, and thereby indirectly comment on his own position as absolute monarch: “How tall/How noble/This proud conqueror/His visage dazzles/None could be fairer/And though by his position/He already ranks high in grace/Something still more/Shines in his face.”[16]

This is by no means the only occasion when art invades “reality.” Extracts from Molière’s own writing infuse the dialogue. His fellow actor Charles Dufresnes’s belief that comic playwrights should be amusing and depict contemporary characters is heavily inspired by La Critique de l’Ecole des femmes. The same applies to Dufresnes’s subsequent insistence that comedy is harder than tragedy, and that its essence is to “share the shortcomings of men.”[17] Finally, when defending Le Tartuffe from attack, Molière utters the words he had already used in the preface to his play.[18]

Yet if life is seen as theatre in Molière, then so too does theatre overlap with life. After the violent repression of the joyous, highly theatrical carnival in the city of Orléans, Madeleine Béjart is on stage, and her performance palpably chimes with the bloodshed just witnessed.[19] Much later, the love-filled lines (from La Princesse d’Élide) that Molière and Armande rehearse reflect their own budding relationship, and perhaps most markedly of all, when an outdoor stage is uprooted by the wind, Dufresnes and his actress wife, still treading the boards, engage in what “appears to be at the same time a theatrical improvisation and a genuine argument.”[20] With life and theatre flowing into each other (within, of course, the artistic construct that the film itself represents), the dividing line between the two is anything but straightforward.

There is one final way in which the Prologue prefigures the story it introduces: its style. The repetition of “It’s a bad day” emphasises the sense of foreboding, certainly, but it also establishes Mnouchkine’s overriding recourse to echoes and parallels. Molière is packed with lines and actions that are reiterated, as when the dévôts cross themselves twice, and twice say “That’s settled,” thinking they have stopped the carnival.  And this is not to mention the abundant “mirror-scenes,”[21] prime amongst which are the frequent naming of individuals gathered in groups — the actors of Molière’s troupe signing a contract on two separate occasions, or being introduced to the Prince de Conti, or meeting Dufresnes, who introduces his own players — and the recurrent shots of carts or coaches travelling through the countryside. Such a systematic use of reprises reinforces the film’s basic, circular structure.

A further, and arguably more telling, parallel — albeit one that is external to the work itself — is again suggested by the opening voiceover, as the Prologue transitions into the main narrative. Molière was born in Paris in 1622, it announces, and continues: “Our story begins when he was 10 years old, some 346 years ago.” This coexistence of past and present (in 1978) is the basis for an ongoing, implicit connection, across the centuries, between Molière and Mnouchkine and their respective troupes. For example, both companies have charismatic heads but are run as collectives, and both are renowned for plays with a socio-political dimension. As a result, Molière’s waves of resonance ripple inwards and outwards, as one scene in particular demonstrates. When Molière suffers from writer’s block while composing Le Malade imaginaire, Madeleine advises him just to cannibalise an exchange he had already used in Les Fourberies de Scapin. In an echo of the other rehearsals shown in the film,[22] they then act out the new scene. Life and theatre again coalesce, and the fundamental Russian-doll effect could not be clearer: master and servant from Le Malade are played by Molière and Madeleine, who are in turn played by members of the Théâtre du Soleil — two performances within one all-embracing performance. This is perhaps why the bell-ringing at the start of Le Malade imaginaire (when the hypochondriacal Argan summons his maid) is placed foreshadowingly at the start of Part II — it becomes a mid-movie substitute for the trois coups with which plays traditionally commence, and hence a self-aware device reminding viewers that Molière is not a biographical slice of life, but a re-enactment, “theatre.”

The importance of these echoes notwithstanding, the film is stylistically striking in other ways as well. As ever, the Prologue sets the tone. Here, the omnipresent darkness, barely offset by candlelight, presages the “look” that Mnouchkine seeks, namely that of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, with its prominent interiors, group portraits and chiaroscuro technique.[23] Fittingly,  this concern with visual impact culminates in the closing sequence (to which the Prologue is linked in Time), in the form of the remarkable “treadmill shot.”[24] Molière, coughing blood, is rushed back home. Helpers carry him upstairs, hurrying, but making no progress, as if moving up a “down” escalator, to a haunting chant from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur. Brief images from the ailing man’s life, in reverse chronology, reappear, and then it is over. In a flash, the characters have disappeared, and a now empty staircase fills the screen, before it fades into blackness. It is a stunning, highly moving ending.

Given its length, Molière is hardly ideal for the classroom, but it is well worth considering, at least in part, for it is one thing to read about the actor-playwright and his times, but quite another to see what he and they were (possibly) like. The film gives insights both into seventeenth-century French theatre, from the makeshift stages of travelling companies to buildings in cities, and into performances, whether the declamation of tragedy or Molière’s own celebrated comic technique. The same is true of society and its power structures (always of interest to the Théâtre du Soleil). Louis XIV is increasingly visible, punishing every challenge to his absolute authority. He is surrounded by his Court with its narcissism and ostentatious wealth, and, at the forefront of the violent “religious foment,” are the dévôts. Well below this elite come the ordinary, sometimes undernourished populace, while, farther out in the provinces — where French is not generally spoken — the situation is the worst of all. Foreign soldiers roam and rape at will, and the population is so ravenous that the horses of Molière’s troupe are immediately killed and eaten. In a word, Mnouchkine is at pains to depict the two Frances in which her subject moved: Versailles, with the radiant Sun King at its centre, and the lesser-known, less luminous world of the masses.[25]

Molière will surely also stimulate class discussion on “theatre” (including Louis XIV’s theatrical monarchy) and its relationship to life and identity, and beyond that — because of its mirror images across Time — on the nature of history. Is history cyclical? Does the present often repeat the past? Quite apart from the similarities between Molière and Mnouchkine, there is much in the film that does indeed seem familiar. Today, too, there is a chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and the world is still plagued by religious fanaticism and intolerance. There are echoes of World War II to boot. Take, for instance, the dévôts’s encouragement of denunciations, their burning of books, and their antisemitism. When this behaviour is viewed together with the peasant who has not eaten for a while and is promptly sick when he gets something to eat, like a death camp survivor, the parallel with the Nazi regime seems glaring.

In sum, this is an excellent, thought-provoking film, and a work of art in its own right. Molière the dramatist was inspired by real life, but the life he drew on was, Mnouchkine insists, itself highly theatrical. With its broad canvas celebrating an actor-playwright and his times, this is, then, much more than a simple biopic. It is a portrayal of what, two centuries later, when naming his whole œuvre, Honoré de Balzac would famously call “the human comedy.”

Ariane Mnouchkine, Director, Molière, 2-disc set, Colour, 244 minutes, France, Bel Air Classiques, 2017. [France, Les Films du Soleil et de la Nuit, Claude Lelouch Films 13, Antenne 2, RAI, 1978.]

NOTES

  1. For a concise introduction to this group of actors, see Adrian Kiernander, “The Théâtre du Soleil, Part One: a Brief History of the Company,” New Theatre Quarterly, II, 7 (August 1986), pp. 195-203, https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0266464X00002153 [accessed 2/11/18].
  2. The original 1978 version was even longer. See e.g. Vincent Canby, “Film: Molière Biography,” The New York Times, 4 October 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/10/04/archives/film-moliere-biography.html [accessed 28/9/18].
  3. This role was obviously seminal for Caubère. He has subsequently built a career performing one-man comedy shows which (especially the earlier ones) draw upon his experiences with Mnouchkine. Extracts from these shows are widely available on YouTube. See e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LyrxpDczBo [accessed 23/1/19].
  4. Here and below, English quotations from the film come from its sub-titles. All other translations from the original French that are not individually referenced are my own.
  5. It is indeed true, as is the statement that Madeleine died a year to the day earlier (on 17 Feb 1672).
  6. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) wrote the music for a number of Molière’s later plays and, with the Sun King, is the subject of Gérard Corbiau’s film, Le roi danse (2000). For more information, see Le Site Lully, Bienvenue sur le Site Lully ! [accessed 24/1/19].
  7. Roswitha Böhm, “Entre Théâtre et Film: Molière (1978) d’Ariane Mnouchkine,” in Siècle classique et cinéma contemporain, edited by Roswitha Böhm, Andrea Grewe and Margarete Zimmermann (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2009), pp. 83-101 (pp. 91-92).
  8. Gondolas were sent, but only two, apparently, not the three shown in the film; and were these gondolas really hauled over the mountains, as Mnouchkine has it? Hannah Meltzer says that they were “shipped.” See Hannah Meltzer, “The real Versailles: 10 things you must see in Louis XIV’s palace,” The Telegraph, 1 June 2016, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/france/articles/the-real-versailles-what-to-see-in-the-royal-palace/ [accessed 2/11/18]. Moreover, there is a problematic chronology here. The gondolas were actually ordered in 1674 (see http://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/estate/park [accessed 7/11/18]), but in Molière, they are seen before the mention of a new play about a miser, which can only be L’Avare (1668).
  9. Cf. Laura Sava, “Théâtre du Soleil Meets the Cinema: Acting and Mask Work in Ariane Mnouchkine’s Molière,” Screening the Past, 31 (August 2011), http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/08/theatre-du-soleil-meets-the-cinema-acting-and-mask-work-in-ariane-mnouchkine%E2%80%99s-moliere-2/ [accessed 2/11/18].
  10. Cited in Sava.
  11. Ibid.
  12. There are snippets of Le Malade imaginaire, Le Docteur amoureux (an early play whose text has not survived), and, less obviously (although the dialogue does not correspond perfectly to the published scripts), Le Médecin malgré lui and George Dandin. Apart from these extracts, lines from Le Tartuffe are heard, and there is some discussion of the controversy the play caused; a number of title pages pass by (those of Les Précieuses ridicules, Sganarelle, ou le cocu imaginaire, L’Ecole des maris, Le Dépit amoureux, and L’Ecole des femmes), as the actors take a bow after their performance; and Molière is seen reading to his troupe from his manuscript of L’Etourdi. As with the appearance of the gondolas, there is a problematic chronology here. Mnouchkine seems to show that George Dandin premiered in the provinces, whereas the play dates from Molière’s time at the Court of Louis XIV (1668).
  13. Louis XIV would ban the society in 1664.
  14. Laurent Tirard’s more recent film, Molière (2007), goes even farther. It takes as its central plot device the conceit that Molière’s theatre was based on a real-life experience, in which the budding author-playwright “lived” a conflation of episodes from his future high comedies (and principally from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Le Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope). Deliberate nods in the direction of Mnouchkine (for example when Molière acts as a dog), suggest that Tirard drew at least some inspiration from his predecessor.
  15. Canby.
  16. These are the opening lines of a sonnet, just one very small part of Les Plaisirs de l’Ile enchantée, a week-long festival held at Versailles in May 1664, over which Molière presided for the king. A camel and an elephant (mentioned in the film) were another feature of this extravaganza. See e.g. Le Site Lully, “Les Plaisirs de l’Ile enchantée,” http://sitelully.free.fr/plaisirsileenchantee.htm [accessed 2/11/18].
  17. In both cases, see the Critique, scene 6. The full French text is available at http://www.toutmoliere.net/acte-1,405374.html [accessed 2/11/18].
  18. See Le Tartuffe, “Second Placet: Présenté au Roi.” This text was initially presented to Louis XIV, and then published in the second edition of the play (1669). A number of allusions accompany these direct quotations. The Prince de Conti, having become a dévôt, asks Madeleine to cover herself, recalling Tartuffe’s famous “Cover up that bosom, which I can’t / Endure to look upon.” (https://archive.org/stream/tartuffe02027gut/trtff10.txt [accessed 2/11/18]), while the acerbic exchange between two women and Molière’s longing for solitude are both reminiscent of Le Misanthrope.
  19. With blood-red make-up on her brow, cheek and chest, she declaims: “Have we forgotten the horrible spectacle of brutal desires being fulfilled without obstacle? When any violence and total abandonment prevailed in plain day […]. In every quarter the people called out in fear and the blood flowed, mingled with tears. Everywhere was heard sounds too terrifying for words. Heaven’s vault was pierced with pitiful cries, rising from our misfortune which had taken us by surprise. The women, the children, half-dead with fright, rent the air with their laments. […] Threaten […] to compel me to live under your rule. No other misfortune could seem as cruel. Only the fear of such a fate could make me tremble.” The (unidentified) play being performed here is Tristan Lhermite’s La Mort de Sénèque (The Death of Seneca), the title of which implicitly adds to the motif of mortality.
  20. Sava.
  21. Böhm, pp. 92-93.
  22. In addition to the rehearsals involving Le Malade imaginaire and La Princesse d’Élide (previously noted), there is an important scene where Madeleine helps Molière to create the role of Sganarelle.
  23. See “Il a été mon premier film” by set designer Guy-Claude François, in the DVD’s accompanying booklet. (The aforementioned inclusion of skulls in Molière likewise resonates with the realm of Fine Art, where it is a long-standing memento mori motif. See e.g. The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger.)
  24. Vernon Young, “Molière Imaginaire,” The New York Review of Books, 6 March 1980, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1980/03/06/moliere-imaginaire/ [accessed 5/11/18].
  25. Cf. Böhm, p. 90.
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