I’ve lived with mendacity!—Why can’t you live with it? Hell, you got to live with it, there’s nothing else to live with except mendacity, is there?
– Big Daddy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
From roughly 1662 to 1673, Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was the driving impetus behind a sustained creative output like few seen before in Western drama. Starting with The School for Wives (1662), which fingered the hot-button issue of adulterous wives and jealous, insecure husbands, Molière proceeded to treat: atheism (1665’s Don Juan, banned after 15 performances and never performed again); religious hypocrisy (Tartuffe, so controversial they banned it twice and so dear to Molière he rewrote it thrice, in 1664, 1667 and 1669); and the social-climbing middle class (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, 1670). In 1668 alone, Molière authored the killer triple-bill of Amphitryon, Georges Dandin and The Miser.
Oh yes, and he also wrote one of the first treatises of comic theory, as well as the first backstage comedy (his Critique of School for Wives and Versailles Impromptu, both 1663) and had a hand in launching the forms of ballet and opera. And did I mention that he starred in all of these works as well, opposite his two leading ladies, his wife and her mother? (It’s a long story.) In 1673’s The Imaginary Invalid, he collapsed onstage from exhaustion and died (while playing someone pretending to be sick!), thus creating one of show biz’s most enduring myths. Even his death was a coup de théâtre.
At the center of it all, chef d’oeuvre among his works, was The Misanthrope—the original “comedy about nothing,” a Seinfeld on the Seine. Within a year of his death, French critic Nicolas Boileau was already identifying Molière as “the author of The Misanthrope,” and Voltaire and Rousseau rate it most highly of his plays. Drawn from no known sources—unique for Molière, who often used Italianate forms—The Misanthrope both exemplifies the playwright’s deceptively simple methods and subtly turns them inside out.
As he so often did, Molière built the play around a comic fool defined by a central flaw. But The Misanthrope’s Alceste is a new kind of fool and what appears from one perspective like a comic shortcoming—his utter inability to tell a lie, his indignant insistence on the truth at all costs, his determination to see falseness and intrigue beneath every social façade—begins to look an awful lot like heroism. As Rousseau wrote in 1758: “In all the other plays of Molière, the ridiculous character is always detestable or contemptible. In this one, although Alceste has real failings at which it would not be wrong to laugh, one cannot help feeling respect for him deep in one’s heart.”
And Alceste’s point is a good one, one also found in Tennessee Williams: it all boils down to mendacity. In order to fit into society, Alceste contends, one must tell a series of little lies. Add up enough of them, however, and a mendacious molehill begins to look like a corrupt mountain, one in which all that we value—all love, art, beauty, justice, health, life itself—is poisoned irrevocably, consumed by a hollowness at the core. Woe to the comic fool who points out this self-evident truth.
Gradually, however, as the play unspools in increasingly complex contortions, a moral paradox—and a dramaturgical one—becomes apparent. Alceste’s (and Molière’s) critique is so universal in its remit, so scathing in its judgment, that any concession by character or playwright to convention would be a betrayal. Both must resist that contemptible concession to taste. In a fit of genius, Molière decided to break the narrative itself, having Alceste abruptly exit the play, letting all of the play’s plots go slack like so much muslin upon a screen. In a country where audience members rioted after Victor Hugo omitted a syllable from a rhymed alexandrine in his Hernani (1830) and in which Picasso broke with linear perspective, this was the first and perhaps most radical in a history of aesthetic shocks.
It also may have functioned as Molière’s oblique method of evading censorship, a diversion of bumptious political comment into an aesthetic cul-de-sac. Molière’s royal patron was Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” a whimsical figure given to launching ambitious foreign wars in order to raise his levels of prestige. Louis also curtailed religious freedoms, abolishing the Edict of Nantes and forcing scores of Protestant intellectuals and artisans to emigrate, suffer discrimination, or worse. Most famously, he constructed a tastelessly lavish palace at Versailles (where many of Molière’s plays premiered), and forced the aristocracy to either move to his court or risk losing all access to power. In France’s absolutist system of government, all institutions were so weakened by centuries of neglect and corruption that they could be controlled by a monarch and his small group of ministers or family members. As such, the whole system was dependent on the king’s personality—on precisely the kind of social artifice that comes in for such opprobrium from Alceste. Louis’s writers, as Geoffrey Turnovsky writes, “were perceived as modern, manifesting in their activities an ésprit as attuned to the delights of le monde as their personal demeanor was ennobled by their sublime command of the language of belles lettres.” Or, as Alceste’s cousin Holden Caulfield might put it: their phoniness.
Molière, throughout these controversial years, had enemies everywhere: the church, the aristocracy, lawyers and doctors (powerful lobbies, then as now). The one friend he retained, however, was the king. Louis seemed to be amused by his pet playwright’s scorn for his fellow subjects—perhaps missing the joke that he was the overriding cause of this underlying social rot.
Which brings me to David Ives and The School for Lies. Retaining Molière’s characters and situations, David “translaptates” Molière’s brilliant rhymed verse into our own language and idioms. Most of all, he starts his play where Molière ended his, introducing a new Alceste (with the delightfully American sobriquet of Frank) who fulfills the double role of updating Molière’s social observations for 2017 and offering a running internal critique of Molière’s dramaturgy. For lovers of Molière, part of the peculiarly powerful pleasure of this work lies in seeing how Ives will solve the riddle of the Molièrean paradox, how he will untangle the impossible aesthetic knot of 1666.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Molière’s work was his ability to combine the lowbrow pleasures of the comic form with deeper, more excoriating observations. In the centuries since, he has become what Voltaire calls “the painter of France,” a dégager philosophe sitting back and stroking his chin, rather than the resolute man of the theatre that he was. His laughs are lost among the satire, his cheek obscured by profundity. In the hands of David Ives, Molière becomes once again a playwright for the boulevard as well as the academy—an entertainer, social critic, and intellectual all at once. How lucky we are to have all three, and to have an interlocutor worthy of him in Monsieur Ives.