Moliere’s ‘Liquid Society’: Ivo van Hove’s and New York Theatre Workshop’s Production of The Misanthrope
1> When Alceste and Philinte enter the stage in Ivo van Hove’s New York Theatre Workshop’s production of The Misanthrope, it is clear that they inhabit a 21st-century world since their business suits make them look every bit the modern professional and since Alceste carries a copy of Le Monde in his hands. Indeed, reviewers like John Heilpern emphasize that the production is “avant-garde” and “ultra-modern,” leading him to the question of “Where’s Moliere in all this?” Heilpern quips that “he left,” thereby leading readers and audiences to the conclusion that there is very little that is early modern in the production. Contrary to Heilpern’s assertion, however, an examination of van Hove’s production, Tony Harrison’s script, and Moliere’s play (translated by Maya Slater) shows that many of the “ultra-modern” tricks—like carrying Le Monde—are both early modern and 21st-century. Nowhere in Moliere’s text, does Alceste appear with newspaper in hand. Alceste does, however, discuss journalism especially when he is railing against the vogue of flattery and when he is noting that “even my valet appears in the Gazette” (Slater 3.5.1074). The reference to La Gazette de France would have meant something very particular to 1666 audiences since it was a relatively new creation, first established in 1631. The reference is less clear almost 400 years later and Harrison’s adaptation acknowledges this by updating Alceste’s pronouncement to “The lowest of the low/get 15 minutes on a TV show.” Harrison’s translation replaces an early modern suspicion of print journalism with a modern suspicion of broadcast journalism and thus, as Heilpern suggests, erases anything that is early modern. van Hove’s production, however, acknowledges both the world of 1666 audiences and of 2007 audiences. When Alceste walks on stage with Le Monde in hand, he is re-inserting the early modern into an otherwise very modern production.
2> Just as Stephen Greenblatt argued that new historicism’s exploration of the relationship between historical texts and literary texts “is not one of cause and effect . . . [we] are dealing rather with a shared code” (86), so too it is important to explore the relationship between audiences then and now not to determine if one caused the other, but rather to investigate and recover “a shared code” between audiences. In this case, the shared code is that of dramatic performance since both van Hove and Moliere come at The Misanthrope from an actor’s vantage point. While Moliere criticism has explored the relationship between literary text and dramatic performance, and while it has discussed the function of the audience’s response to a comedy, it has been slow to articulate a precise relationship between early modern audiences and modern audiences.
3> van Hove’s productions are steeped in the world of theater and theatricality. He is playwright, theatre director and artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam. His productions, whether Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (for which he won an Obie) or Tennesee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire or Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew attempt to re-conceive and re-energize dramatic classics for modern audiences. The productions are informed as much by the work of actors as they are by scripts for performance. Each one of the aforementioned productions is distinguished by memorable acting turns (reviews consistently applauded the wonders of actress Elizabeth Marvel as Hedda Gabler), by strenuously physical acting, and by outrageous acts such as dousing Hedda in tomato juice. The Misanthrope is equally informed by the work of actors. It is every bit as physical as past productions since Alceste periodically wrestles characters to the floor, including Oronte, Celimene and even Eliante. The production also includes a signature van Hove outrageous act (marked in two performances with loud gasps and involuntary intakes of breath on the part of the audience) and this time features Alceste strategically applying ketchup, chocolate syrup, confectioner’s sugar, berries as well as a well-placed hot dog and other messy and sticky food stuffs to his body. Further, the production signals the significance of the world of the actor when it begins with a video introduction of the actors applying makeup. The live-feed video also follows exiting actors to the backstage dressing rooms, complete with make-up tables, couch and coffee machines.
4> In his September 25, 2007 New York Times review of the production, Ben Brantley complained about the innovative contributions made by the actors and suggested that the overall effect was an “acting exercise” that seemed to be “a throwback to the experimental theater of the 1960’s, when the theories of elemental acting of Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud held sway.” Brantley suggests, then, that van Hove’s work with actors is somehow outdated or perhaps even cliché. As will become clear, however, van Hove’s work with actors is more in line with such postmodern acting groups as the Wooster Group, Complicite and Anne Bogart’s SITI (indeed, Anne Bogart even interviewed van Hove on behalf of The New York Theatre Workshop suggesting the similarity in their approaches to acting). Each of these groups promotes physical acting that incorporates and combines body, music, video, movement and voice in new and startling ways. Each one of the aforementioned companies also tackles dramas from a historical past and has had some measure of success recreating a living rather than a historic past. The reason for that success is that they are able to illuminate a shared code of dramatic performance; one that engages actor and audience together and that enables audiences of today to recognize their part in a centuries-old practice.
5> The shared code of dramatic performance is especially accessible when groups like Toneelgroep Amsterdam turn their attention to texts that are metatheatrical and that are laden with references to the world of dramatic performance. Moliere’s The Misanthrope is one such text. No matter how brief or voluminous, every biography of Moliere points out that he sacrificed a very promising and distinguished career as lawyer in order to become playwright, actor, and director of an acting troupe. Virginia Scott’s biography is representative and its title (Moliere: A Theatrical Life), chapter headings (such as “Last Act”) and narrative reflect the focus on Moliere the performer. While Scott challenges the received opinion that Moliere took his stage name in order to protect his family, she does point out that taking stage names was part of a larger theatrical practice in 17th-century France (59). Moliere acted in many of the plays he wrote, including The Misanthrope, thereby suggesting that he was firmly entrenched in that theatrical practice. He played the role of Alceste and his wife, Armande, played the role of Celimene. It is not surprising to discover, then, that so many of Moliere’s plays are metatheatrical. In The School for Wives Criticized and The Impromptu at Versailles, Moliere directly addresses and critiques acting styles and audience responses. In The Misanthrope, characters refer to characters in other Moliere plays. After the argument between friends that opens the play, Philinte suggests to Alceste that “It strikes me we resemble, in a curious way,/The brothers in The School for Husbands, Moliere’s play” (Slater 1.1.97-100).
6> Whereas audiences of 1666 would immediately recognize the reference since the play was only five years old and since Moliere played one of the brothers, Sganarelle, modern audiences would be less likely to get the reference. Rather than sacrifice the metatheatrical reference, Tony Harrison’s text seeks to include audiences by instructing them. Philinte says to Alceste “I think by now I know you pretty well…/we’re very like Ariste and Sganarelle, the brothers in that thing by Moliere,/you know, The School for Husbands, that one where…” to which Alceste responds “For God’s sake, spare us Moliere quotations!”.
7> The van Hove production enhances the metatheatricality present in the Moliere text and updated in the Harrison text. From the very beginning the production reminds audiences that what they are watching is a play. The camera continually reveals to us that the characters are actors since it captures them putting on their makeup at their mirrors or relaxing on a couch until they are required to speak as their characters. The actors also reveal that they are actors when they break the fourth wall at certain crucial moments. For example, Alceste accosts one of the behind-the-scenes camera operators with a “Hey, Hey, Hey” to get her to turn the camera lens onto the letter he is holding. His goal is to have the audience see the proof of Celimene’s infidelity. Later, Alceste chases Celimene off the stage and out of the theater onto the New York City sidewalk much to the surprised delight of passersby and even the occasional nonplussed cabbie. Meanwhile, the theater audience views the confrontation between theater world and real world on stage. Alceste brings some of that real world back into the theater when he returns with two gigantic plastic bags of garbage which he proceeds to strew across the stage floor. In at least two of the performances, the audience was visibly dismayed and unsettled by the question of whether the garbage was real New York City garbage or whether it was a stage prop.
8> In foregrounding metatheatricality, the production increases the opportunities for audience engagement. For example, in both Moliere’s and Harrison’s texts, Alceste is supposed to address Philinte and Eliante when he alerts them that he plans on going back to Celimene even though he knows she has betrayed him. In the performance, however, Alceste turns directly to the audience in order to ask them the rhetorical question “Just how degrading can a passion get?” Alceste then instructs the audience that they should “watch me grovel. You’ve seen nothing yet./There’s more to come. Just stay and watch the show./ You’ll see my weakness reach an all-time low./ Never call men wise. Look how they behave.” When Alceste does this, he extends the play world past the stage and into the audience (“stay and watch the show”). He urges us to “see my weakness” in order that we “Never call men wise.” The production reminds us that Moliere’s comedies engaged his audiences, whether in the city or the provinces, in a critique of their society, and the audiences, then and now, have a role to play.
9> A comparison of the Moliere play, Harrison text and van Hove production shows that metatheatricality is something that the audiences responded to in 1666 and that audiences are responding to in 2007. It is the inclusion of the metatheatrical that provides a pathway to the shared code of performance. When directors and actors decide to recreate the world of the dramatic past faithfully, they leave out one essential component of the shared code of dramatic performance. Such productions, in creating historically accurate sets and characters, inevitably distance modern audiences from the actions on stage. In the case of a faithful production of The Misanthrope, for example, characters might appear historically accurate when they wear panniers and elaborate wigs and reference the court of King Louis XIV, but they will never resonate with 2007 audiences in just the same way as they did with 1666 audiences. A production of The Misanthrope that does not directly engage an audience in a critique of a society that is felt as present will never be anything more than a museum piece. What van Hove’s production does, all its modern dressing and technological wizardry notwithstanding, is invite today’s audiences to see that society in 2007 and 1666 is and was undergoing a seismic shift in articulating its networks of human relationships.
10> As revealed in several interviews, when van Hove decided to apply the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of a liquid society to his production of The Misanthrope, he did so because he wanted audiences to see the noteworthy absence of long-term relationships he had seen when he read the text. Alceste, Philinte, Celimene and Eliante are not a part of any family. The only thing that ties them together is the bond of friendship and it is quite tenuous. van Hove has noted that he thought that dramatizing a world where human relationships are precarious was particularly timely for 2007 audiences whose preoccupation with modernity and technical innovations might be getting in the way of their relationships and of their humanity. This is clearly demonstrated in the scene when Celimene, Clitandre, Acaste, Eliante, and Philinte come together for a gossip-fest. They gather around a table and even bring food to that table. Instead of joining together in the sharing of food and conversation, they promptly isolate themselves from one another by opening up their cell phones to talk, loudly, to other, distant people rather than to the people right in front of their noses. The staging underscores this point since the actors turn their backs to one another as they continue with their cell phone conversations. Throughout the performance, the point is made again and again, that technology, whether in the form of BlackBerry, cell phone, lap top or video camera, isolates people from one another. The production, then, engages audiences in a critique of a present world where the absence of family and other long-term relationships can lead to negative consequences. That present world contains both Moliere’s historical past and a technological present.
11> This is not to say that Harrison’s text and van Hove’s production include all the early modern details. References to the court of Louis XIV and to class are omitted. None of the servants that are in Moliere’s cast of characters are present nor are any of the references to king and courtiers. The omission of such details does not efface the early modern, however. In a brief report announcing van Hove’s production and an equally contemporary production of Tartuffe for the November 2007 issue of American Theatre, Cassandra Csencsitz suggests that the “new look” provided by both productions “may be uniquely fidele to the actor-cum-playwright’s tragicomic spirit” (23). That The Misanthrope is tragicomedy is clear in the depiction of the central character, Alceste, who has both comic and tragic potential. Alceste, the misanthrope, would have been immediately recognizable to early modern audiences as a comic type (across the ocean, in England, Ben Jonson included the figure in several of his comedies). As Nicholas Grene reveals in his examination of the comedies of Moliere, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, 19th-century critics were prone to misreading Alceste as a tragic character. By 1980, however, Grene could pronounce that “a comic Alceste is now critically orthodox” (187). Grene’s study adds another dimension to the debate and determines that Alceste is both comic and tragic. Alceste’s opening “Leave me alone” and his subsequent diatribe against friendship clearly sets him up as a comic figure since he is railing against friendship to his best friend, Philinte, thereby revealing the contradiction of his pose. Alceste is also a sympathetic character with tragic potential, however. Eliante defends Alceste and claims a noble and heroic character for him: “The way he won’t agree to play the hypocrite/Does have a noble and heroic side to it” (Slater 4.1.1165-1166).
12> While the reviews of van Hove’s production have been mixed, the praise for Bill Camp’s portrayal of Alceste has not. Reviewers take note of Camp’s robust comic turns as well as his ability to suggest Alceste’s potential as a tragic hero. Ben Brantley, for example, writes that Camp “elicits a tragic dimension from Alceste, an Olympian agony and self-disgust that a more conventional production could not support.” One memorable scene in which Camp suggests the tragic nature of Alceste’s character is when he breaks down into tears after he discovers that his beloved Celimene has been unfaithful. In two performances, the audience could see tears coming out of his eyes and snot running out of his nose. The tears and snot signify the character’s tragic dimension since he has fallen (literally onto his knees) from the position of reasonable man. The descent from reason continues when Alceste pounces upon Eliante to demand that she help him seek revenge: “Avenge me on your cousin, who betrays/a tenderness kept burning all these days./Avenge me. Eliante. I’m torn apart.” What the tears and snot also suggest, however, is the actor’s craft and since the production has reminded the audience again and again that because the people on stage are actors, audiences should be suspicious of the actor’s tears and their ability to represent the truth of the character’s/actor’s feelings.
13> 1666 audiences would have recognized a similar tension when watching Moliere perform the character of Alceste. Alceste is in part an admirable character because of his recognition of the great gulf that exists between what people say and what they do. He insists that the goal for all humankind should be “To show our secret, inner thoughts, without deceit./ We must speak from the heart, lay bare our sentiments,/ Not hide the truth with empty, formal compliments” (Slater 1.1.70-73). What would have made the words particularly resonant was that an actor, whose whole livelihood depended upon his ability to use deceit, spoke them.
14> The audience’s role is a key component in any dramatic performance. In his essay on Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin critiques the modern practice of neglecting the audience. Benjamin reminds readers that, historically, the gap between the action on stage and the audience was not in place. He uses as his example the French classical theater and the practice of sitting aristocratic members of the audience directly upon the stage. Benjamin then comments “To us, this seems inappropriate. According to familiar notions of ‘the dramatic,’ a nonparticipating third party—a dispassionate observer or “thinker” – should not be associated with the action onstage.” (303). Benjamin then uses the example of Brecht and of epic theater to align the past world of dramatic performance with the modern world. While no audience members, aristocratic or otherwise, sit upon the stage in Ivo van Hove’s The Misanthrope, the production does align early modern codes of performance with modern codes of performance.
 Moliere literary criticism has focused on the centrality of the theatrical world throughout the modern period. By the mid-20th century, it was W.G. Moore who determined that “…many features of Moliere’s comedy are to be explained by his profession…his plays should be read as the work of a man who was not primarily satirist or moralist but an actor, a ‘comedien’ (40). As David Hartley argued in his 1992 article, a focus on the theatrical monopolized Moliere criticism throughout the 20th century. In 1971, P.H. Nurse posited a universal and Christian Humanist audience that would have responded to the comedy the same in 1666 or 1971: “…many of the things which provoke the misanthrope’s indignation are presented to us as objectively reprehensible, so much so, that many a spectator has been tempted to share Alceste’s responses…at the same time inviting our approval of them” (159). Nurse continued to argue this point regarding the audience in a later version of the essay appearing in Moliere and the Comic Spirit. Geneva: Droz, 1991 which Harold Bloom then included in his edition of Moliere criticism, Moliere. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Nicholas Grene, on the other hand, attempted to distance himself from critics who identified an ideal audience and defined a “notional” audience. In his preface, Grene explained what he meant by audience: “I do not mean the audience in the theatre for whom the play was first written and before whom it was first performed, nor yet the succession of various audiences who have seen it since” (xvii). Grene argued “for a notional audience (to avoid the ambiguous term ‘ideal’) to whom the aesthetic design of the whole might be apparent” (xvii). Like Grene, Harold C. Knutson, compared the comedies of Ben Jonson and Moliere and determined that geography must have made a difference in the audience’s response. Knutson argued that Moliere’s plays created a “recognizable world” whereas Jonson’s plays created a world that was “cut off from normal society” (138). Still another critic, Andrew Calder, argued that there was both a universal and a particular (17th-century) audience to consider. Calder’s actual examination of both audiences, however, in its focus on the philosophical responses of both a universal and a particular audience was still somewhat ahistorical. Most recently, the work of Stephen Fleck and Gretchen Elizabeth Smith vigorously examined the contours of the relationship between a 17th-century and a modern audience. Fleck and Smith focused on Moliere’s comedy-ballets and the relationship between royal/aristocratic audience and royal/aristocratic/professional players and playwrights. In a reading of the comedy-ballet George Dandin, Smith concluded that the 17th-century audience response would have depended upon an elaborate system of cultural and performative signs or “gestes”: “Because they were a closed audience, whose readings in matters of class could have been anticipated by both playwright and king, both playwright and king were able to direct and manipulate not only the reading but the response. Louis disrupted the expectations of the noble spectators…Moliere seemed to set things right again…” (130-131). The audience that I mean is not universal, ideal, notional or aristocratic. Instead, I have two particular audiences in mind: a 17th-century one and a 21st-century one. Both audiences are quite different for historical, cultural and geographical reasons, but they can be said to have similar responses when a production elicits a shared code of performance.
Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: The Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2003.
Bloom, Harold. Moliere. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.
Brantley, Ben. “No Wonder He’s Cranky; He’s Covered in Condiments.” Rev. of The Misanthrope, dir. Ivo van Hove. New York Times 25 Sept. 2007: E1, E6.
Calder, Andrew. Moliere: The Theory and Practice of Comedy. London: The Athlone Press, 1993.
Csencsitz, Cassandra. “Front & Center.” American Theatre November 2007: 23.
Fleck, Stephen. “Music, Dance and Laughter: Comic Creation in Moliere’s Comedy-Ballets.” Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature. Paris: Biblio 17, 1995: 21-43.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Grene, Nicholas. Shakespeare, Jonson, Moliere: The Comic Contract. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.
Hartley, David. “Language and Authority in Moliere.” Voices in the Air: French Dramatists and the Resource of Language. J. Dunkley and W. Kirton, eds. Glasgow: U of Glasgow, 1992: 29-41.
Heilpern, John. “Van Hove’s Misanthrope: An Orgy of Garbage and Junk Food.” Rev. of The Misanthrope, dir. Ivo van Hove. The New York Observer 8 Oct. 2007: C8.
Knutson, Harold C. The Triumph of Wit: Moliere and Restoration Comedy. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State UP, 1988.
The Misanthrope. By Moliere. Dir. Ivo van Hove. Perf. Bill Camp. New York Theatre Workshop. 15 Sept.. 2007 and 6 Oct. 2007.
Moliere. “The Misanthrope.” Trans. Maya Slater. The Misanthrope, Tartuffe And Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. [All references to Moliere’s text are taken from this translation.]
---. “The Misanthrope.” Translated and adapted by Tony Harrison from Moliere’s Le Misanthrope. London: Rex Collings, 1973. [All references to Harrison’s text are taken from the script used by The New York Theatre Workshop.]
Moore, W.G. Moliere: A New Criticism. London: Oxford UP, 1949.
Nurse, Peter H. Classical Voices: Studies of Corneille, Racine, Moliere, Mme. de Lafayette. London: George G. Harrap, 1971.
---. Moliere and the Comic Spirit. Geneva: Droz, 1991.
Scott, Virginia. Moliere: A Theatrical Life. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Smith, Gretchen Elizabeth. The Performance of Male Nobility in Moliere’s Comedies-Ballets: Staging the Courtier. Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2005.
van Hove, Ivo. Interview. New York Times 23 Sept. 2007, Arts and Leisure Section: 8.
---. “Thoughts on Moliere’s The Misanthrope.” Sept. 2007.
Mary Lindroth is an associate professor and Chair of English at Caldwell College, New Jersey. She has published articles investigating film/theater interpretations of early modern works, including The Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Titus Andronicus, for Cineaste, Literature/Film Quarterly, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Bulletin, and Studies in Popular Culture.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures