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A Winningly Ill-Humored Love

I went into the Stratford production of The Misanthrope thinking, you know, this is really a play that needs to be set in a high school. You’ve got a group of people who are essentially powerless and useless – having been deprived of any independent power by the absolutist king Louis XIV – but who are, by virtue of this very dependency, essentially equal, and who, because they are all wealthy, have no material needs either. They have nothing to do and no way to earn status – so they compete with one another at sheer posturing: by asserting their coolness and wittily denigrating all others, they try to establish themselves at the top of the social hierarchy. But the one on top today is only a single well-aimed putdown away from tumbling to the bottom of the heap. All of which sounds like the world of teenagers.

Having now seen the show twice, though (I’d read the play before, but never seen a production), I think that does Molière’s play – I don’t know whether to properly call it a comedy – justice. This isn’t a play about immature people. Or, rather, it is a play about immature people – but immature adults, not children or teenagers.

But first: why do I say I don’t know whether to call it a comedy? Because it blatantly confounds the generic expectations we associate with comedy. A comic resolution closes the action on a positive note. The boy and girl finally get together – or back together. The character who has upset the social order learns his lesson – or the upholders of the social order learn their lesson – or the malefactor is finally banished from the social order – and the social order is reintegrated on a more stable basis. Or whatever – there are a variety of comic plots, but the point is that they resolve on an up note.

The Misanthrope does not do this. It’s a very funny play, but it doesn’t end with a resolution at all. Célimène’s humiliation is the climax – this is the low point in the play both for her and for Alceste. But they are left, at least, with each other, and the audience’s expectation is that now, finally, they will take each other and be happily married. That’s not, perhaps, the most satisfying resolution from the female perspective – it’s a resolution in which Alceste wins (rather like the resolution in “The Philadelphia Story” in which, after her humiliation, Kate Hepburn has finally grown enough to be ready to accept when Cary Grant offers to take her back). But it’s a resolution. And The Misanthrope doesn’t resolve. Alceste has a condition for taking Célimène back: that she renounce society and find the world in him alone. Quite reasonably, Célimène – who is fully ready to marry Alceste at this point – refuses. And Alceste walks out.

That’s just not a comic ending. And since endings are the main determinant of genre – King Lear would be a comedy, of the sub-species romance, if Cordelia lived to marry Edgar and become queen – I question whether The Misanthrope is properly classified as such. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s structurally closer to Troilus and Cressida than toMuch Ado About Nothing.

Troilus is a satire, a satire on chivalry and courtly love, a brutal demonstration of how little the ideals of that system have to bear on actual war, and its consequences for actual love. The Misanthrope, like much of Molière, certainly is a satire of the French society of his day, and of humanity more generally. But this isn’t School for Scandal either – that’s a satire of society with a comic plot, where the principal characters learn something about true values and are resolved to better social relationships as a consequence (in particular, the resolution of the Teazles’ marriage). If there is a satiric target at the heart of The Misanthrope, it isn’t the catty society around the principals. It’s something deeper within them.

This is a play about two people who love each other, but who cannot accept the compromise of self that opening up to love requires. Alceste and Célimène appear to be wildly different people, but they are identical in this. Each wants the other to be a satellite in orbit, themselves to be the star.

The heart of the play, for me, is when Alceste fantasizes about saving Célimène from a state of desperation:

Yes, I could wish that you were wretchedly poor,
Unloved, uncherished, utterly obscure;
That fate had set you down upon the earth
Without possessions, rank or gentle birth;
Then, by the offer of my heart, I might
Repair the great injustice of your plight;
I’d raise you from the dust and proudly prove
The purity and vastness of my love.

There’s a huge amount going on here. Alceste’s complaint is, in part, a function of his social position, as a member of the infantilized French aristocracy. There isn’t any way for Alceste to genuinely earn merit – there are no heroic deeds he can perform that would establish him as a man. And so he fantasizes about doing such deeds. But it’s also a fantasy about total power over the beloved. Alceste isn’t out to reform Célimène – to turn her into Eliante, her cousin, who declares herself ready to be his bride – but to create her, from nothing, he being the be-all and end-all.

Célimène replies to this fantasy – again, reasonably – “This is a strange benevolence indeed! / God grant that I should never be in need.” But there’s matter to unpack here as well. “God grant that I should never be in need” – not even of Alceste’s love? Is that the way lovers talk, disclaiming any necessity of the other? Not in my experience. Alceste understands love as a power relationship in which he is in complete command. But he experiences love with Célimène as the opposite – a power relationship in which she is in complete command. Alceste cannot help but love her, no matter what he or she does, but she has (apparently) no needs – not even of him.

Why does Célimène toy with Alceste the way she does? She declares to him that she loves him. I believe her (I don’t know what the point of the play is if she isn’t being truthful when she tells him this). Why are they not betrothed? What are they waiting for? Has Alceste actually not yet proposed? Well, why not? Wouldn’t that end the play very quickly? Right before her humiliation, Alceste demands that she choose between him and a rival. Why doesn’t he propose to her – wouldn’t she have to choose, then? Wouldn’t demurral in the face of a formal marriage proposal require some explanation?

The fact is, Célimène doesn’t have to accept a marriage proposal from anyone. She’s a propertied widow – the only kind of independent woman that existed in her day. She could, if she chose, become like Mme. Merteuil in Dangerous Liasons, and establish herself as a power in her own right. In a more chaste fashion, this is what she has actually done. Marrying Alceste – or anyone – would be giving up that independence. Alceste, meanwhile, cannot actually propose marriage, because this would establish the final character of their relationship on the basis of supplication. In his mind, she must choose him – declare her need – before he can rescue her, thereby establishing him as the powerful one.

They are, indeed, perfectly matched – because nobody else in their society is a worthy antagonist, and both understand love as a contest of wills, a struggle for mastery. (In that regard, they are a bit like Beatrice and Benedict, or C. K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord – or like Elyot and Amanda from Private Lives.) But this is a struggle that cannot be won. If Alceste ceased his rages, he would hold no further appeal for Célimène; if Célimène submitted, and told everyone Alceste was her be-all and end-all, he’d start to get irritated with her. Theirs is an impossible marriage of two minds; as their minds are, they cannot be married; were their minds to change, they would no longer be well-matched.

At heart, the play is a satire of love, and this couple, fierce antagonists who we know belong together, are the broken emblem of true love. They are powerful and fiercely independent personalities. They also love each other. And they cannot figure out how to express the latter without giving up the former. If this ties back to a social satire, it is that this predicament – of not being able to subjugate oneself to love and to one’s beloved – is sharpened by the position of the French aristocracy; lacking any way to establish themselves independently in the world, the only path to status is by one-upping each other in these interpersonal power struggles. And that’s not an environment conducive to a free exchange of love. But this is far beyond what a high school student can encompass. This is a grown-up love problem – and a very common one.

The most grownup characters in the play, meanwhile, the sensible and virtuous pair who do, in fact, wind up together at the end, are Eliante and Philinte, Célimène’s cousin and Alceste’s best (read: only) friend. And the heart of their story is the beautiful scene when they both declare that they would be willing to accept subordination, even humiliation, if that’s the price of love. Eliante tells Philinte that she loves Alceste, but she knows he loves Célimène. She hopes he wins her – but if Célimène marries someone else, she’d be happy to be his consolation. And Philinte listens to this, and replies: well, I’m in the same position. I love you, but I know you love Alceste. Nonetheless, if he marries Célimène, and leaves you high and dry, I’d happily be your second choice.

What on earth would these imagined marriages be like? We get an inkling when Alceste proposes to Eliante, declaring nothing of love for her but only a desire for revenge on Célimène. Could either of them really be happy knowing that they weren’t measuring up to the one their partner really loved? I suspect not – but this is their realism, the knowledge that, if they are in love, then they are in need, and if they are in need then they are out of power. And they’ll live with that. It’s a very bitter moral, and thankfully the play redeems it by letting Eliante learn something from Alceste’s absurd proposal, and take another look at Philinte, and wonder: perhaps he’s my first choice after all? This enables both of them to establish a relationship on an equal footing, because both have surrendered. (And their union is the only sign that, structurally, this is, in fact, a comedy.) But again, this is a moral far beyond the compass of the giddy, high-school-type society around them.

* * *

That’s the play, to me, anyway. And I give full credit to the production for bringing me to this understanding. Ben Carlson and Sarah Topham, as the two principals, have the kind of chemistry on stage that I’ve very rarely seen before. They are absolutely electric. Each is in absolute command of the very difficult (because so sing-song-y) Richard Wilbur verse. When they are not sharing the stage with each other, either is the sun around whom all the other characters revolve – Topham lassos them with her wit and lets them buzz around her head like tethered insects; Carlson subdues them by sheer force and velocity of his delivery. But every time they are brought together there are fireworks – and the displays build, progressively, like the best pyrotecnic shows. There are too many highlights to list, but if I have pick one its their ferocious verbal battle after Alceste returns brandishing the letter he received from Arsinoé, the battle that concludes with the exchange I excerpted above and Célimène’s prayer that she never be in need. Both actors cover such a range of emotions in such a short span of time – it must be exhausting. (The second time around, I spent the whole scene watching Topham’s face, the depth of feeling she puts into it when Carlson isn’t looking at her, and how she instantly retakes control of it as soon as he turns to her – not smothering her emotions, but reminding them – and Carlson – who’s boss.)

But I wrong the production to single them out, because the cast as a whole is phenomenal. Juan Chioran makes a forceful and upright Philinte, who softens heartbreakingly in his key “I’ll take second-best” speech to his beloved Eliante, played by Martha Farrell as a sweet and level-headed girl strongest in her well-reasoned reproof to Alceste for thinking love is expressed through furious criticism (my only quibble with her performance would be that I missed her moment of realization that Philinte really is the one for her – the key turn for her character – but there are so many faces to watch I may simply have missed it). Peter Hutt is hilariously oleaginous as Oronte, and Kelli Fox is a tightly lidded pot of venom as Arsinoé. And Trent Pardy and Steve Ross are positively edible as the “little Marquess” Acaste and the more generously endowed Clitandre, the sanctioned gossips of the court. Every one of them – even those that, on the page, seem the broadest caricatures – persuaded me that he or she was a real person; every one of them owned the verse like it was so much conversation. It’s the kind of ensemble that only Stratford can assemble.

And though this is emphatically not the kind of production where you go out humming the set, that’s just because the acting is so good and the language is so strong. Because the set is a magnificent confection; it looked like the play was set in the Fragonard room of the Frick. And I have to give credit to director David Grindley as well. This production was cast and the design approved by Brian Bedford months ago, who was originally slated to direct (and to appear, as Oronte). Bedford had to bow out due to the extraordinary success of his Earnest in New York, and it can’t have been easy for Grindley to come in and direct a production that began as someone else’s idea. Based on the results, either he and Bedford were of one mind, or Grindley is extraordinarily flexible, because what I saw was a fully realized conception of the play.

But walking home from the theatre, what I found myself dreaming about, finally, was how the Festival might use this central pairing to further marvelous effect. Might I humbly suggest that it is time to do Measure for Measure again, that Topham absolutely must do Isabella before she ages out of the role, and that Carlson would be the perfect pairing, more obviously as the Duke, perhaps more interestingly as Angelo. Either way, if they can reproduce the electricity that sparked between them in this Misanthrope, the audience had better watch out.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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