Larry F. Norman is a Professor of Romance Languages and Literature and Deputy Provost of the Arts at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Public Mirror: Molière and the Social Commerce of Depiction (University of Chicago Press), and served as a consultant to Court Theatre’s productions of The Misanthrope and Tartuffe. Resident Dramaturg Drew Dir sat down with Professor Norman to talk about Molière’s theatre.
Drew Dir: Molière was not only the author of Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, he also performed the roles of Orgon and Alceste in their original productions. What do we know about Molière the actor?
Larry Norman: We know that Molière wanted very much to be a great tragic actor. Tragedy was of course the highest dramatic genre—and, in many ways, the highest literary genre—in the seventeenth century; there was enormous prestige given to it. He did regularly perform tragedies when he toured with his troupe and when he came back to Paris, but he was never considered a great tragic actor—partly because apparently he had a slight deformation of pronunciation. He had a sort of hiccup at the end of every line (perhaps in the middle of every line as well), and he made a heavy breathing sound; this really made it impossible for him to perform tragedy as well as the great actors of the time did. In response, Molière began to speak about a new kind of comic acting which was much more, as he said, “natural,” to imitate conversation much more closely. Whether he turned his weakness into a virtue or whether he simply developed a different attitude towards what acting should be, he left behind the style of declamation and excessive histrionics that was associated with theatre at the time for a more natural kind of comic acting.
Drew Dir: How did his interest in tragedy inform his work in comedy?
Larry Norman: Molière had two ways of appropriating tragic forms. One was to try to do something in the line of tragedy, as in his play Don Garcie de Navarre; he never wrote a tragedy but he did write what was called a heroic comedy, which was a lot like a tragedy. A heroic comedy wasn’t funny, but it wasn’t a tragedy because it didn’t have the stakes of life and death involved, or destiny in the same way; it was still about the personal matters of kings and queens, and it was played very much in the tragic elevated mode. For Molière, his heroic comedy Don Garcie was a failure; however, because the play is a serious comedy about jealousy, he actually exported or reappropriated a number of the passages from this serious play into the comedy of The Misanthrope. So one thing you can say is that he actually wrote a kind of comedy that didn’t fit into the normal standards of comedy, that had many more tragic elements, and The Misanthrope was the most stunning example of that because, at the end of the play, the two leads obviously do not have a happy ending, there’s not a marriage, and in certain ways it seems tragic. The other important aspect of the tragedy is that he used it as a comic goldmine. He basically took the exaggerated, elevated qualities of characters in tragedy and put them in the mouths of bourgeois fathers and lovers and so on in a kind of burlesque or parodic or facetious manner and made them very funny. So some of the tragic explanations that come from characters are rendered comic; what’s the line about tragedy, “comedy is tragedy sitting down”? Once they’re sitting down it all seems very funny.
Drew Dir: Given this, how do you read the character of Alceste in The Misanthrope—as a tragic figure or as a ridiculous comic figure? How would Molière’s audiences have read that character?
Larry Norman: Molière’s first major five-act comedy School for Wives was reproached for creating characters who were both reasonable, respectable, and admirable in certain ways, but were comic and ridiculous on the other. That’s very much what Alceste is. The most dangerous thing would be to simply think of him as a tragic figure; a lot of people do take that on, and I think that would be a serious error in terms of what Molière thought of the character and what his audience thought of the character. He is clearly from the first entrance on stage a funny character, a ridiculous exaggeration; yet the complexity of Molière, as it was understood at the time, was that Alceste was also an admirable character because he had such high ideals about sincerity and politeness.
Drew Dir: Speaking of Tartuffe for a moment, there’s a modern perception that Tartuffe is the most comic character in the play—and after all the play is titled Tartuffe—but Molière himself played Orgon.
Larry Norman: Molière generally reserved for himself the funniest character, and so I think Orgon was the comic heart of the play. Tartuffe says things that are ridiculous, but he most of the time says them in a very effective manner; he has a great deal of mastery of his discourse. One of the interesting things is that Orgon, like Alceste in a way, doesn’t really have control over language; Alceste is very cultivated, he expresses himself well, but because of his melancholy and his anger, he’s always falling into ridiculous, pompous platitudes and over-exaggerations. The biggest implication of this, however, is that if you think of Orgon as the center of the play instead of Tartuffe, what you’re putting at the center of the moral concerns of the play and its philosophical meaning is the question of credulity and faith rather than the question of hypocrisy or moral leadership. So the play is less about, say, the abuses of religious fanatics, the abuses of the church, the abuses of moral rigorism, but rather about the people who believe in it: the suckers. So it’s really a play about credulity and blindness and believing these things, rather than the people who manipulate that blindness.
Drew Dir: So Molière was not only the writer of these plays, he was also the actor-manager: his name is on all the contracts, he performed in the plays himself, etc. In the study of literature, are these facts that you have to ignore and push aside when you’re working with the text, or does it actually enrich the study of the plays as literature?
Larry Norman: It’s absolutely possible to read the great five-act comedies of Molière simply as literature. It’s possible—it doesn’t give all of the richness, but it gives a lot of the richness. On the other hand Molière wrote a lot of other plays—smaller plays, farces, comedies-ballets (which are early forms of the musical)—that you really can’t understand or appreciate without understanding more about the theatrical elements. Even with The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, however, I think it’s very important to pay attention to the theatrical side. Molière himself was very ambiguous on the subject; when his first play was published, he said it was published “despite himself.” He just wanted to be a playwright performing his plays. But because the play was immediately pirated and someone else was going to make money off the edition, he decided to make himself an author and actually try to reap the economic benefits of publication. Now he might have been a little bit ironic about his resistance to becoming an author, overplaying his modesty, but still he did say several times that there are many elements of his plays that cannot be captured in the text: the elements of the work that he did with the actors in terms of comic pronunciation and in terms of the physical activity. I think that today people give a lot of attention to trying to understand what his performance practices were and trying to think about what adaptation of his plays means today.
Drew Dir: Given that these plays were written for such a particularly narrow audience, how do you account for the plays’ accessibility nearly four hundred years later?
Larry Norman: It’s true that there are some specific references in the play; some of the plays have characters who are clearly modeled on celebrities of the time—poets, courtesans and so on—but Molière always said that his depictions, which he called “mirrors” of the time, were public mirrors, meaning they were mirrors of the public at large (and also mirrors that were shown in public), rather than specific targeted portraits of single individuals. I do think he captures the timeless weaknesses of human nature particularly well—particularly the lack of self-knowledge, which is the key element in both Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. The heart, in a sense, of The Misanthrope is in the duel between Arsinoé and Celimène: about the impossibility of seeing one’s self as others see one’s self. It’s very explicitly the subject of that scene, but it’s more largely the question about these comic heroes such as Alceste, whose desire for sincerity and authenticity and purity of self resists really understanding himself the way other people see him; that’s why he’s comic. And the same thing for Orgon, who wants to be an absolute master in his home, and from the beginning doesn’t understand that others are laughing at him—or if he does understand it, he doesn’t understand why. ◼
Photo: Larry Norman teaching an undergraduate class on Molière alongside Artistic Director Charles Newell. The class is giving students the unique opportunity to see the dynamic dialogue between scholarship and artistic creation in action. (Joe Mazza).