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Critique of the School for Wives / Don Juan / Pretentious Young Ladies /…

by Molière

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Moliere has long been on my to-read list because his comedies were on a list of "100 Significant Books" I was determined to read through. The introduction in one of the books of his plays says that of his "thirty-two comedies... a good third are among the comic masterpieces of world literature." The plays are surprisingly accessible and amusing, even if by and large they strike me as frothy and light compared to comedies by Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw and Rostand. But I may be at a disadvantage. I'm a native New Yorker, and looking back it's amazing how many classic plays I've seen on stage, plenty I've seen in filmed adaptation and many I've studied in school. Yet I've never encountered Moliere before this. Several productions of Shakespeare live and filmed are definitely responsible for me love of his plays. Reading a play is really no substitute for seeing it--the text is only scaffolding. So that might be why I don't rate these plays higher. I admit I also found Wilbur's much recommended translation off-putting at first. The format of rhyming couplets seemed sing-song and trite, as if I was reading the lyrics to a musical rather than a play. As I read more I did get used to that form, but I do suspect these are the kinds of works that play much better on stage than on the page.

The Pretentious Young Ladies (Les Précieuses ridicules) - is a one-act satire about two girls who are taken in by their own social pretensions and made ridiculous. This is an early work, and especially having read before this such works by Moliere as The Misanthrope and Tartuffe this comes across as rather slight.

The School for Husbands - has a similar plot to The School for Wives but isn't nearly as good, although still amusing. It has many of the stock elements of Moliere's comedies. In this case, Sganarelle, a foolish and tyrannical man of middle age, is determined to keep his ward Isabelle isolated and restricted and force her to marry him. I thought a particularly nice touch was the device the young lovers used to fool Sganarelle and make him their inadvertent go-between.

The School for Wives - The introduction calls it a "burlesque tragedy" for how the hopes and pretensions of the prospective husband Arnolphe are smashed. He's groomed his foster daughter Agnes to be his wife from age four, sending her to a convent to be kept docile and ignorant. He says that "to say her prayers, love me, spin and sew" is all she needs to learn, and he's disappointed that she learned to read and write. The way Agnes grows out of her simplicity and outwits Arnolphe made me think of this as a kind of anti-Taming of the Shrew. In this one the woman becomes very much un-tamed.

The Critique of the School for Wives and The Versailles Impromptu - Apparently The School for Wives attracted quite a few detractors. Another man faced with such a response might publish essays defending himself--Moliere instead wrote and produced two One-Act plays on the subject. In The Critique Moliere has characters representing his critics argue with a character that defends his play and in the course of which defends the ordinary theater-goer and the genre of comedy--it's an "accomplishment to make people laugh" and his purpose is "to please." The Versailles Impromptu features Moliere and his company playing themselves and showing them rehearsing, and features a "play-within-a-play."

Tartuffe - of the five Moliere plays I now have read, this one, about over-religiosity and hypocrisy is my favorite. The title character Tartuffe is a conman who prays on the religious sensibility and man-crush of his patron Orgon. The scene in particular where Orgon responds to reports of his wife's illness by repeatedly asking, "But what about Tartuffe" nearly had me laughing out loud. The character of the pert and shrewd lady's maid Dorine is particularly delightful.

Don Juan or The Stone Guest, although it has comic elements doesn't strike me as a comedy. The whole plot reminded me very strongly of Mozart's Don Giovanni on the subject with very similar characters. There's a Donna Elvire, a Commandant Don Juan kills whose statue he invites to supper, and Charlotte reminds me quite a bit of Zerlina. It did think funny this bit of business where Don Juan plays off two lovers against the other. What I didn't particularly care for in Donald Frame's translation was his attempt to suggest different dialects by making Spanish peasants sound like characters out of Mark Twain with Pierrot using phrases such as "Doggone it!" ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Mar 10, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Molièreprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Frame, Donald MurdochTranslatormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0451524543, Mass Market Paperback)

Seven plays by the genius of French theater.

Including The Ridiculous Precieuses, The School for Husbands, The School for Wives, Don Juan, The Versailles Impromptu, and The Critique of the School for Wives, this collection showcases the talent of perhaps the greatest and best-loved French playwright.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:30 -0400)

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