Engraving from the 1719 edition
|Date premiered||4 June 1666|
|Place premiered||Théâtre du Palais-Royal, Paris|
|Subject||Behavior of the aristocracy.|
|Genre||Comedy of manners|
|Setting||Grand Siècle, France|
The Misanthrope, or the Cantankerous Lover (French: Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux; French pronunciation: [l? miztp u lat?abil?:? amu?ø]) is a 17th-century comedy of manners in verse written by Molière. It was first performed on 4 June 1666 at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, Paris by the King's Players.
The play satirizes the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society, but it also engages a more serious tone when pointing out the flaws that all humans possess. The play differs from other farces at the time by employing dynamic characters like Alceste and Célimène as opposed to the traditionally flat characters used by most satirists to criticize problems in society. It also differs from most of Molière's other works by focusing more on character development and nuances than on plot progression. The play, though not a commercial success in its time, survives as Molière's best known work today.
Because both Tartuffe and Don Juan, two of Molière's previous plays, had already been banned by the French government, Molière may have subdued his actual ideas to make his play more socially acceptable. As a result, there is much uncertainty about whether the main character, Alceste, is supposed to be perceived as a hero for his strong standards of honesty or whether he is supposed to be perceived as a fool for having such idealistic and unrealistic views about society. Molière has received much criticism for The Misanthrope. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed in his Letter to M. D'Alembert on Spectacles that it was Molière's best work but hated the fact that Alceste was depicted as a fool onstage. He believed that the audience should be supporting Alceste and his views about society rather than disregarding his idealistic notions and belittling him as a character.
Much to the horror of his friends and companions, Alceste rejects la politesse, the social conventions of the seventeenth-century French salon. His refusal to "make nice" makes him tremendously unpopular and he laments his isolation in a world he sees as superficial and base, saying early in Act I, "... Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race".
Despite his convictions, however, Alceste cannot help but love the flighty and vivacious Célimène, a consummate flirt whose wit and frivolity epitomize the courtly manners that Alceste despises. Though he constantly reprimands her, Célimène refuses to change, charging Alceste with being unfit for society.
Despite his sour reputation as "the misanthrope", Alceste does have women pining for him, particularly the prudish Arsinoé and the honest Eliante. Though he acknowledges their superior virtues, his heart still lies with Célimène. His deep feelings for her primarily serve to counter his negative expressions about mankind, since the fact that he has such feelings includes him amongst those he so fiercely criticizes.
When Alceste insults a sonnet written by the powerful noble, Oronte, he is called to stand trial. Refusing to dole out false compliments, he is charged and humiliated, and resolves on self-imposed exile.
Arsinoé, in trying to win his affections, shows him a love letter Célimène wrote to another suitor. He discovers that Célimène has been leading him on. She has written identical love letters to numerous suitors (including to Oronte) and broken her vow to favor him above all others. He gives her an ultimatum: he will forgive her and marry her if she runs away with him to exile. Célimène refuses, believing herself too young and beautiful to leave society and all her suitors behind. Philinte, for his part, becomes betrothed to Eliante. Alceste then decides to exile himself from society, and the play ends with Philinte and Eliante running off to convince him to return.
There have been five known productions on Broadway:
The Misanthrope was first performed at the Stratford Festival in 1981. The most recent production ran from August 12 - October 29, 2011 at the Festival Theatre using the Richard Wilbur translation; Ben Carlson starred as Alceste and Sara Topham as Celimene. Brian Bedford was originally slated to direct and perform as Oronte, but was forced to step down due to illness, so the production was directed instead by David Grindley.
Modern adaptations of the play have been written by Tony Harrison and Liz Lochhead. Lochhead's version is set in the early years of the Scottish Parliament and satirises Scottish Labour's relationship with the media. Originally written in 1973, Harrison's version was updated and revived at the Bristol Old Vic in 2010.
Robert Cohen's 2006 translation into heroic couplets was praised by the Los Angeles Times as "highly entertaining... with a contemporary flavor full of colloquial yet literate pungency." Professor Cohen's version has been popular in productions staged by his former students, and it is the version staged by Keith Fowler in 2011 for UC Irvine's celebration of Cohen's fifty years at the university.
The Grouch, a more modern verse version of The Misanthrope by Ranjit Bolt was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 2008. It is set in contemporary London, and most of the characters' names are recognisably linked to Molière's: in the sequence of the above cast list they are Alan, Celia, Phil, Eileen, Orville, Fay (Arsinoe), Lord Arne, Chris, and manservant Bates. Martin Crimp's adaptation, starring Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley, opened at the Comedy Theatre, London in December 2009. Another adaptation by Roger McGough was premiered by the English Touring Theatre at the Liverpool Playhouse in February 2013 prior to a national tour - this adaptation is largely in verse, but has Alceste speaking in prose. In June 2014, Andy Clark, Rosalind Sydney and Helen MacKay appeared in a three-handed 50-minute Classic Cuts version of The Misanthrope, written in rhyming couplets by Frances Poet, set and performed in the basement theatre of Glasgow's Òran Mór [Gaelic for 'great melody of life], the former Kelvinside Parish Church, where the city's lunchtime theatre, A Play, A Pie and a Pint, celebrated its tenth anniversary a few days after the death of its founder David MacLennan . Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman noted 'the sheer, sharp-edged wit of Poet's rhyming text, which pays perfect homage to the original, while diving boldly into the new world of fall-outs and friendships conducted on social media.'
The School for Lies by David Ives (2011) was described by the New York Times as a "freewheeling rewrite of The Misanthrope".. Justin Fleming has translated and adapted The Misanthrope in varied rhyme scheme with Alceste as a woman and Celimene as a young man for Bell Shakespeare Company and Griffin Theatre Company co-production in the Sydney Opera House Playhouse Theatre 2018.