Before undertaking a Molière play, it's helpful to know something about the enormously popular 17th century French comic playwright. Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, son of a successful tradesman, he left his social class for the lowly life of an actor. Acting, writing, directing, and managing his own theatre company, he ultimately found favor in the court of Louis XIV.
Many of Molière's characters—in such plays as The Miser, Tartuffe, and The Imaginary Invalid—and plots were drawn from the Italian commedia tradition. Although he started out writing farces, Molière eventually turned to comedy of manners. "His innovation was the brilliance of his language and his psychological perceptions," said Brian Bedford, who directed a double bill of The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold (now at the Mark Taper Forum) and appears in both. "He replaced the improv of commedia with quite brilliant organized text."
It's important to know that Molière wrote most of the leading roles for himself. As such, the main characters reflect his own deepest obsessions, his struggles with religious hypocrisy, greed, etc. The rest of the roles were written for members of his troupe. Noted Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, "All these plays were written for the same actors, and once you know that, and understand what their relationships were to each other, it's really fun."
"All Molière's protagonists are people with tremendous psychological problems," said Bedford. "Molière, like Chekhov, found neurotic complications funny." Bedford, too, finds these "complex, neurotic, self-involved, frightened, insecure people" funny.
Molière's characters are indeed exaggerated, and they tend to have one obsessive trait. Thus playing your objective to the hilt is a requirement. Joan Holden, longtime San Francisco Mime Troupe playwright who has adapted Molière, said, "Actors need to understand that you don't ask yourself what their childhood experiences were. These characters are driven by deep id drives." When working on an adaptation and translation of The Imaginary Invalid at Denver University last spring, Holden saw that the actors gradually had to learn to trust how simple the characters in that play are. "They all want something: love, attention, money," she said. "If the actor plays that, everything else takes care of itself because the writing is so great. Where an actor gets in trouble is in trying to complicate the characters. They're rich characters, but they're not complicated." She used, as an example, Argan, the main character in Invalid: "He's essentially Pantelone—he's worried about money, selfish, a hypochondriac, a maniac. But at the same time he has a middle-class father's affection for his children. You love him because Molière writes so deeply his fears and his passions that you identify with him."
Observed Dakin Matthews, who is currently starring as Arnolphe in School for Wives at South Coast Repertory: "The difficulty for American actors raised in Stanislavski is that they want to make it natural, and you can't. The act of the actor performing this character is what makes it real. If you're really behaving that way, the audience accepts it as real."
Matthews noted a difficulty he had in preparing to play Arnolphe: "School for Wives is Molière's first step toward grand comedy, but he still has one foot in commedia. So sometimes this character acts in a modern psychological way and other times like a Pantelone-type commedia character. Half of him is from 14th century Italian comedy and the other half 17th century grand comedy. Because he's so schizoid, it works. But it's not naturalistic; it's theatrical and theoretical."
He added, "Trust the language and focus on the objective. The characters are always tremendously energetic, and, because many of them are based on Molière's own psychology, they are somewhat self-revealing…. Don't tone down the character to fit a picture you have of human behavior."
To play your objectives as fully as the text demands, you must look within yourself and then magnify what you find there 200 times. "Molière exaggerates common vices of mankind: lust, greed, misanthropy, hypocrisy," said Matthews. "We all have a touch of these."
Don't Get Lost in Translation
We English speakers are most familiar with Richard Wilbur's translations of Molière's plays. In the verse plays, he retained the verse in English. Holden believes this presents an acting obstacle. It's easier to rhyme in French, she pointed out, so the French version sounds closer to natural speech than do Wilbur's verse translations. English-language actors risk becoming sing-songy.
Some companies do non-Wilbur translations—South Coast Rep's Wives was translated by Ranjit Bolt, a Brit, and it still has rhyming couplets, but Matthews said the meter is less rigid than is Wilbur's. However, there were a lot of Britishisms in the translation that had to be reworked for the South Coast Rep production.
When A.C.T. staged The Misanthrope last season, Perloff commissioned playwright Constance Congdon to adapt a new translation, mainly in order to take a deeper look at the often-trivialized character of Célimène (based on Molière's wife). Congdon's version rhymed, too.
So how to get comfortable with the verse? Matthews advised, "Don't hit the rhymes unless you'd hit them if they weren't rhymes. You have to think about it, make it your own, and then let it slip into your subconscious. Be aware when it is and isn't important for the audience to hear the rhyme. If it's the clinch line of a joke, you want it to be heard."
Bedford, a close friend and associate of Richard Wilbur, suggested initially ignoring the rhyming couplets. "Go with the colloquial meaning and speaking of the text. Then at some point you have to bear in mind that there are rhythms that cannot be ignored." As Matthews noted, "Having audiences hear the rhymes is part of the fun."
But, warned Matthews, "You cannot let the verse ride you. It's a thoroughbred and will take you where you want to go, but you've got to ride it, not let it ride you."
Of course Molière presents more to deal with, language-wise, than the verse. Matthews said that more important than understanding rhyme or meter is understanding the rhetorical structure of the long speeches, "learning how a thought develops over a period of 20 to 30 lines or more—the principles of composition…. Molière is pretty empty of metaphor [unlike Shakespeare], but structure of speech, logic, how thoughts connect to each other—you can see with extreme specificity the beginning and end of a speech and how the character's mind goes from beginning to end." Analyzing the structure of the speeches makes it easier to memorize them, because you're memorizing thought length, as well as words. Another benefit is that when you make choices for the sake of variety within the long speeches, your choices will be logical, not arbitrary. If you don't understand the structure of the speech, you may be fast where you should be slow, or loud where you should be soft.
It's also important to acquire the lung capacity for the long speeches. "You can't take pauses where you feel like you want to pause but rather where the language wants you to pause," explained Matthews.
"The language is very taut and arch, and underneath it's a play filled with longing and the desire for love," said Perloff, speaking about The Misanthrope. "The collision of those two things is really interesting." She emphasized that the language, while not naturalistic, is beautifully crafted as part of the action of the play.
Assuming you've had some classical training, here are a few suggestions for acquiring additional expertise:
Matthews thought the study of 17th century rhetoric would be helpful although not necessary—you'll begin to get a grounding in it during rehearsals. He also said it's important to immerse yourself in reading, and in language in general. "Language has to be like oxygen—natural and vital to your whole body. You have to live in an oxygen-enriched atmosphere to maintain the energy and precision you'll need."
"Immerse yourself in the period—the art, the costumes," recommended Bedford. "Read about the characteristics of the people. You are successful with Molière's verse plays to the extent that you make the language come to vibrant, contemporary life."
Perloff, in rehearsing The Misanthrope, had her cast look at visual material of the era. "You can tell from the shape of the clothes how people stood. Then you ask, what does it mean for a man to stand with his legs turned out that way? What kind of man would do that? What does that say about his behavior?" She also recommended listening to Handel and baroque opera, looking at visual imagery of the architecture, and reading letters written in that period.
Lastly, said Matthews, "Don't ignore the audience. They are part of the experience in plenty of the monologues, which are directed at them."
By the way, ironically enough, Molière collapsed during a performance of his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, and died later that night. BSW