The Miser and Other Plays – Moliere (Book Review)

I have long held a natural aversion to plays, which extends to the poetic outings of Homer and perhaps Dante, without any deep rooted reason to do so other than a suspicion that the focus on form takes the writing too far away from my own natural zeal to express life in words always with a pulse. With a loud beating heart.

Yet my position was shaken with Medea – which is an extremely powerful, and yet clearly poetic text – and then more so of late, with The Importance of Being Ernest. I found some of the interplay in dialogue in that splendid work of Oscar Wilde resonating with my own haphazard attempts at producing flurries of spoken word between characters in my own writing.

And with Moliere referenced by a fair handful of my favourite wordsmiths, I decided to roll his dice…

The plays in this novel are cunningly constructed, with humour abounding through the expose of mainly (but not solely) male awfulness, pride, conceit, arrogance and the ingenuity of those who play to the vanity of such horridly common traits found in humanity, to seek their own goals.

What I enjoyed most of Moliere was his unerring tendency to show humanity in its naked truth, without seeking any salvation, any excuse, any hint of redemption. Or judgment. This is where the humour lies, in his honesty absent of moralising or any other form of condemnation…yet I will also add that there is wisdom, philosophy and challenging passages which pose questions of life itself to the reader. For example…

MUSIC MASTER: There’s nothing so useful in a State as music.

DANCING MASTER: There’s nothing so necessary to men as dancing.

MUSIC MASTER: Without music, a State cannot subsist.

DANCING MASTER: Without the dance, a man can do nothing.

MUSIC MASTER: All the disorders, all the wars one sees in the world happen only from not learning music.

DANCING MASTER: All the misfortunes of mankind, all the dreadful disasters that fill the history books, the blunders of politicians and the faults of omission of great commanders, all this comes from not knowing how to dance.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: How is that?

MUSIC MASTER: Does not war result from a lack of agreement between men?

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: That is true.

MUSIC MASTER: And if all men learned music, wouldn’t that be a means of bringing about harmony and of seeing universal peace in the world?

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: You are right.

DANCING MASTER: When a man has committed a mistake in his conduct, in family affairs, or in affairs of government of a state, or in the command of an army, do we not always say, “He took a bad step in such and such an affair?”

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Yes, that’s said.

DANCING MASTER: And can taking a bad step result from anything but not knowing how to dance?

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: It’s true, you are both right.

DANCING MASTER: It makes you see the excellence and usefulness of music and the dance.

….

FENCING MASTER: As I have told you, the entire secret of fencing lies in two things: to give and not to receive; and as I demonstrated to you the other day, it is impossible for you to receive, if you know how to turn your opponent’s sword from the line of your body. This depends solely on a slight movement of the wrist, either inward or outward.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: In this way then, a man, without courage, is sure to kill his man and not be killed himself?

FENCING MASTER: Without doubt. Didn’t you see the demonstration?

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Yes.

FENCING MASTER: And thus you have seen how men like me should be considered by the State, and how the science of fencing is more important than all the other useless sciences, such as dancing, music, …

DANCING MASTER: Careful there, Monsieur swordsman! Speak of the dance only with respect.

MUSIC MASTER: I beg you to speak better of the excellence of music.

FENCING MASTER: You are amusing fellows, to want to compare your sciences with mine!

….

SCENE III (Philosophy Master, Music Master, Dancing Master, Fencing Master, Monsieur Jourdain, Lackeys)

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Aha! Monsieur Philosopher, you come just in time with your philosophy. Come, make a little peace among these people.

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: What’s happening? What’s the matter, gentlemen.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: They have got into a rage over the superiority of their professions to the point of injurious words and of wanting to come to blows.

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: What! Gentlemen, must you act this way? Haven’t you read the learned treatise that Seneca composed on anger? Is there anything more base and more shameful than this passion, which turns a man into a savage beast? And shouldn’t reason be the mistress of all our activities?

My favourite of the plays was by far The Scoundrel Scapin, in some way due to the title, as I enjoy the word scoundrel…its one of those words with a wondrous duality, for there can be scoundrels of both the highest and lowest order, and I often call my beloved hellhound Baby Scoundrel…There is something of mischief in the word, in its sound, in its construction, close to always in its modern delivery. one of the few ‘sc’ words which have anything playful inherent. Scabies. Scabbard. Scared. School. Scale…Indeed, the first few which come to mind are anything but playful. And for Moliere to double the impact by naming the protagonist Scapin (SCA in the below), adds to the fun.

……

HYA. Alas! Why must the course of true love never run smooth? How

sweet it would be to love with no link wanting in those chains which

unite two hearts.

SCA. How mistaken you are about this! Security in love forms a very

unpleasant calm. Constant happiness becomes wearisome. We want ups

and downs in life; and the difficulties which generally beset our

path in this world revive us, and increase our sense of pleasure.

….

SIL. Why do you recklessly engage in enterprises that may bring you

into trouble?

SCA. I delight in dangerous enterprises.

SCA. Such dangers never stop me, and I hate those fearful hearts

which, by dint of thinking of what may happen, never undertake

anything.

Scapin is a fiend, a brigand, truly a scoundrel, yet can steel himself towards the happiness of others…when it suits. He evokes hints of Vautrin; the master schemer, the archetypal anti-hero of Balzac conjuring whose zeal and ingenuity is only rivalled in classic literature by another creation of gallic root; my dear brother who never was – Edmund Dantes. (for those still stuck on Ferris Bueller and who felt they delved deeper with Holden Caulfield, I strongly urge you to seek out the more fierce and expansive and adult blossoming of similar roots in the characters mentioned)

Dantes had huge heart, ultimate passion…was forced by circumstance to adopt cunning. Vautrin also had passion…an odd passion which may well have leaned towards the homosexual, yet seemed more to me always paternal and brutal and geared towards punishing the horrid, nourishing the rare and precious pure,…Scapin is merely a wily menace, who could help or hinder on a damn whim!

Yet despite Moliere’s playful mocking and rendition of the worst of humanity – which hasn’t changed a damn jot over the ages, other than it has become perhaps more dumb, less guile, more prone to herding – he clearly admired, felt was possible, and was likely dismayed by in equal measure through his own essence seeking the same, an expression of innocence and purity in the maelstrom of the wretched commonalities of the human condition, for true love was as much a throbbing vein in his work as the conceited, arrogant, scheming legion…Hints of the fairytale stream through his work.

Citandre (to Lucinde) –  Will you be constant in your love for me?

Lucinde – Will you keep your promises?

Citandre – All my life! I want nothing more than to be yours, and my actions will bear witness to it always.

This connection of true love prevails throughout his work. It serves as a warm and hopeful beacon of innocent beauty in an otherwise rather ugly exposition of realism of the ways of the human world.

I hugely enjoy this under current of the romantic souls seeking the richest wine that can be drunk, those willing to sacrifice anything and everything, to move from riches to rags, to lose their position in society for the sake of a heavenly, mutual devotion, to move the moon and earth to be as close to -and as one with – the home their heart finds in another, no matter the cost…a love of constance which means more than anything else ever could. This is more possible than most are led to believe, or deem viable without shedding too many perceived as meaningful layers of who they feel they are…which isn’t to suggest that compromise is a sin, not in the slightest, but for the realist –  as we all must be in order to prosper in any way –  to find a balance with the most sublime idealism, one must believe in true love as much as one must accept our limitations, as humans, and the world in which we live…

There is such amazing happiness to be found in giving oneself totally to Love. As there is such agony to be found through the same endeavour. Yet why live a life absent of risk, when Shangri La is possible, through entangling deeply, truly, madly openly and totally with another? Why stay in the shallows, seek safety in listless numbers of Herd, when the wide open ocean is there…with all its adventure, and danger and glory and magic? Moliere encourages this forage into the wilderness that is our calling as thinking, feeling hearts and souls…He introduces the pitfalls, the forces working against our path to happiness, but allows the stardust of immensely consuming devotion to true romance, to prevail…Seek love and adventure, scheme if you must, but stay true to your goal of basking in the glow of giving your everything to another and finding the same flowing from them into your own essence.

The writing is glorious, the rendition of humanity in all its ugliness and brief, fleeting moments of beauty is splendid, and regardless of whether you are already adjusted to reading plays more than experiencing them performed on stage, Moliere’s work is well worth your time.

He will make you laugh, make you consider your own behaviour, your own weaknesses as well as strengths, and he will inspire…What more can we hope for? From any man or woman who spends their life aiming to paint life into verse?

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