Michael Hawcroft. Moliere: Reasoning with Fools.
In this intelligent and well-ordered book, Michael Hawcroft takes on what might be called la querelle de Moliere's raisonneurs. A vexed issue since the nineteenth century, the raisonneurs--those characters who "reason" in opposition to the actions and values of the principal targets of Moliere's satire--have been considered to be the author's spokesmen, or to be models of social behavior and paragons of rationality and honnetete, or to be comic creations and targets of satire in their own right. In an introductory chapter, Hawcroft gives a clear precis of the querelle, identifying the major players and their arguments, and marveling at the "lack of dialogue" among them (21). His own intention, however, is not to "negotiate some perilous route between them;' but to take "a sustained dramaturgical approach" (22) that will consider the texts in their historical and theatrical contexts and note how the necessities of the dramatic action determine what a character says or does. The idea is to define these so-called raisonneurs not as spokesmen for Moliere or for any particular set of social, moral, or philosophical values but by their interventions in the action. Hawcroft writes, for instance, that Ariste's interventions in L'Ecole des marls do not make him "a comic figure, nor a spokesman for wisdom," because they are "so specifically anchored in the dramatic fiction" (47).
In chapters 2 through 6, Hawcroft develops a close reading of five of the so-called raisonneurs: Ariste in L'Ecole des marls, Chrysalde in L'Ecole des femmes, Cleante in Tartuffe, Philinte in Le Misanthrope, and Beralde in Le Malade imaginaire. Each chapter begins with a summary of previous critical opinion about the character, followed by an analysis of the action in which the character participates. A good example of Hawcroft's critical technique is his perception that in the opening scene of L'Ecole des femmes the actions of the raisonneur Chrysalde are "determined by the dramatist's need to create a situation in which Arnolphe [the principal satiric target] will reveal, for the audience's benefit, his own unusual approach to marriage in general and to his own marriage in particular" (57). "Not all critics" Hawcroft adds, "pay sufficient attention to the fictional situations that Moliere creates" (57). He also points out that Chrysalde's dialogue is "dramatically fertile," (58) an interesting term when applied to a secondary character. It is Chrysalde's speeches that allow Arnolphe to respond with a variety of revealing observations.
Hawcroft's guiding idea seems to be that characters like Chrysalde do not necessarily stand for or represent anything other than themselves. They are necessary and instrumental in active opposition to the central comic figure, and their ideological statements can usually be seen to be rhetorical within the verbal action of each scene. Only Cleante in Tartuffe may have extratheatrical functions, since his action and dialogue form part of Moliere's strategic defense of the play against its many enemies and critics.
The character who has given rise to the most critical assessments is the accommodating Philinte of Le Misanthrope, the raisonneur who has the most difficult task since he argues for living contentedly in an imperfect society. He is not a paragon of honnetete, but a compromiser who believes in social lies and a certain degree of insincerity. Unlike the other pairs, Alceste and Philinte are not, as Hawcroft puts it, "polar opposites," one right, the other wrong. In Tartuffe Cleante's views on religion are as clearly normative as Orgon's are idiosyncratic, but Philinte's conformity is in some ways as questionable as Alceste's rectitude.
What the five roles tend to have in common is their relationship to the central character. Some are friends, some are relatives, but all are "peers who can speak frankly" (207). All clearly perceive the central character's folly and try to intervene. All are instrumental in the play's denouement and help to ensure the obligatory marriage with which classically based comedies must end. Furthermore, because they treat their foolish friend or brother sympathetically, the raisonneurs give audiences a more nuanced view. As a kind of addendum to the conclusion, Hawcroft applies Terence Cave's concept of "commonplace culture" as another corrective to the desire of critics from the eighteenth century to the present "to find globalizing, univocal interpretations of texts that, participating in the commonplace culture, inevitably give voice to many opinions" (219).
There are things in the book I found questionable. Hawcroft relies too heavily on Roger Herzel's ideas about casting. There is no real evidence that the actor l'Espy played Chrysalde in L'Ecole desfemmes, for instance--not that Hawcroft makes any special use of that contention. Hawcroft also quotes Herzel's assertion that "Philinte was played by La Grange, known for his social graces in both life and performance" (120), without questioning the implied assumption that an actor's stage persona and social persona must somehow be congruous. The whole potentially important issue of the actor's influence on a role created for him by a playwright working within a stable company is not something that Hawcroft is prepared to address. Another minor but troublesome point is Hawcroft's use of the frontispiece of the 1667 edition of Le Misanthrope as evidence of acting and stage behavior. According to Hawcroft, it depicts a moment just before Alceste rises; he looks "agitated and uncomfortable on the edge of his seat" while Philinte's "face registers a look of concern, but one that seems familiar and amused, in sharp contrast to Alceste's scowl" (125). In recent years a number of theater historians have addressed issues connected with using such iconographic evidence as frontispieces, but Hawcroft's close reading of a facial expression that may or may not be a representation of a particular actor at a particular moment--but is in any case crudely drawn--suggests that he is not acquainted with the problems of using this sort of visual material. And frankly, looking at the frontispiece, I find it hard even to be certain which character is which. These kinds of problems also suggest a greater problem, at least for the reader who comes to this book from a theatrical rather than a literary point of view. I think that an actor or director in search of material that might inform a production of one of these plays would find Hawcroft's idea of the relationship of text and performance to be a little simplistic. I wish I saw a reference in the book's bibliography to something like Christian Biet and Christophe Triau's Qu'est-ce que le theatre (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), where the inter-relationships among text, performance space, actor, and audience are thoroughly explored, or Erika Fischer-Lichte's The Show and the Gaze of Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997), which focuses on performance. A statement like "Moore's comments have had a powerful influence, but what exactly are their practical implications for the spectator in the theatre" (135) simply relates the written text directly to the spectator and leaves out all the choices made by the actors, directors, and visual artists who create a performance. "Moore's influence" has not been on how the play has been performed for spectators but on the literary discourse about it.
Hawcroft does try to think visually and aurally; he notes word choices and rhythms that go to create character voices. Nonetheless, I think this book will be most useful not for those who produce but for those who teach Moliere's plays, since it provides a series of close readings that attend to the particulars of text and focus on action--mostly verbal action--rather than on themes and ideas, as so many books on Moliere's plays seem to do.
Emerita, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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