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Men and women behaving badly in the original seat com: the art of comic performance in Le Misanthrope

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Abstract:

Stage directions are rare in seventeenth-century theatre. Molire's later plays have more than most, but Le Misanthrope is still sometimes produced with a fixity which has led the theatre critic, Olivier Schmitt, to make a play on the spelling and French pronunciation of the anglicism sit com in order to emphasise the lack of action in certain classic productions, where the stage is crowded out with tabourets for the sake of local colour. Le Misanthrope is actually quite a lively play. The classification comedy of manners does the text a disservice, making it sound as dry and dated as the institution it mocks, which was already past its prime in 1666. Le Misanthrope is more accurately described as a comedy of bad manners, where everyone is as rude as possible, and the women often upstage the men, even in the bad behaviour stakes, in a way that has become very fashionable in comedy of late. The semiotics of farce and disguise, the source of so much of Molire's humour, is less visible in this society play than in the rest of his theatre. The mask is lifted to reveal more of the comic actor's face and allow freer movement of the head in performance, as one character confronts another, face to face, issuing a string of insults, or criticises the way that others speak behind their backs. Le Misanthrope, presented by some as virtually unplayable, deserves to be recognised as heralding a major advance in performance technique, with implications for the evolution of acting methods in the following century in both England and France. Furthermore, in the crucial debate about the expression of the passions which was just breaking in the art world, Molire may be shown to be a much more important figure than has previously been recognised.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/stap.21.2.68

Publication date: July 1, 2001

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  • Studies in Theatre and Performance is a peer-reviewed journal which fosters a progressive forum to explore the nuances of theatre practice. The journal provides a critical scope to include other related disciplines in its scrutiny of the stage, exploring the interplay between performance, audience and dramatic practice.
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