The Misanthrope

Anna Nguyen/New University

is a true testament to French playwright and actor Molière that a work written almost three and a half centuries ago can still ring true today.

Molière wrote “The Misanthrope” in 1666 as a comedy of manners in verse form. Throughout this work, he rails against the hypocrisy and pretentious posturing of the society that surrounds him. He represents himself through the character of Alceste and uses him as a mouthpiece to denounce the bourgeoisie and all their vanities.

With a little stretch of the imagination, we can begin to apply Molière’s (and Alceste’s) passionate condemnations to modern society.

Indeed, the ease with which this is done speaks to the timelessness of the human vices that Molière’s play dredges up for all to see: the human mind’s capacity for hypocrisy and self-deception and the power of lust to rob us of all reason.

The play is set in France in the year 1666, when the monarchy still ruled the land and the court was the source of endless gossip and intrigue.

After a short, comical introduction by Basque (Kaitlyn Smith) and the bumbling Du Bois (Noah Hernandez), the play begins with a debate between Alceste (Lucas Calhoun) and his friend, Philinte (Craig Fox).

Alceste is a philosophical firebrand who insists on saying what he thinks and never flattering anyone, no matter the trouble it gets him into.

On the other hand, Philinte is of a more stable temperament, and he tries to convince Alceste that flattery, even if it amounts to little more than lies, is necessary to get along in society. Soon, Alceste’s position is complicated by the appearance of his love interest, Célimène (Caitlin Lushington).

Célimène is a notorious flirt, but all of Alceste’s protests against her behavior are thrown aside with a single bat of her lashes.

The two of them have something to say about everyone, whether it’s condemning the love sonnet written by Oronte (Greg Beam) or hacking away at the superior attitude of the haughty Arsinoé (Kim McKean).

The action comes to a head when Alceste and Oronte insist that Célimène choose which one of the two she loves more.  From here, the plot twists and turns until it arrives at its surprising conclusion.

The initial debate between Alceste and Philinte over which is better — brutal honesty or shameless tact — sticks in one’s mind, and the rest of the play is shaped around this dilemma. The pros and cons of both arguments are explored and tested until they are fully understood.

As we’ve all heard, honesty is the best policy, but what would we do if we were in Alceste’s shoes and forced to give our opinion of a truly awful love sonnet?

Would we do as Alceste does and say how horrible we think the sonnet is, even if we are sure it will offend its writer? Or would we act like Philinte and praise the author for his work, even though we really think it’s a disgrace to poetry?

Molière uses dilemmas like these to explore mankind and his foibles, and these moral dilemmas are what occupy the listener’s mind well after the play has ended.

It is easy to get caught up in the philosophical debates and critiques, and one almost forgets the play’s ultimate purpose: to entertain. But “The Misanthrope” is a comedy, after all, and there were several points during the performance where the cast had to wait for the audience’s laughter to die down before proceeding.

The performances were outstanding.  Calhoun and Lushington, with their passions ranging from rage to despair, were especially convincing, and Hernandez’s antics were hilarious.

The script (translated by Robert Cohen) was phenomenal. All of the lines were spoken in a verse form that both pleased the ear and could incite outright laughter when certain things (especially some of the more explicit instances of name-calling) were left unsaid.

The costume and stage design completed the illusion.  From the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet, the cast was transformed into 17th-century men and women.

The men wore frilly coats and powdered wigs, and some even bore powdered faces complete with beauty marks.

The women sported billowy gowns and hand fans, and they even got the chance to snack on some tea and biscuits. The stage was decorated with a large chandelier, and the furniture looked as if it could have been taken from the palace of King Louis himself.

Even the music that heralded the beginning of a new scene was authentic, complete with the playful sounds of harpsichord, flute and cello.

Molière’s critiques, though written for the 17th-century listener, still ring true today, and that is in no small part thanks to the efforts of all who were involved in this production. From the actors to the musicians and the tireless workers behind the scenes, everyone had a hand in bringing this play to life and making “The Misanthrope” a fantastic play.

Rating: 4 out of 5