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Molière on Stage: What's So Funny? by Robert W. Goldsby (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 254-256 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0016

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There exist a considerable number of biographical depictions of Molière. Beyond setting forth known facts and probable truths about his life, these bio-fictional plays, novels, and films might be classified according to the degree of their presumptuousness about what cannot possibly be known: Molière's innermost thoughts and feelings, particularly those concerning the women in his life. As a commodity, Molière's romantic life has made for brisk business. I would venture to say that imagining Molière's thoughts and feelings in the most vivid and emotionally inciting ways is an obsession that rivals, voire surpasses, our obsessions with Shakespeare—in love, or not. Molière on Stage: What's So Funny?, while a work of nonfiction, has something in common with bio-fictions that trade in the business of imagining the man Molière. In this instance, assumptions about Molière's intimate life are set forth as providing the key to understanding his plays. Goldsby's book offers useful insights about the language, characters, and staging of Molière's plays, but does so through and around a narrative infused with the specious notion that Molière's plays are a map of his affairs with women.

The book is arranged in four "acts" with a total of seventeen chapters—some only a few pages. Progressing chronologically, each chapter discusses one or two of Molière's major plays, first by providing highly selective biographical context for their creation, followed by discussions of past productions and performances that Goldsby has directed or seen in the US and abroad. Goldsby, Professor Emeritus from the University of California at Berkeley, has directed over a dozen of Molière's plays and has seen some of the most celebrated twentieth-century French productions. The overall effect of the book, however, is a work of selective literary history married to armchair recollections amounting to more or less random observations about Molière's plays and contemporary stage productions. While random does not mean uninteresting and past productions can be key to understanding how plays work in the theater, I was unable to discern clear guiding themes to the book and grew increasingly frustrated with unfounded declarations about Molière's "feelings" onstage and off.

The author writes that his intention is to "lead the reader to discover...what happens when Molière's silent lines of text are transformed into a noisy play in three dimensional space" (vii). "In writing this book," he states, "I want[ed] to bring Molière back to the place he loved—the stage—by using the language and theories, the written and unwritten laws and the trade secrets of his chosen craft to better understand this complex artisan of the theater" (7). But understanding Molière for the author too often revolves around interpreting the plays as a function of Molière's "sexual-romantic passion" and his "frustration and sexual jealousy" (33, 34). He declares that he was "by love possessed" and obsessed by his "lust for a girl-child" (62, 78). The author somehow peers into the "deepest part of Molière's heart" and finds him driven by his "wrenching feelings" for his wife, Armande (87). Molière is "anguish[ed]," "fearful," and "passionately in love" (94, 78, 95). Only when liberated from his torment and reunited with his wife does he find "the delight coming from the small grinning mask of Comedy" (113).

This particular narrative, one that interprets Molière's plays through what can only be subjective tales about Molière's deep but waning feelings for his long-time companion Madeleine Béjart and tortured ones for Armande Béjart, dominates more than half the book. It isn't until "Act Three" that the author turns away (although never entirely) from this biographically determined explanatory model and produces the more interesting chapters of the study. A brief description of a sequence of lazzi in L'Avare in a chapter on "Classic Routines" provides useful insight into the way that comedies of character employ manifestations of exaggerated physicality. Another chapter, on Molière's comédie-ballet George Dandin, ou le Mari Confondu and Le...

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