- Molière on Stage: What’s So Funny? by Robert W. Goldsby
Among Theatre Communications Group’s annual listings of the ten most-produced plays on the professional American stage since 1994–1995, a play by Molière makes the list only once: Tartuffe in 2006–2007. Robert W. Goldsby’s book just might be the impetus to give us more Molière. Goldsby’s long experience as an actor and director of the Molière canon undergirds his passion for the plays and his generous-hearted understanding of the personal motives and relationships behind them. In seventeen chapters grouped into four “acts” that loosely correspond to phases in Molière’s life and career, the book intertwines biography with textual and production analysis of the plays as vehicles for the stage.
Goldsby’s warm association with Molière goes back to the Comédie-Française’s 1947 revival of Le Misanthrope in which wartime Resistance hero Aimé Clariond reprised his role as Alceste. As a student on the G.I. Bill in the 1940s, Goldsby had the good fortune to attend the play’s first postwar performance. The communal intensity of “joy and grief” (4) generated that evening led to a theatre career that included chairing the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and directing professionally. Eleven plays by Molière in fifteen different productions (including some in his own translation) figure among the 153 productions Goldsby has directed. He writes about Molière from intimate acquaintance.
The first brief chapter summarizes Molière’s life up to 1658 when he won the favor of Louis XIV along with the means to settle his troupe in Paris. The lively writing throughout the book yields abundant nuggets like this: “[Molière] learned that though he loves tragedy and tragediennes his true talent is making people laugh, even, unfortunately, in the tragedies” (10). Subsequent chapters each analyze dramaturgically one or two plays in chronological order even as they continue tracing Molière’s biography in relation to his work. The method involves frequent use of the phrase “we can imagine” as Goldsby deftly ties dramaturgical tidbits to what was apparently going on in Molière’s personal life. Yes, Molière loved women, and Goldsby shows how the playwright’s passions led to the great roles he created for actresses. Through Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of Elmire, Arnolph’s doting on young Agnès, and Alceste’s helpless fixation on Célimène, “Molière confronted on stage his own passion for Armande” [End Page 285] and turned his “deepest feelings” into a “subject for laughter” (62), even—as in the case of Agnès—when Armande Béjart did not play the role she inspired.
Beyond the biographical material and the analysis of Molière’s plays for the stage, the book functions as a kind of theatregoing memoir or vicarious experiencing of important productions and directors (and even a range of translators) of the plays from the original creations to our own time. For example, chapter 14 on Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671) celebrates Jacques Copeau’s 1920 production with Louis Jouvet playing Géronte, Jouvet’s 1951 production with Jean-Louis Barrault as Scapin, and Goldsby’s own 1958 Berkeley production for which he used the translation by Lady Gregory. The dramaturgical analysis constitutes a directorial case study in putting farce on the stage. Goldsby’s analysis of the act 2 scene in which Scapin dupes Géronte incorporates snippets from Lady Gregory’s dialogue as well as examples of farcical devices like the “bright idea,” the “turn and go” exit, the “magic prop”; and then Goldsby moves on to the famous “sack scene” and breaks it down into ten playable beats with fine fodder for any director.
Chapter 7, which covers Tartuffe, includes case studies of “brilliant entrances” (53). Chapter 8 on Dom Juan; ou, le Festin de Pierre shows how directors like Stephen Wadsworth and Jacques La Salle milk the...