chapter  12
16 Pages

Behaviour reviewed

at the Palais-Royal
ByLe Misanthrope

In Le Misanthrope Molière invites the judgement of les honnêtes gens upon their own standards and principles of behaviour in society, in a play set in the urban world of the minor nobility, easily recognizable to his audience. Despite the technical capacity of the Palais-Royal, which had engineered the scenic transformations of Dom Juan in the previous 1665 season, he employed a simple scene representing the interior of Célimène’s residence. This was a suitably painted ‘salon’ where she queens it over her four admirers who, after their different fashions, play court to her, while in the background is the larger stage of the Louvre, to which one or other repairs and where their fortunes are ultimately adjudicated. The attractions for the eye lay in fashionable costume, with Molière playing Alceste in his coat with ‘green ribbons’ and, more importantly, in the persons and deportment of the players. For the town audience, conscious of its quality and socially ambitious, here was a play where the problems of society and behaviour were teasingly combined in a comedy of rare subtlety. From the outset it was a play which contrived to be both ‘serious’ and ‘amusing’, but its success was far from immediate. This has never been the play to raise a belly laugh, requiring a knowledge of both manners and morals for a clear perception of their comic misunderstanding. As the Lettre sur l’Imposteur makes clear, a knowledge of reasonable conduct is the condition for extravagance to manifest itself in le ridicule.