Wednesday, 14 October 1998

Molière: The Would-Be Gentleman (1670)

Translation: John Wood, 1953
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 136

Molière's delightful exposé of the world of the rich bourgeois aspiring to take a place in upper class society never fails to delight. M. Jourdain is so anxious to fit into that society where he never can; he will always be an outsider there because he is only aping a way of life which the others above him have led from the cradle. He would be better off to imitate the Boffins in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, who continue to talk of their disreputable trade in fashionable drawing rooms because it is inconceivable to them that the dust heaps could fail to be an object of passionate interest.

The Would-be Gentleman is certainly not perfect; it is really a series of sketches, almost as though Molière was writing a series of treatments for a sit-com season. This is because of a distinct lack of overall plot, the main plot seeming almost tacked on. This is the courtship between Cléonte and Jourdain's daughter Lucille. Jourdain refuses to allow Cléonte to marry her because he comes from Jourdain's old background; he wants Lucille to marry a noble. Cléonte takes advantage of Jourdain's extreme snobbishness by disguising himself as a Turkish prince who has heard of Lucille's famous beauty.

The best parts of the play are the episodes at the beginning, completely independent from the Cléonte/Lucille plot, concerning Jourdain's attempts to better himself at the hands of his dancing master, music master, fencing master and a philosopher. Molière makes much comedy from his lack of aptitude for these arts, which is only equalled by his incomprehension of them. (They include the famous scene in which Jourdain is amazed to discover that he has been speaking prose all his life, when he thought he was just talking.)

In a later age, Molière would surely have integrated these scenes more closely with what comes later, and into the overall plot of the drama. Since The Would-Be Gentleman is actually quite a short play, this could have been acheived without losing anything; but the tightly plotted farce was not Molière's genre, and we must be grateful for what his genius did leave us.

No comments: