Wednesday, 2 December 2009

First Impressions: Moliere or The League of Hypocrites

by Kathryn Hadley

Moliere or The League of Hypocrites opened at the Finborough Theatre last week. Written by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), in 1931, under the Stalinist regime, the play recalls Molière’s fight to keep his integrity during the reign of Louis XIV when his plays were viewed by the Church and court authorities as increasingly subversive. It provides fascinating insights into both the life of Jean-Baptiste Molière (1622-1673) in 17th-century France and the Stalinist regime, of which Bulgakov was a victim.

The play is framed by two scenes in which the ‘scribbler’ records the events of the days on which the play begins and ends. He marks both days ‘with a black cross’. On the first day marked with a black cross, in 1662, Molière marries Armande Béjart, who is significantly younger than him and whom he believes to be his lover Madeleine’s sister. However, Armande was rumoured to be Madeleine’s daughter and the marriage is in the end one of the causes of Molière’s downfall. The play ends, in 1673, on another day marked with a ‘black cross’: the day of Molière’s death during his performance of Le Malade Imaginaire.

Bulgakov’s play provides, first of all, an intriguing insight into the life of one of the most famous French playwrights and the court of Louis XIV. This particular period of French history is vividly brought to life by the excellent staging, costumes, choreography and performances. The hypocrisy and extensiveness of the court is subtly highlighted, for example, by the identical masks worn by the women at Louis XIV’s court. The staging of the last scene, during which Molière’s company perform Le Malade Imaginaire, is particularly powerful. The actors chant medical formulae in Latin and oppressively dance around the main character Argan, a hypochondriac who imagines himself sick and scrupulously follows all his doctor’s orders, highlighting the arrogance and pedantry of doctors in 17th-century France, a recurring theme in Molière’s plays.

Beyond 17th-century court life, however, the play acts as a mirror of the time during which Bulgakov wrote and provides a deeper insight into the repression of the Stalinist regime. The story of the attack mounted against Molière’s Tartuffe following its premiere in 1664 hints at similar censorship in Soviet Russia. The play, which mocks a hypocritical priest and his dupes, was viewed as an attack on the Church. The Archbishop of Paris issued a statement excommunicating anyone who performed, watched or even read the play. The play itself was banned.

In a particularly dark and terrifying scene set in the crypt of church, hooded monks from the ‘League of the Holy Writ’ interrogate Zacharie Moirron forcing him to confess that Molière is married to his lover’s daughter, Armande Béjart. In the words of Jean-Jacques Bouton, the theatre factotum, the members of the league ‘take no account of the law so we must be prepared for anything’. Numerous references are made to the dangers of losing the king’s favour and a later scene, during which Moirron is interrogated by the king himself, is a further allusion to the torture and interrogations of the Stalinist era. When Moirron asks what he should do now that he has been banished from Moliere’s theatre company, the king suggests that he might ‘enter the royal service and work for the secret police’.

Bulgakov wrote at the time of the Great Terror in Russia. His plays were gradually banned and he found himself unemployable. His situation at the end of his life closely resembles that of Molière, who is portrayed as a broken man. Molière is old, has a ‘weak heart’ (he was in reality suffering from tuberculosis), has been deprived of the king’s patronage, his wife has left him and his lover is dead.

Excellently staged and performed in this production directed by Blanche McIntyre, a powerful and thought provoking play, which has forced me to reconsider my choice of the best history play of the year for our advent calendar of the top history moments of 2009!

Moliere or the League of Hypocrites
Until December 19th

Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London SW10 9ED
Telephone: 020 7244 7439

Photos (by Sheryl Tait):
- Justin Avoth as Molière
- court scene with Gyuri Sarossy as Louis XIV

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