Meet our stock characters. There's (1) the humanity hating curmudgeon; (2) the hopeless flirt; (3) the bumbling knuckleheads; (4) the innocent bystanders; (5) that lady who is crazy jealous of the flirt.
Sounds like the setup for a Jack Black movie, doesn't it? Well, maybe if Jack Black were a master at depicting the subtle range of human interactions. For that, we need Jean-Baptiste Poquelin—or, as we like to call him (okay, and everyone else, too): Moliére.
Moliére is the Shakespeare of French drama, or he would be if Shakespeare were an aristocrat who abandoned his social status to pursue a life on the stage. Doesn't sound too shocking? Well, this was all taking place in seventeenth century France, when actors and playwrights had about the same amount of respect as, oh, prostitutes. (Seriously.) If you were from any kind of respectable family, acting was Just Not Done.
But Moliére did it. He was so good at it that eventually he became the head of a troupe and then a writer. In fact, he was so good at it that he became a favorite of France's very own Sun King, Louis XIV.
Today, The Misanthrope is one of Molière's most famous plays. First performed en Français ("in French") in 1666, it's about a guy who hates everyone except for the most insincere and deceitful lady you could imagine. Oh, but she's pretty.
With The Misanthrope, Molière was trying to tone down his Richard Pryor edginess, because he got in a lot of trouble for an earlier play, Tartuffe. But he still managed to get out a lot of zingers. Where Tartuffe is all up in your face, The Misanthrope goes for the more smooth and slick style. Hey, and there's even some slapstick.
That combination of snark and silly has made The Misanthrope one of French literature's greatest hits. Every generation since 1666 has managed to find something in it that reminds them of their own society—including our own. Countless movies, TV shows, and theatre productions are based on this 350ish-year-old work. Even everyone's favorite period actress Keira Knightley has jumped at the chance to bring Molière's words to life. And how could Keira be wrong?
Why Should I Care?
All right, Shmoop-o-nauts. Let's fire up the TiVo and see what reruns we're watching these days. 30 Rock. Tosh.0. Glee. South Park. The Real Housewives of Everywhere. Blue's Clues.
Yep, even toddler programming has a healthy dose of snark. (Except maybe Barney. If there's any snark-free zone, it'd have to be Barney.) Instead of patting ourselves on the back about how cool and modern we are for being cynical, satirical, and ironical (or whatever other -cals you can name), let's face it: everything we laugh at, they laughed at more in the seventeenth century. Satire is about as fresh and hip as your grandma's housedress.
Even without the MyFaces and the Interwebs and the MeTubes, life in seventeenth-century France was pretty complicated, especially for the aristocrats. (And by seventeenth-century standards, we're all aristocrats.) Molière gives the people what they want. He rips apart the seventeenth-century Mean Girls (the précieuses) to show that, if you make fun of the new kid, you're probably going to end up under a bus.
So why read The Misanthrope? Think about it as a dead-tree version of a sitcom. Bonus? No commercials!