The Miser Introduction
In A Nutshell
The world has more misers than an average contestant on Extreme Couponing has receipts. You can't swing a cat without hitting some dude who is super miserly: cheap and obsessed with counting pennies. Think of Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Burns, or J. Jonah Jameson.
Okay, maybe those three characters are fictional, but the world has always been full of people just like them.
When Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known his pen name, Molière) first staged a performance of The Miser in 1668, the French public thought he was kind of washed-up. His last play, The Confounded Husband, had done really badly at the theatrical equivalent of the box office. But The Miser's hilarious depiction of a stingy old fart named Harpagon instantly put Molière back in the limelight, and high ratings on whatever the 1668 version of Rotten Tomatoes was. Moral of the story: theatergoers have always loved to hate on cheap-o people.
Molière based this comeback hit on the Roman play Aulularia by Plautus. It's easy to see why Molière would be tickled by Aulularia: it's about a miser who tries to marry his smokin' daughter off to an old rich dude but is foiled by his daughter's love for a hawt young guy. The Miser keeps this plot and adds the extra plot of the titular (hee hee) miser trying to marry his own son's sweet young lady-love. Ain't no love rectangle like a love rectangle involving your children.
A fun-but-sad fact about The Miser was that, at the time of its premiere, Molière had already fallen ill with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him at age 51 in 1673. Although he would never live to the ripe old age of his famous miser, Molière himself played the part of Harpagon during the play's early runs. Molière even made sure to write in that Harpagon had a cough, since he couldn't stop himself from coughing while speaking his lines. You know—because of the TB. Good thinking, Molière. That's an awesome way of seizing the day and seizing the spotlight in one move.
Because of its razor-sharp satire and total mockery of traditional stage techniques, Molière's The Miser is one of the most beloved plays of the 17th century. It's also one of the most frequently adapted. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then hoo-boy, Molière should be super flattered. The count is at nine adaptations in seven different languages, including a staged Bollywood musical. That's not including the two movies (L'avare in 1980 and L'avaro in 1973) and the four-and-counting filmed theatrical adaptations. Yeah, that's right: The Miser is awesome enough to warrant filming a play and then broadcasting it on TV, guys.
And no matter the form, be it Bollywood music or filmed play, The Miser is still drawing belly laughs from today's audiences. But don't take our word for it: just ask Harpagon.
Why Should I Care?
You know how in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris turns and talks to the camera a ton? Even when he's in the company of Cameron (and his weirdly old-looking high school girlfriend), Ferris likes to talk directly to the camera like it's his bestie. This is a little technique called "breaking the fourth wall," and it's been around for-freaking-ever. It used to be done in a dead serious manner to give the audience extra info. Think of Hamlet's whiny-pants "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy, where poor Mr. Prince Of Denmark pukes his feelings all over the audience.
Molière shook up the whole 'breaking the forth wall' tradition. In The Miser , characters say things like, "Who are you talking to?" when a character talks to the audience. Today, fourth-wall breaking is usually done in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, the audience-is-in-on-the-joke way. A list of famous breaking the fourth wall moments contains—you got it—exclusively comedies.
Turning the frown associated with talking to the audience (Hamlet, y'all: not exactly a laugh riot) into a smile is a serious accomplishment. Imagine if one single movie turned a trope upside down. What if a movie singlehandedly turned ominous music box music into something as funny as the Benny Hill song. Or turned serious, wistful blowing wind into a sight gag on par with someone getting a pie thrown in their face?
Yeah, that would be a serious comedic landmark.
Beyond its groundbreaking flipping of stage tropes, The Miser takes us to school on how to write comedy that stays fresh for hundreds of years in other ways. Audiences today still bust a gut at Molière's plays, especially The Miser. One of the reasons for this is that Molière's comedy doesn't poke fun at a passing fad like Gangnam Style. Instead, he uses misunderstandings and insane coincidences to give us comedy that is funny on a basic, unchanging level. In short, anyone looking to become funnier should enroll in Molière's School of LOLZ, starting with The Miser.