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Alceste by Edmond Geffroy

Lettre à M. D’Alembert sur les spectacles

In his 1758  Lettre à M. D’Alembert sur les spectacles, published by Jean le Rond d’Alembert  (1717 -1783), the co-editor, with Denis Diderot (1713 -1784), of the Encyclopédie, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) expressed reticence concerning the morality of theatre (les spectacles).[1] (See Letter to M. D’Alembert on Spectacles, Wikipedia and Lettre à M. D’Alembert sur les spectacles, an Internet Archive’s eText.)

Alceste: “l’homme de bien” & “l’homme emporté

For instance, Rousseau criticized Molière’s Misanthrope, because the playwright had juxtaposed in one character, Alceste, “l’homme de bien” (the good man) and “l’homme emporté” (the angry man). Professor Jules Brody has described Alceste and Dom Juan as  “morally” in the right but “esthetically” in the wrong.[2] Alceste is right when he says about courtiers that they are not necessarily sincere. However, we also know that an angry Alceste criticizes courtiers because he cannot tell whether or not they are sincere when they pay him a compliment. This is the reason why Rousseau called him “un homme emporté [angry].Alceste gets angry.

The faults Alceste found in courtiers were frequently very real, but a superficial reading of the Misanthrope or limited exposure to the play do not allow the reader or spectator to realize that Alceste himself needs to be validated to such an extent that genuine praise and compliments are as important to him as a seemingly devout Tartuffe is to Orgon (Tartuffe). Alceste threatens to leave Paris and live in a desert, a location outside Paris, and will not marry Célimène unless she follows him, which she cannot and will not do. After he has settled in a desert, Alceste will probably forever return to court, or, metaphorically, to Célimène. At the end of the Misanthrope, the curtain falls on an empty stage. Philinte, Le Misanthrope‘s raisonneur, and Éliante, a woman Alceste could have married but will marry Philinte, are leaving so they to can help Alceste.

François Boucher (dessins ) & Laurent Cars (gravures)
Le Tartuffe; L’Avare
L’École des femmes; La Critique de l’École des femmes

Children wishing their father were dead

In L’Avare, Molière also created characters wishing the death of Harpagon, a tyrannical miser. In the best of all possible worlds, children love their parents and parents love their children. Harpagon, however, loves his money more than he loves his children, Cléante and Élise. Before the anagnorisis, Mariane, who loves Cléante, Harpagon’s son, tells Frosine, a matchmaker, that she wishes Harpagon were dead, which she says is strange. Cléante also wishes his father were dead and tells his valet La Flèche. Yet, despite his cruelty, Harpagon remains a father and his children resent finding fault with him.

Mon Dieu, Frosine, c’est une étrange affaire, lorsque pour être heureuse, il faut souhaiter ou attendre le trépas de quelqu’un, et la mort ne suit pas tous les projets que nous faisons. (Mariane à Frosine, III. iv)
[Oh, Frosine! What a strange state of things that, in order to be happy, we must look forward to the death of another. Yet death will not fall in with all the projects we make.] [Mariane to Frosine, III. 8]

Que veux-tu que j’y fasse ? Voilà où les jeunes gens sont réduits par la maudite avarice des pères ; et on s’étonne après cela que les fils souhaitent qu’ils meurent. (Cléante à La Flèche, II. i)
[What would you have me do? It is to this that young men are reduced by the accursed avarice of their fathers; and people are astonished after that, that sons long for their death.] [Cléante to La Flèche, II. 1] [eBook #6923]

Rousseau is indignant:[3]

« C’est un grand vice assurément d’être avare et de prêter à usure, mais n’en est-ce pas un plus grand encore à un fils de voler son père, de lui manquer de respect, de lui faire les plus insultants reproches, et quand ce père irrité lui donne sa malédiction, de répondre d’un air goguenard, qu’il n’a que faire de ses dons ? Si la plaisanterie est excellente en est-elle moins punissable ? Et la pièce où l’on fait aimer le fils insolent qui l’a faite, en est-elle moins une école de mauvaises mœurs ?  »
[It is no doubt a fault to be a miser and a usurer, but isn’t it a greater fault for a son to rob his father and to be disrespectful towards him, to heap upon him insulting blame and, when this irritated father curses him, to answer mockingly that he has no use for his gifts? If the joke is witty, is it less punishable? And is the play where the father is depicted as a loving father, any less a school for vice?]

Yet, after it is revealed that Anselme is Dom Thomas d’Alburcy, Valère and Mariane’s wealthy father, the miser is so happy to learn that his cassette will be returned to him that he abandons his project to remarry. His son Cléante will marry Mariane, Dom Thomas d’Alburcy’s daughter and the woman Harpagon wished to take as a wife.


Dom Juan:  le Grand Seigneur méchant homme

Dom Juan is a Grand Seigneur méchant homme, a great lord and a bad man who is felled by heaven itself. In his duality, Dom Juan resembles Le Misanthrope‘s Alceste, homme de bien and homme emporté (Rousseau). In fact, in Dom Juan, a masterful Molière created a dark version of his apparently virtuous Alceste, the misanthrope. Célimène, whom Alceste wishes to marry, belongs not to a corrupt as much as a frivolous court. Molière will not condemn court altogether. The courtiers Célimène’s portraits amuse have read Charles Sorel‘s Lois de la galanterie. Moreover, she knows that when age has tarnished her charm, she may well be a prude, a role, or function, played by the Misanthrope‘s Arsinoé. The world Arsinoé criticizes is the very world that had been sustenance to her in earlier and better years.

Il est une saison pour la galanterie,
Il en est une, aussi, propre à la pruderie ;
On peut, par politique, en prendre le parti,
Quand de nos jeunes ans, l’éclat est amorti ;
Cela sert à couvrir de fâcheuses disgrâces. (Célimène à Arsinoé, III. iii, 975 – 79)
[There is an age for love-affairs, methinks,
And there’s an age that’s fit for prudery.
It may be policy to choose the second
When youth is gone and all its glamour faded,
For that may serve to hide a sorry downfall.] [Célimène to Arsinoé, III. 3]

As for Dom Juan himself, he has redeeming features. He is not the demonic figure his valet Sganarelle describes to Dom Gusman, Elvira’s horseman, in the first act of Dom Juan:

[m]ais par précaution, je t’apprends (inter nos,) que tu vois en Dom Juan, mon maître, le plus grand scélérat que la terre ait jamais porté, un enragé, un chien, un diable, un Turc, un hérétique, qui ne croit ni Ciel, ni Enfer, ni loup-garou, qui passe cette vie en véritable bête brute, en pourceau d’Epicure, en vrai Sardanapale, qui ferme l’oreille à toutes les remontrances qu’on lui peut faire, et traite de billevesées tout ce que nous croyons.  (Sganarelle à Don Gusman, I. i)
[Still, as a warning, inter nos, I would teach you that you will find in Don Juan, my master, the greatest renegade that the earth has ever endured, a wild man, a dog, a devil, a Turk, a heretic, who does not believe in Heaven, Hell, or the Wolf-man, who disports in this life as a thoroughly brute beast, a pig of Epicurus, a true Sardanapalus, who closes his ears to all Christian remonstrances that one could make to him, and treats all that we believe as empty words.] [Sganarelle to Don Gusman, I. 1, p. 3]

However when Dom Juan enters, he asks Sganarelle if perhaps the person who was speaking to him could have been Done Elvire’s “good” Gusman:

Quel homme te parlait là, Il a bien de l’air ce me semble du bon Gusman de Done Elvire ? (I. ii)

Who were you just speaking to?  He looked a little like the good Gusman of Donna Elvira. [Dom Juan to Sganarelle, I. 2, p. 4]

According to Jules Brody, Molière’s Dom Juan has committed a “single crime,” so all is not lost: 

His single crime, after all, consists not in having lured Done Elvire out of her convent, but, rather, in having married and abandoned her. (Brody, p. 568)

The difficulty would lie in the fact that Dom Juan cannot love a person who loves him.[4] He must feel jealous. If he does not fear losing a woman he loves, he cannot love. Molière’s Dom Juan is more of a jaloux than he is a seducer.

Mais lorsqu’on en est maître une fois, il n’y a plus rien à dire ni rien à souhaiter ; tout le beau de la passion est fini, et nous nous endormons dans la tranquillité d’un tel amour, si quelque objet nouveau ne vient réveiller nos désirs, et présenter à notre cœur les charmes. (I. ii)
[But let us be master once, nothing more is left to say or to wish; the beautiful part of passion is done, and we would sink into the tranquility of such a love, if some new object did not come to awaken our desires, and present to our heart the alluring charms of another conquest.] [I. 2, p. 6]

However, Dom Juan has also trivialized God himself, which is not a mere detail. He will not repent.

Non, non, il ne sera pas dit, quoi qu’il arrive, que je sois capable de me repentir,
allons, suis-moi. (V. v)
[No, no, it will never be said, whatever happens, that I repented. Now, follow me.]
Dom Juan. [V.v, p. 61]


Rousseau questioned the morality of theatre and in particular Molière’s Misanthrope  and MiserL’Avare (1668). Rousseau wrote to d’Alembert when a theatre was under construction in Geneva. It was a private letter, but d’Alembert published it. As noted above, a first or superficial reading of Molière’s plays, Le Misanthrope in particular, may bring confusion as to the morality of his comedies. So could attending one performance of both Dom Juan (1665) and Le Misanthrope (1666). The rapidity inherent to performances may condition a text.

Reading plays and examining such elements as their structure is more likely to lead to a better grasp of their meaning. The doubling of functions, the intervention ofdeus ex machina, an anagnorisisthe use of a pharmakos (a scapegoat), incongruities, and other factors may be extremely revealing. A title, such as Dom Juan, may also condition a play. Dom Juan is a reputed seducer, but Molière’s Dom Juan is unconvincing in this regard (see II. 1-5, pp. 12-28). He is not as Sganarelle depicts him. Returning home to his wife could rehabilitate him. However, he has killed the commandeur and his name is Dom Juan. He is therefore invited to a festin de pierre, a feast of stones. Led by the Statue, he is engulfed into an abyss.

In short, Molière’s plays may skirt what is deemed unacceptable. He did have to rewrite his Tartuffe twice because it was considered an attack on devotion, rather than an attack on hypocrisy. However, hypocrisy was attacked and the hypocrite, Tartuffe, used casuistry shortly after the publication of Blaise Pascal‘s Lettres provinciales, written in 1656-1657.

As for L’Avare, Harpagon is forcing his daughter Élise to marry Anselme while he, the miser, marries Mariane, who loves Cléante, Harpagon’s son. Were it not for an anagnorisis and the kindness of Dom Thomas d’Alburcy, Valère and Mariane’s reportedly lost father, Élise and Mariane may have had to enter a forced marriage.

Yet, Rousseau’s critique of Molière is not to be trivialized. It had the benefit of introducing a very long discussion on an enigmatic Molière. In Dom Juan, the jeune premier, the young man who wishes to marry, Dom Juan himself, marries and leaves his wife before the play begins. He will not give money to the poor unless he swears (III. ii) [III. 2, p. 34] and he challenges God Himself. He will settle his dues with God.

Va, va, c’est une affaire entre le Ciel et moi, et nous la démêlerons bien ensemble, sans que tu t’en mettes en peine. (Dom Juan à Sganarelle, I. ii)
[That’s enough. It’s an issue between Heaven and me, and we get along just fine without bothering yourself about it.] [Dom Juan to Sganarelle. I. 2, p. 7]

In remote antiquity, the old king may have been put to death leaving room for a new generation, a younger society. This happened on the day of the longest night, the winter Solstice. French 17th-century comedies kept alive the spirit of the Kōmos, a “drunken procession” and the Saturnalia, an equinoctial reversal of roles. (See Wikipedia.)

Much has been omitted, but I must end this post.

Love to everyone


Sources and Resources

Entire eTexts

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à M. d’Alembert, in Du Contrat social (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1962), p. 154.
[2] Jules Brody, “Don Juan” and “Le Misanthrope,” or The Esthetics of Individualism in Molière, PMLA 84 (1969), pp. 559 -576.
[3] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, op. cit.
[4] Madame de La Fayette‘s La Princesse de Clèves (1678), a novel, is the finest French 17th- century portrayal of jealous love.
[5] Anne Ubersfeld, Lire le théâtre (Paris : Éditions sociales, 1978).


François Couperin – Pièces en concert for Cello and Strings

© Micheline Walker
15 December 2016