Those familiar with my Greek recitation pages will know that historical pronunciation of languages is something I’ve devoted some time to. One of the many fascinating things about the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production was that it gave the chance to hear Molière’s lines in something like their 17th-century pronunciation. I would never have thought that the French, of all people, would get ahead of us in this. I remember years ago, when I briefly lived in France, the hilarity or disgust that a Québec accent could provoke – as it happened, I had also briefly lived in Canada. And yet here, in this production, you could hear some of that same twang (of course Quebeckers have always insisted that what they speak is pure 17th-century French).
The case for historical pronunciation in Shakespeare has often been made; indeed, his language, though not that much older, feels much farther from us than Molière’s French does to modern French-speakers, I would guess. That may have been part of the point of doing it here: Molière has been the dominating presence on the French stage ever since his own day; people know him backwards and forwards, or at least think they do. This may have been one of the few ways left to defamiliarize him and hear him freshly.
There’s clearly a different feeling about these things now, at least among the younger generation. And there’s some interesting background which, via the Wonder that is the Web, I’ve been able to learn a bit of, at odd moments. Benjamin Lazar, the director of the production, is in his early thirties; at age eleven he began studying with Eugène Green, a somewhat shadowy figure of American origins who has lived and taught in France for some forty years. Like another expat, William Christie, he seems to have gained the knack of interpreting for the French their own artistic past. He was probably the first to stage classic French works in period pronunciation, culminating with his 1999 production of Racine’s Mithridate. Apparently he had his troubles with the French theatrical and cultural establishment, but Lazar, like a number of other young French actors, many of whom were also in the BG production, became an enthusiastic follower of his methods.
Green eventually published La parole baroque, a summation of his research, which involved not only language but gesture, movement, iconography, and a whole artistic sensibility that had become foreign to modern performers of this repertoire. After that he turned from theater to filmmaking. His 2004 film, Le Pont des Arts, has shown in art houses here; the plot includes some early music performers in modern-day Paris, with music performed by Le Poème Harmonique, though the musicians in the film are played by actors.
As for Lazar, he has directed a number of other shows, ranging from baroque opera (Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, Le Poème Harmonique’s next large production after BG) to modern plays, and continues to act. He may be the preeminent reciter of classic French texts in period pronunciation (I don’t want to go overboard embedding videos, but there’s a nice clip on YouTube of him reciting a fable of La Fontaine that I highly recommend). It’s interesting too that a number of early music performers with whom he has worked, such as the wonderful singer Claire Lefilliâtre, also take acting roles in his shows, and that he is obviously quite musical himself and watches closely what the musicians do; but this is evidently all part of the extraodinary collegiality, breadth, and versatility of these young performers, which bore such remarkable fruit in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme.