Looking back at my earlier posts on the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production, they seem to be all about the technique of staging, without saying anything about interpretation, about how these technical matters might alter the way we perceive the play.
In comparison to works like Le Misanthrope or Tartuffe, the Bourgeois can seem a little one-dimensional and mean-spirited. The would-be gentleman’s pretensions are held up to ridicule at every juncture; he is easily duped, and in the end, thoroughly deluded. There are some good jokes, and classic scenes, like the one with the maître de philosophie, that blend fantasy and satire, but it can all leave one feeling a little weary. The whole turquerie business, reduced to stage directions and nonsense lyrics, just seems like a senseless piling-on.
That’s why the music and dance are so essential, and yet including them, even performing them to perfection, is not enough; it has to be done in the right spirit, and that spirit has to match the one that the play as a whole conveys.
From the DVD booklet and the documentary portion of the DVD, as well as from the performance itself, it’s clear that the creators of this production conceived that spirit to be one not just of mockery, but of generosity and empathy. We’re made to enter into M. Jourdain’s fantasies. Everything, music, dance, gesture, costumes, lighting, even the stylized pronunciation, serves to embody them, make them sensuous and irresistible.
As played by Olivier Martin Salvan, Jourdain is not grotesque; he’s youthful, eager, clumsy, naive, and given to fits of impatience. The fact that he’s drawn not just to material splendor but to “the finer things” (les belles choses) is what cements the union of the arts in the play and lifts it into another dimension. It becomes not just farce but a sort of grand allegory. The production commentary doesn’t shy from drawing the parallel between Jourdain as patron of the arts and the play’s own patron and principal audience: the king himself.
Whether or not Louis XIV could look into this parodic mirror with equanimity (and how could a Sun King do less?), the opposite happens here as well: things outwardly ridiculous take on a kind of wonder and poetry. The booklet points out the best example of this: the maître de philosophie (played brilliantly by Lazar himself) teaching M. Jourdain the vowels. Empty concepts are something Molière can never resist parodying, but here the philosopher’s demonstration is so funny and so lovely that we can only echo M. Jourdain: vive la science!
The generous spirit encompasses the other characters as well. Dorante’s unscrupulous manipulation of Jourdain, borrowing money from him and pretending to further his courtship of Dorimène while actually courting her himself, makes him the most dubious character in the play, but here we mostly just admire his smoothness and finesse as he deftly sidesteps each new complication that his own game lands him in. We can hardly grudge him getting the girl rather than Jourdain, who after all has a wife already.
Finesse, grace in every sense, is what the play celebrates. Those who have it can be forgiven a lot. And those who don’t, like M. Jourdain, are not to be condemned for aspiring to it.