Since the late 1600s, comedies of manners have satirized “the style or manner of the way in which members of the social group (society) act or behave. Much of this is physical and can be seen in the way people in a particular culture communicate through body language. Furthermore, much of this can be seen by analyzing the courtship manners and
social niceties of a period. Period music and dance play major roles in this” (Comedy of Manners Style 1).
This style of theatre emerged during the Restoration, a period of theatrical revival in England. From 1642 to 1660, the Puritans ruled England, and under their control, all theatres were closed. They felt that theatre was a menace to society and stage expression must be suppressed. However, when King Charles II took the throne in 1660, he allowed theatre to thrive once again. Shortly after, comedy of manners was developed and perfected in England and later in other western European nations, including France where Molière would produce some of the most famous comedy of manners works. “Formalized within the narrow and ego-centric Restoration theatre, comedy of manners continued to be written by observant dramatists wishing to reflect or comment upon the attitudes of similarly constituted social groups who looked upon theatre-going as a prerogative of their class. In England, these early comedy of manners dramatists
included Wycherly, Congreve, Etherege, and Farhquar” (Comedy of Manners Style 1). Later dramatists of this form included Sheridan, Wilde, and Noel Coward.
Le Misanthrope, a play by Molière, which satirizes the manners of the French aristocracy, is one of Molière’s most celebrated works. Centered on Alceste, the “misanthrope,” the play explores honesty, love, and social behavior.
In my opinion, the most important element of a comedy of manners play is that it satirizes society. Often, playwrights wrote the play to mock the very audience that would be watching it. Molière was one such playwright. To truly perfect the role of Alceste, the actor needs to be familiar with the manners of the French aristocracy during the late 1600s. The play opens with Alceste and Philinte debating the value of honesty. Philante, along with the other characters of the play excluding Alceste, are representative of the aristocracy at the time. They believe that it is better to be false, to accept human flaws and lie for the benefit of others, than to be completely truthful. Alceste, however, believes in brutal honesty.
By definition, a misanthrope is a person who hates people. As the “misanthrope” of Le Misanthrope, it is obvious that Alceste detests those around him, even those that he loves. In Act I Scene II, Oronte asks Alceste for his opinion on a sonnet he has written. Alceste tells him how truly horrific he finds the poem, telling him, “Candidly, you had better put it in your closet. You have been following bad models, and your expressions are not at all natural.” His uncensored honesty was unheard of at the time. In Act II Scene V, Célimène comments that Alceste “always supports a contrary idea, and he would think himself too much of the common herd, were he observed to be of any one’s opinion but his own. The honour of gainsaying has so many charms for him, that he very often takes up the cudgels against himself; he combats his own sentiments as soon as he hears them from other folks’ lips.” At this time, agreement was considered polite and proper, and disagreement was saved for backdoor gossip. Célimène is painting Alceste as an outsider amongst these aristocrats with her comment. These excerpts truly demonstrate Alceste’s nature as a comedy of manners character and should strongly influence an actor’s portrayal.
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As stated earlier, the point of a comedy of manners is to satirize society. Molière focuses specifically on the French aristocracy in Le Misanthrope. At the time, members of the aristocracy would speak with a somewhat lighthearted air. To better emphasize the contrast between Alceste and the society he mocks, an actor should create a harsher tone for the character. While the other characters seem carefree, Alceste’s voice should have a certain gravitas. Alceste wastes no time when speaking his mind; the actor should not waste either. Throughout the play, various characters refer to Alceste as “absurd.” A sharp difference in the way he speaks, will also add to the absurdity of the character.
Molière writes Le Misanthrope in a very distinct style. The text rhymes, adding to the light, almost whimsical feel of the dialogue. Again, the actor playing Alceste must provide a strong contrast between himself and the others. He can accomplish this in many ways. As mentioned before, he can speak in a rougher tone. He can also place less emphasis on the rhyme and more on the heart of the lines themselves.
COMMEDIA INFLUENCE & THE PHYSICAL
Much of Moliere’s characterization (stock characters), plot development, and performance style is based on the earlier commedia dell ‘arte style of improvised comedy (Comedy of Manners Style 1).
Some of similarities between commedia and comedy of manners can be seen in the photographs above. The staging is very similar; many characters occupy the stage at the same time. There are also costuming likenesses. While most of the supporting cast is dressed in neutral colors, the main character is dressed in bright garb, making him or her stand out. In the Commedia picture, the main character was the man dressed in red, contrasting the white costumes of the other characters. In the Misanthrope, this character is Alceste. He should be dressed in simpler, but darker garments. The audience should be able to see that Alceste does not care about what he wears as much as the other members of the aristocracy.
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Commedia dell’arte dealt strongly with physical movement, as well as verbal comedy. Knowing this, an actor should also explore the physical aspects of Alceste. He is an aristocrat, so he would probably exhibit relatively good posture. However, his views are quite different from those of a typical aristocrat. An actor may consider manifesting the burden he carries by slouching or moving at a slower, almost heavy pace. Another physical thing to consider is hand gestures. Other physical aspects to consider include hand gestures and stage movement. Alceste seems like the kind of character who would involve some hand motions when he was especially fired up about something. When moving around the stage, he would probably move quickly. He does not was time tiptoeing around the difficult when he speaks, therefore one must not expect him to do the same when he walks.
Most of the comedy in a comedy of manners comes from dialogue rather than action. “Comedy of Manners is known as high comedy because it involves a sophisticated wit and talent in the writing of the script. In this sense it is both intellectual and very much the opposite of slapstick, which requires little skill with the script and is largely a physical form of comedy. In a Comedy of Manners however, there is often minimal physical action and the play may involve heavy use of dialogue” (Comedy of Manners 1). While a majority of comedies of the same period focused on presenting physical comedy to the audience, Molière provided a sort of intellectual comedy. The humor is spoken, rather than presented visually, allowing it to easily be lost amongst the actions. Therefore, it is imperative that the actor playing Alceste emphasize the humor of certain lines. This is not a stand-up comedy show. We shouldn’t hear a drum and cymbal after every joke. However, if delivered improperly, the humor and very essence of the piece can go completely undetected and the overall intent of the piece, lost. Alceste must be read with an almost sarcastic tone. He despises everything around him, and that attitude provides the humor to the show. If Alceste was just like every other member of the French aristocracy, there would be no conflict and the events of the play would seem less than trivial. Once again, the differences between Alceste and the rest of the characters must be strongly emphasized or else the comedy of the piece is lost.
An actor portraying Alceste in Molière’s Le Misanthrope must consider many different factors when tackling the role. Comedy of manners deals with satire of society and the way people present themselves. Therefore, it is most important that the actor learns create a contrast between Alceste and the French aristocrats of the time period. He should also focus on tone of voice, physical elements of the character, and delivery of the comedic lines of the play. If he studies each of these accordingly, he should be able to present Alceste in the traditional comedy of manners style, just as Molière intended it.
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