DRA 3015S - Molière's comédies-ballets
Seminar notes, April 6, 1999
 
I. - A tradition of neglect:

«While Molière's experience as a performer undoubtedly helped him create effective scenes between characters at both the moment of writing and the moment of staging, it is his directorial imagination that gave birth to the complex, hybrid form of the comédie-ballet. A mixture of different modes of theatrical performance that combines verbal, musical, scenic and choreographic elements, the comédie-ballet demonstrates Molière's ability to think in  terms of what the modern era calls the poetry of the stage.
    Indeed, much of the scholarly disinterest that has greeted the comédies-ballets over the years can be attributed to the fact that Molière's texts quite obviously do not provide an adequate sense of the scenic life of these plays. Accordingly, the texts of the comédie-ballets have been relegated to the same secondary status as opera librettos of the "books" of musicals. It is hardly surprising that such creations should have been denied critical approval in the doctrinaire neo-Aristotelian climate of French neoclassicism, or that subsequent generations of scholars and theater artists should have felt embarrassed by the nonliterary (i.e., nonverbal) elements of Molière's texts. Nevertheless, the fact that Molière was capable of creating such works for the stage, often at alarmingly short notice, suggests that his theatrical imagination was directed toward creating works of theater principally at the level of performance or mise en scène. In other words, we can see Molière as the author of two quite distinct texts, the verbal text and the scenic text, only one of which has survived» (J. Carmody, Rereading Molière: Mise en Scène from Antoine to Vitez,  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 6-7).

Theatre historians such as Guy Spielmann recognize the overlooking of Molière's comédies-ballets, and praise recent efforts to bring back the performance conditions that prevailed when they were first conceived: «The alternation of spoken scenes with interludes of singing is typical of several of Molière's "great" plays, and will become an increasingly familiar form towards the end of the XVIIth century [...] Thereafter, the plays were stripped of their interludes, considered to be no longer relevant, altering considerably the impression to be derived from both readings and performances. Recently, a worthwhile concern with authenticity seems to be driving directors in the direction of re-creations of these stage works in their totality» (Guy Spielmann, "Farce, satire, pastorale et politique: le spectacle total de George Dandin", Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France, 93 [1993] , p. 854)

 
 
 

II. - Chronology: (Molière's comédies-ballets. Notes drawn from or translated from Oeuvres complètes, Seuil, 1962)

Les Fâcheux, August 1661 (conceived, written and rehearsed in two weeks. Commanded by Fouquet, the King's Superintendant, the work was performed before Louis XIV at Vaux-le-vicomte on August 17, then premiered at the Palais-Royal November 4, 1661. A series of comic sketches in which Molière is reported by a contemporary observer [Robinet] to have played seven roles himself)

Le Mariage forcé, February 15, 1664 (Although designated as a "comedy", this one-act farce was originally made up of three, accompanied by ballets at the end of each act. Lully provided the music and Beauchamps the choreography. Louis XIV himself danced in the second-act ballet. Once again, under the pressure of a royal command, this work was put together in a matter of days).

Plaisirs de l'Ile enchantée, May 1664. (A series of entertainments presented before Louis XIV and 600 guests."Nested" within this three-day event, Molière's comédie-galante La Princesse d'Elide and the earliest version of Tartuffe).

Ballet des Muses,  December 1666 (Coordinated around a theme suggested by Benserade, all the theatre companies of Paris [Molière's, the Hôtel de Bourgogne troupe, the Italian Players and the Spanish company] provided entertainments at the royal chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Molière's contributions included Mélicerte, a three-act comédie pastorale héroique, with music by Lully and Le Sicilien ou l'amour peintre, a one-act comédie, which,  accompanied by music composed by Lulli, made it a comédie-ballet).

Amphitryon, January 13, 1668 (A three-act comédie noted, among other things, for its flying machines and fantastical decorations. Performed in the "salle des machines" at the Tuileries palace).

George Dandin ou le mari confondu,  July 18, 1668 (Performed before the King at Versailles. Part of the Grand Divertissement royal de Versaille, organized to celebrate the military conquest by Louis XIV of Franche-Comté. The three entertainers in charge were Vigarini, Lully and Molière. Molière drew on his early farce, La Jalousie du barbouillé, which became a pastoral entertainment in verse. The work contrasted the farcial dilemma of a peasant married above his station with the songs, dances and amusements of shepherds, shepherdesses, and satyrs. This juxtaposition thoroughly amused the 3000 guests present. After the Versailles performance, the work was stripped of its musical and balletic parts).

Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, September 1669 (Performed before the King in the chateau of Chambord, during the royal hunt being held there. "Molière had not anticipated any new work. He expected to rely on his existing repertory. But the King expected somethng fresh. Accordingly, this comédie-ballet was improvised on the spot. Lully, a rapidly rising star at the King's court, composed the music and himself played the role of a doctor in the dance of the enemas." [Molière, Oeuvres complètes, Seuil, p. 463]).

Les Amants magnifiques, February 4, 1670 (Performed before the King at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. A royal command for the Carnaval celebrations. Called a comédie, this five-act work combined music and dancing).

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, October 1670 (Performed before the King at Chambord. A "Turkish entertainment" was commanded, following the visit of the Turkish ambassador in December 1669. Five acts in prose, music by Lully, choreography by Beauchamp. Called the "most popular play of the classical repertory" by the editors of Molière's Oeuvres complètes [Seuil, p. 506]).

Psyché, Carnaval period, 1671 (Performed in the Tuileries palace, in the famous "salle des machines". A collaboration between Corneille and Molière, on a theme made popular by Benserade and La Fontaine. Music by Lully and some verses by Quinault, this was a lavish spectacle the perforrmance of which lasted five hours).

La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, December 2, 1671 (One-act comédie, performed before the King at St-Germain-en-Laye in the context of a retrospective series of entertainments called Ballet des ballets. This was the last royal command Molière received from Louis XIV. Molière had broken with Lully, and an unpublished Pastorale which he contributed to the event marked the start of Molière's collaboration with Marc-Antoine Charpentier).

Le Malade imaginaire,  February 10, 1773 (Three-act comédie "mêlée de musique et de danses". Music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Lully had by then received the royal privilege for musical performances, depriving Molière of the number of artists necessary for a fully lavish staging of his work).
 

III. - Issues raised by the comédies-ballets:

1)  The non-verbal nature of these works, which belong to the performative register rather than to the written, textual register. A long, book-based tradition which focussed on Molière's plays as literary objects produced by an "author", has sidelined or downplayed nearly half of Molière's theatrical production. With the exception of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Le Malade imaginaire, the plays listed above are less well-known than Les Précieuses ridicules, L'Ecole des femmes, L'Avare  and the other plays studied in this course.

2)  The debate on "accurate", "authentic" revivals of older performance modes. This is taking place well beyond the range of acting in purely dialogued plays. Experiment and research is going on in musical circles (the question of performing with original instruments...), at the level of architectural re-creation of acting spaces (the Globe theatre in London...), from the perspective of movement and gesture (attempts to rediscover "baroque" dance styles...), from the point of view of diction, rhythm and pronunciation (cf. Eugene Green who staged Corneille's Le Cid with his attempt to restore pronunciation values of the time) and in search of what was originally meant by "improvisation" and performance with masks....

3)  The question of modern directorial strategies and objectives. What, if any,  are the creative limits of a contemporary director setting out to "stage" a work by Molière? Does this question change if the work being produced is a comédie-ballet rather than a purely dialogued comedy?