My only disappointment with Molière’s L’Avare (The Miser) was that it doesn’t include a maid. In all the other Molière plays I have seen or read, there is a clever maid who has the funniest lines and helps prevent the daughter of the house from being married off to some older man she doesn’t like.
Even without a maid, though, L’Avare is still hilarious, 350 years after its world premiere in 1668.
The title figure, Harpagon, originally played by Molière himself, is not only a miser but also a petty tyrant and an elderly widower who wants to marry a teenage girl (like Don Pasquale in Donizetti’s opera). The girl, Mariane, happens to be in love with Harpagon’s son, Cléante, which leads to several bitter arguments between father and son.
One particularly funny scene comes in the fourth act when Harpagon’s cook-and-coachman, Maître Jacques, offers to mediate the argument. He (or she, in this production) goes back and forth between Harpagon and Cléante and lies systematically to each of them about what the other has said, so each thinks the other has given in. When they discover this isn’t true they are both angrier than ever.
The production of L’Avare at the Odéon in 2018 was directed by Ludovic Legarde, the head of the Comédie in Reims. He said he got the idea for the stage set when he read about a mafia boss who, when he was arrested, turned out to be running an illegal import-export business (i.e. smuggling) from his home.
The play begins with a dialogue between Harpagon’s daughter, Élise, and her boyfriend Valère, who has hired on as Harpagon’s butler and majordomo. I don’t know how Molière staged this scene in 1668, but in 2018 Élise and Valère are both in their underwear and Valère has his trousers down around his ankles. Their state of undress makes a funny contrast to Molière’s 17th century prose. (Yes, they speak in prose, a shocking aberration in a century when plays, even comedies, were expected to be in verse.)
For the rest of the play, Valère tries to ingratiate himself with Harpagon by pretending to agree with everything he says, sometimes before he even says it. In one scene, Valère is speaking affectionately with Élise about how they can prevent the marriage her father has arranged for her, and suggesting that they might have to elope as a last resort, but when her father comes in he immediately changes his tone, slaps her and says “Yes, it is necessary for a daughter to obey her father.”
Another funny contrast comes in the third act with the first appearance of Mariane. Both Harpagon and Cléante have spoken at length about how lovely and charming and gorgeous she is, but when she finally appears she turns out to be an awkward, pouting adolescent. She is accompanied by Frosine, a “woman of intrigue” who is trying to arrange her marriage with Harpagon in hopes of being rewarded for her services. But Frosine has already been warned, by one of the servants, that Harpagon is “of all the humans the human who is the least human” and that there is no way he will ever pay her for anything.
In 2018 I was able to see L’Avare twice, once at an Avant-première, a sort of dress-rehearsal where all the seats are sold at half-price, and again a month later at the last performance of the run. I learned that the way to get tickets for an Avant-première is to be on their mailing list and respond to their e-mail immediately, since the half-price tickets tend to sell out within a few hours.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.