1. I think it’s interesting that in the past couple of weeks there have been two instances of re-editing classic American texts to be more “palatable” and “less offensive” to the American Public (whoever they are). The first is the new edition of “Huckleberry Finn,” which replaces the “‘N’ word” with “slave.” (So “slave” isn’t that bad?) The other is the American Constitution, which the Republican House Majority in the 112th Congress decided to read out loud — a symbolic move? posturing? grandstanding? — but decided to cut offensive language about African-Americans. Is this appropriate or is this “editing” censorship?
2. That also got me thinking about how schizophrenic we Americans are about the power of the written word. (Not like this is the first time difficult topics have been cut from books, banned or excised from texts of history.) Have you ever had a brush with censorship, self-imposed or otherwise?
3. Is it just me, or are race and sexuality two topics that always incite overreaction or complete denial?

Today’s Something Else: All About Moliere

This Thursday, the Lights Up! production of Moliere’s “Le Misanthrope or the Impossible Lovers” debuts on the Illusion Theater stage. If you’re not super-familiar with Moliere, here’s a crash course.

Moliere
– Born January 15, 1622.
– Died of TB after performing the lead role in his “Imaginary Invalid” on February 17, 1673.
– Moliere was a superstar of his time. From adulations as a brilliant performer and patronage from the highest members of society to denunciations and condemations by the moral leaders of his time, he was very much what we would consider a celebrity.
– Green bringing bad luck to actors is a superstition that apparently originated from the color that Moliere was when he died.
– Under French law, actors could not be buried in cemeteries. The ground was too sacred. But Moliere’s widow lobbied the King to make an exception, which he ultimately did. Moliere’s body was buried among unbaptised infants.
– He blended the more spontaneous and vulgar Italian Commedia dell’arte with the refined and codified French style, which made him very popular with audiences. It also helped that he was the first sanctioned author to really skewer the upper middle classes and the rich, who were at  court because of their money. He had a good eye and great nose to find  social hypocrisy and make it funny.

I’ve had my own brush with Moliere. He is talked about as both the French Shakespeare and a 17th Century rock star, and although I didn’t live in France to study classic French theater, the pride and need to prove yourself by doing something with a Moliere play was impossible to avoid.

I saw many a Moliere play while abroad — everything from attempts to modernize and make him “relevant” to the times, to the Ariane Mnouchkine Theatre du Soleil‘s hyper ensemble-physical theater approach. Not all were notable (except perhaps for how bad they were), but one that really stuck with me was a Comedie-Francaise production played in pure classical mode.

A friend of mine, Yasmine, was a student in the National Academy of Dramatic Arts (which was necessary to eventually get a job with the Comedie), and she was able to get me in to observe a rehearsal and then to see the production of Moliere’s “The Learned Ladies.” I was struck by how baffling I found the rehearsal — heated discussions on the proper place for the lead to stand and how tradition dictated that the second roles must always be a few steps upstage of them and when to stand in Third Position and who gets to use Fourth,etc., all of which seemed absurd to me because that meant you never looked at the person you were talking to and if all you could do was move your feet and hands thorugh a series of specific poses how would you make the comedy work?

It didn’t seem to bother them. Instead of spending time on characterization and physical bits or how you could find new ways of doing the classic text — which was what we Americans were obsessed with — they spent all their rehearsal on these specific matters of style and keeping true to how it had been done 300 years ago.

I found it all kind of stilted and basically un-funny in rehearsal, but when I saw the performance I was surprised how everything seemed to work and how each actor was able to bend the language in ways that hit all the laughs. Everyone was so clearly living in the same world that their formal and stilted way of doing things made sense.

Of course it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen different productions of the same play that there is no one “right” way to do anything and that what makes something work is often as much a combination of the craft and hard work as it is of the talent and the moment.

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