Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme: An Introduction
Despite the immense popularity that Jean-Baptiste Molière’s work enjoys today, the French playwright suffered a number of critical failures throughout his career. After both Tartuffe and Don Juan were censored by the court of Louis XIV, and The Misanthrope failed with audiences, Molière’s comedy moved from the satirical to the farcical. It was in this late period of his career that Molière enjoyed his greatest successes, which included a number of comédies-ballet in collaboration with the composer of the French royal court, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the pair’s ninth collaboration in their seven-year association, is one of the most highly regarded of their collective output—a farcical comedy that discusses social climbing, politics, and the role of the arts in society. Interwoven in the prose text are a number of dance and musical sequences that are equally as important to the play, making Molière and Lully the most notable musical-theater collaborators to come before Mozart and da Ponte.
"Staying true to the origins of Molière and Lully’s comédie-ballet, this production incorporates all of Lully’s music as well as the dance interludes. "
From July 20 through July 24, Lincoln Center Festival brings Paris’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater to present award-winning director Denis Podalydès’s acclaimed production, which reinvigorates the potency of the work’s social critique. Staying true to the origins of Molière and Lully’s comédie-ballet, this production incorporates all of Lully’s music as well as the dance interludes. Featuring lavish costumes by famed fashion designer Christian Lacroix, this production recalls the bravura of the original version that so delighted Louis XIV at its premiere.
Commissioned by Louis XIV for performance during his annual hunting retreat in Loire, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme received its premiere at the Château of Chambord in October 1670. Like many of his commissions, Louis XIV requested several specific plot elements: In this case, the king wished to satirize the concept of the foreigners’ ceremonies, a direct result of the snobbishness he perceived while hosting the Turkish envoy in Paris earlier that year. Louis XIV hired a technical advisor on Turkish affairs to work with Moilère on script elements, and once again paired the playwright with Lully, with whom the king had a close relationship, having previously danced in a number of the composer’s court ballets in the 1650s.
At the heart of the play is Monseiur Jourdain—a middle-class, middle-aged man who longs to rise to the status of an aristocrat. In order to project himself as such, Jourdain hires a roster of teachers to show him the ways of philosophy, language, art, music, dance, and fencing, much to the displeasure of his wife, who urges Jourdain to return to bourgeois life. Jourdain’s daughter Lucille is in love with a middle-class man, Cléonte, but the father refuses to bless the union, as he envisions Lucille marrying a man of great stature. In order to claim his bride, Cléonte prepares a grand charade in which he presents himself to Jourdain as the son of the Sultan of Turkey, promising not only a royal life for Lucille, but a noble title for the father as well. The play ends with its grandest gesture, a dance sequence entitled the “Ballet of Nations,” after which Jourdain is ceremoniously given the (fictitious) noble title of “Mamamouchi” and led off into the sunset in triumphant fashion as the final curtain falls.
"From a modern perspective, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is truly a realization of the important connection between the arts and its patrons. "
Although audiences may see Jourdain as a purely comic buffoon, Molière sought to present a more substantial character in the pretentious commoner. Molière performed the title role in the original production—a key sign of the depth inherent in the Jourdain character, as Molière often cast himself in the roles of those trying to staunchly control the chaos of action around them (Molière, in fact, died while performing the title role in The Imaginary Invalid). In this light, Jourdain can be perceived not only as a comic foil, but as a man with high aspirations—not only to better himself, but to better his family as well.
Jourdain’s desire to attain the status of nobility does not hinge on his quest for riches and property; it is knowledge of the fine arts—particularly music, drama, and dance—that he uses as his pathway toward greatness. As a result, Jourdain becomes an accidental benefactor of the arts, maintaining a retinue of professionals employed solely to elevate his cultural cache. Jourdain’s music teacher provides the most efficient summary of the important role patrons have always played in culture when he disagrees with the dance teacher’s comment that Jourdain should have a keener appreciation of their art forms, stating: “He doesn’t properly appreciate them, but he pays beautifully. That’s what our arts need the most.”
As such, the musical interludes play a pivotal role in the story arc, despite often being excised from modern performances. Not only does this tradition of removing the music and dance prove detrimental to the overall plot (the Turkish ceremony and “Ballet of Nations” are crucial to the denouement and are referenced throughout the play), but the practice also eliminates one of the chief components for the original audience. The musical sequences, comprising roughly 90 minutes of the work, were of paramount importance to Louis XIV’s artistic vision—synergy of the arts—and provide a meta-theatrical platform for showing Jourdain’s character development as the ballet sequences move from middle-class domestic entertainment into a fantastical tapestry of exoticism.
From a modern perspective, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is truly a realization of the important connection between the arts and its patrons. Over 300 years since Molière’s time, audiences, donors, and benefactors are paramount in ensuring the role of arts in our society—if not by commissioning specific works, like Louis XIV, but by ensuring that artists and new productions can speak to the relevance of these works in modern times. In bringing all of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’s artistic elements together—language, music, and dance—Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s production gives light to the harmony and humanity possible through true artistic synergy.
Michael Cirigliano II is a Manhattan-based writer, editor, and business-communications strategist, and currently serves as a digital content editor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.