Amanda MacBlane: What is your first memory of Molière?
Denis Podalydès: At school, my older brother had to play a scene from Molière’s play Les Fourberies de Scapin and he asked me to read the other part. I was a little boy and I didn’t understand anything but I knew then that I was really fond of theater. The second memory is at school. For French people, we get Moliere in the bottle, from the youngest age. At school, we learn that the 17th century was the century of good taste, the century of magnificence. France was the top power in the world and Molière was one of the world’s great writers. We grow up with this idea and then we end up rejecting it when we begin to sense that it’s a terrible cliché. In fact, there are many Molières. There’s the Molière of childhood, the Molière of school, the Molière of high school, when we’re brought to the Comédie française. And then, there’s the Molière that I found as an actor and as a director. He has accompanied me throughout my life and I’m always amazed that there is something so universal in him.
AMB: It’s true. It’s been over 300 years since the premiere of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme yet it continues to resonate with audiences around the world. Your production goes back to the play’s origins as a comédie-ballet. What made you decide to put Lully’s music and the dance back into the production?
DP: When I saw Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at the theater a while back, it was subtitled “Comédie-ballet.” It wasn’t just a comedy, it was a comédie-ballet. I said to myself, “what exactly is a comédie-ballet?” I researched and discovered that it was an invention of Louis XIV who asked Molière and Lully to create a spectacle total with music, comedy, songs, and dance. The essence of this play was the integration of all of these dimensions. The challenge for Molière and Lully was to make the different disciplines come together in an organic way as “total theater.” The genius of Molière was to create a character that yearned for all of these arts: Monsieur Jourdain. We find Monsieur Jourdains everywhere in the world, people who want to escape an inferior social condition. They want to learn philosophy, know how to dance, and play music to access the wider world. Someone who realizes that through the arts and through language, they can escape themselves, become somebody else. But it’s an illusion. This person will never completely leave behind their social class. It’s a person we see a lot in France.
AMB: There are a lot in New York as well. But we also have people who do the inverse, who come from a higher class yet pretend to be of the people. I guess you have that in France too, with the “bourgeois bohémiens.”
DP: Yes, the “bobos!” I’m probably one of those.
"You will always have a world that is completely crazy, that is unfair, a world that does as it pleases. But within that world you have moments of grace, moments of poetry, and we must not miss them."
AMB: I suspect I’m more of a Monsieur Jourdain…
DP: Yes! What I wanted to show in this production is that Monsieur Jourdain is very likable. He’s ridiculous because he believes that he is really going to become someone else by learning how to dance, philosophize, and play music in a single day. But what is beautiful is his desire for art. He spends everything to learn a little music, to learn a little philosophy, and ultimately, because of this, he supports artists. It’s a system that has a ridiculous, mercantile side to it, but it creates art. In the first scene of the play there is an artist who says “we sometimes have to work for imbeciles who don’t know anything but we get to work and ultimately there are other people who will hear our music.” All this to say that art is never completely clean. To make art, you also need money. There is always something in Moliere about how man is never perfect. You will never have a pure world. You will always have a world that is completely crazy, that is unfair, a world that does as it pleases. But within that world you have moments of grace, moments of poetry, and we must not miss them. Depending on the direction, you can accentuate the absurdity of Monsieur Jourdain or the poetry of him. It’s not easy because once you’ve accentuated the poetry, you lose what was funny and what you gain in comedy you lose in grace. It helps that in this play the music is infinitely graceful.
AMB: So then why is the play presented so often without the music?
DP: Because it’s too expensive. Voila. That’s all. The Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a character who never stops spending, so the show is naturally expensive.
AMB: I guess that wasn’t a problem for Louis XIV.
DP: No, he had no problem! In fact, he wanted just that. At the time the arts were used for political purposes. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was meant to dazzle Europe. Louis XIV sent all of the French artists to Italy to study Italian art, which before his reign was considered the superior art, and he created the Academy of Rome for that. Then he brought them all back and made them work so that French art took over as he conquered the world. It’s a little like the United States with movies. It’s a weapon. It’s the most beautiful weapon and, like it or not, masterpieces have been created this way. So, yes, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was made to dazzle and that’s why he asked Molière and Lully, the best writer of his time and the best musician, even if they hated each other.
AMB: Really, they hated each other?
DP: They didn’t get along at all. It was a horrible collaboration.
AMB: That’s funny because it seems like a dream team!
DP: No, no, they hated each other. They knew very well they had to work together because they were the best in their fields and they couldn’t refuse a command of the king, but Lully was ten times more ambitious than Molière. Lully kept all of the rights and then he prohibited Molière from presenting Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Lully was a terrible guy. He came from Italy and wanted to have total power. He was sort of the Louis XIV of music and Molière had a really hard time with that.
AMB: What did Louis XIV think of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme at the premiere?
DP: He didn’t laugh at all. Molière thought that it was a complete failure. Then, four days later, the king tells him that it was one of his best plays.
AMB: Was it normal for Louis XIV to not laugh at the theater?
DP: No, not really. It was actually because the premiere was at Chambord and it was very cold in the grand ballroom where they presented the show. The king was probably not in a very good mood, he may have been a little sick, and the show was very long. We actually had to cut a lot of the musical parts because for Lully it wasn’t a comédie-ballet, it was a ballet accompanied by comedy. Molière, who was playing Jourdain, was probably not in great shape. He could feel that it was going poorly, he was tired from rehearsing so much, and so he probably wasn’t very funny himself.
"It is quite moving, someone who wants to be knowledgeable yet knows nothing."
AMB: Can you imagine the horror of being both the actor and the playwright and when the first joke is delivered, no one laughs?
DP: Terrible! And especially when it’s the king on whom your life depends. If you don’t make him laugh, it’s finished for you. Goodbye to your home, goodbye to everything.
AMB: So did Louis XIV see the play again after the premiere?
DP: He had it presented a little while later at Versailles for an important lord. It went very well and then each time it was performed after, it was a huge triumph.
AMB: Your production was presented in France, of course, but also in Belgium, in Russia, in China to very enthusiastic audiences. What is it about this play that is so universally appealing?
DP: I think that we find equivalents everywhere. The theme of the everyman who wants to climb to the higher ranks of society is something that we find in various repertoires. He’s not ridiculous at all; he’s a very appealing character. Depending on your point of view, it is quite moving, someone who wants to be knowledgeable yet knows nothing. It’s like a young schoolboy who has a thirst for knowledge. It’s at once funny and magnificent and it’s something that exists everywhere.
AMB: In some ways, it is a beautiful thing to not be afraid to play the fool from time to time.
DP: That is exactly our Jourdain. He is not afraid to be kicked in the butt, or to fall in front of everyone and I personally find that very touching. I love Pascal Rénéric, the actor that plays our Jourdain. He has big blue eyes with a naiveté and an incredible energy. That’s where the character becomes poetic. If you have an actor that’s too old and a little pathetic who learns to dance, there is something degrading about it that I personally don’t find funny. But if it’s a man who is still a little fat, robust, fairly young, who still has a lot of energy, the music and the genius of Moliere’s dialogues just carry him away.
Original interview conducted in French and translated to the English by Amanda MacBlane.
Amanda MacBlane is a senior writer/editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.