This post originally appeared on HowlRound, September 21, 2016.
Toward the end of Act IV of Denis Podalydès’ production of Molière and Lully’scomédie-ballet, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a delirious seventeenth-century cloth merchant beams at the audience, his face coated in silver glitter layered over streaks of black make-up. Monsieur Jourdain, Molière’s class-striving protagonist, wears a thin nightshirt and a thick cloak of self-satisfaction. He is so pleased with himself now that he has been made a mamamouchi in an elaborate Ottoman induction ceremony. If the term mamamouchi sounds unfamiliar, that’s because it is an imaginary title of status created and conferred by a masquerading French servant and his coconspirators in order to trick Monsieur Jourdain into letting his daughter marry her lover. With its elaborate mockery of Islamic prayer, bumbling middle-class protagonist, and mercenary aristocrats, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is simultaneously a work of Orientalist spectacle and a farcical satire of French social hierarchies.
The so-called “Turkish ceremony” is a dramaturgical pivot from Molière’s hilarious integration of physical comedy and plot development during the first three acts. Monsieur Jourdain (Pascal Rénéric) hires masters of music, dance, philosophy, and fencing to train his body and mind in the comportment and taste of “people of quality” so that he can convincingly feign aristocratic airs and rendezvous with an alluring marquise. He, of course, fails spectacularly and the instructors themselves physically battle over the supremacy of their respective art forms. Rénéric plays an outrageously foolish and inept bourgeois who looks to the audience for approval and empathy. The effect is endearing and somewhat vaudevillian. As the voices of reason and ridicule, Madame Jourdain (Isabelle Candelier) and the soubrette, Nicole (Manon Combes), harangue Monsieur Jourdain without seeming like mere harpies. Each has a strong sense of self that motivates her words and actions. Neither wants to disrupt class boundaries because neither woman is unhappy with her social station. The comedic chaos is resolved with marriages for couples from the servant, bourgeois, and aristocratic classes.
As part of its 2016 season, New York’s Lincoln Center Festival presented the US premiere of Podalydès’s Gentilhomme, first produced in Paris at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in 2012. The production has toured France and traveled to Belgium, Hong Kong, and Moscow. It was filmed at the Royal Opera of Versailles and a DVD was released in 2014. I first saw the production in Paris in 2012 and attempted to parse the meaning of Act IV’s famous Orientalist burlesque. Politics have certainly not become lesscomplicated since 2012. Turkey remains politically positioned between East and West, and the place of Islam within French culture remains fraught. Four years later, I am still left wondering: What is this production trying to achieve? Is it addressing how French culture constructs Otherness, or is it trying to deny its own politics, masquerading as a pastiche-y reintroduction of a classic work that figures prominently in French performance history?
Cultural institutions like Lincoln Center as well as the global theatre-going public should ask, “why this play now?” Its history is steeped in empire and that should not be ignored. Molière built his idée fixe character and “blocked lovers” plot around a royal request for a mocking spectacle. Gentilhomme was originally commissioned by King Louis XIV in 1670, when the French and Ottoman Empire were vying for geopolitical supremacy and favorable trade conditions. According to Lincoln Center’s program, “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.” Little else is said of the Turkish ceremony, though the program does refer to the dance sequences as a “fantastical tapestry of exoticism.”
Podalydès’ “Director’s Note” emphasizes Monsieur Jourdain’s character development, referring to the ceremony as “a comical and poetic fit of excess.” What is the use of parodying Turkish culture and Islamic prayer with such excess today? This is not an impossible conversation to attempt. In the same playbill, Lincoln Center Festival offers an admirable effort to grapple with historical othering and contemporary politics in the Globe Theatre production of Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce. I would have welcomed an essay that put the two productions in dialogue, acknowledging the challenges inherent in the material.
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme does indeed offer a lot of material. Éric Ruf’s set design included bolts of differently textured and colored material in order to situate the work and domestic space of the Jourdains’ cloth merchant milieu. Characters dressed in class-specific costumes moved among curtains, poles, and a workbench on wheels. Christian Lacroix’s elaborate jewel-toned velvet and silk costumes were very impressive, provoking one French reviewer to criticize Lacroix for replicating Jourdain’s obsession with accumulating opulence.
Because the comédie-ballet genre combined a scripted play with music and dance, Lully’s music and the choreography were essential to the original production. However, they are often removed when it is presented as a farcical play focused on comic scenarios and dramatic action. In this production, most of the music was restored under the direction of Christophe Coin. The musicians of L’Ensemble la Révérence and four singers created an aural baroque atmosphere. Their physical presence was less integrated as they sat downstage left, entering and exiting as needed and occasionally stepping forward to perform diegetic songs. Further filling the stage space, the production also incorporated the dance intermèdes and a shortened version of the ballet des nations afterpiece. Choreographed by Kaori Ito, the languorous and spritely modern and contemporary dancing signaled the production’s wide range of practice.
Lincoln Center’s promotional materials describe Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as a work that “gently satirizes the pretensions of a social climber whose affectations are absurd to everyone but himself.” However, by the time the plot turns to the Sun King’s commissioned Turkish ceremony, it is difficult to find anything gentle on stage. At first, Monsieur Jourdain is duped by would-be Turks who are cloaked, streaked with dark face make-up, and walking on their knees, looking a bit like dwarves who escaped from a secret wood. The “creaturely” effect creates strong visual contrast with Monsieur Jourdain, suggesting divergent categories of humanity. Monsieur Jourdain willingly enters into a harsh induction ceremony led by a severe and vehement turbaned Mufti. The Mufti prays to Allah while additional would-be Turks and dervishes bow up and down, dance, and make utterances. Although the rest of the piece was translated via supertitles projected above the stage, there was no translation for the ceremony, obscuring the political stakes of mixing Arabic, pseudo-Turkish, and French.
French Studies scholar Michèle Longino determines that, when it comes to the Turkish ceremony, “The goal appears to be not so much a performance of successful passing, as a playful but unmistakable expression of contempt” (141). In Podalydès’ interpretation, the ceremony becomes a violent hazing that includes Monsieur Jourdain being anally probed by a metal wand. The hazers sometimes wear hooded masks that, to me, seemed to evoke Abu Ghraib even more directly than in 2012. In a production that otherwise evades political commitments, these vague allusions to contemporary abuses of power seemed to be the worst case of poor taste in a show all about taste. Rather than another sumptuous production, what Molière and Lully’s work currently calls for is a dramaturgical reimagining along the lines of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ exploration of melodramatic performance conventions and racism in his play An Octoroon. Un Bourgeois Gentilhomme, anyone?
Since its 2012 staging, Podalydès’s iteration seems to have pulled back from a more comprehensive application of black make-up to Monsieur Jourdain’s face during the Turkish ceremony. The glitter that once flew through the air in the chaos of faux indoctrination now lands on Rénéric solidly enough to create a silver mask. At first, I welcomed the strategy of glitterface as an improvement over the black smudges because it tipped the production towards revelry and away from (symbolic) violence. But my brain quickly course-corrected. I shouldn’t be so easily distracted by something shiny. “Glitterwashing” deflected unresolvable problems about the work’s Orientalism. The choice of glitter was even more ironic since one of the major aspects of Orientalism is a Western preoccupation with the excessively, theatrically decorative. Ultimately, I could not let myself be duped by the silver sparkle. Circling back to the concurrent production of Merchant, I was reminded of the Prince of Morocco’s disappointment in discovering that “all that glisters is not gold.”