The Miser

The Miser

The Miser

Written by Molière
Adapted by David Ball
Directed by Dominique Serrand
Main Season · Roda Theatre
May 12–June 25, 2006

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

This savagely funny comedy about a love affair between a man and his money gets a dazzling new production at Berkeley Rep. Greed is good—if you’re Harpagon, who has beggared his family to safeguard his hefty stash of cash. His frustrated children think differently, however—and now they must outsmart the old man to get the money they need to marry the mates they want. Can Harpagon hold onto his hoard (and get himself a hot young bride in the bargain), or will his offspring loosen his stranglehold on the family fortune? The Boston Globe says this production, from the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune, has “such grace and wit that it’s churlish to be miserly with one’s praise.” So make an investment in The Miser—you’ll earn laughter with interest.

Creative team

Molière · Playwright
David Ball · Adaptor
Dominique Serrand · Director
Riccardo Hernandez · Scenic Design
Sonya Berlovitz · Costume Design
Marcus Dilliard · Lighting Design
David Remedios · Sound Design
Glenn D. Klapperich · Stage Manager
Kevin Bitterman · Assistant Director
Amy Potozkin · Local Casting

Cast

Sarah Agnew · Élise
Kate Austin-Gröen · Ensemble
Larkin Boero · Ensemble
Stephen Cartmell · Cléante
Maggie Chestovich · Mariane / Dame Claude
Steven Epp · Harpagon
Nathan Keepers · La Flèche
Barbara Kingsley · Frosine
Brianne Kostielney · Ensemble
Jim Lichtscheidl · Valère
David Rainey · Master Jacques
Brian Stevens · Ensemble
Marian Wagner · Ensemble
GreyWolf · Anselme
Clive Worsley · Ensemble

“Obscenely funny…Hilarity bares its teeth in Theatre de la Jeune Leune’s magnificent version of Molière’s The Miser. It also bares its buttocks, stands on its head, climbs the walls, falls through the unreliable floor and lolls its tongue with obscenely funny, more than lascivious greed.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Gut-busting…theatrical exuberance…an unconventional blend of slapstick, physical comedy, commedia dell’arte, wordplay and avant-garde staging…A vivid, gut-busting goosing of avarice…makes classic satire timeless…Nearly 340 years after its debut, The Miser resonates…The Tony-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune spreads the theatrical wealth.”—San Jose Mercury News

“Fabulous…Brilliantly performed and not to be missed.”—KGO-AM

“Hugely funny…Exploded like a crazed circus train on the Roda Theatre stage…the whole stage [is] an acrobatic playground…the laughs teeter dangerously at the edge of tragedy…a theatrical piece for contemporary audiences…charged with a sense of immediacy…this is not your father’s Miser.”—Contra Costa Times

“Seriously funny…Berkeley Rep’s Miser gives until it hurts…a potent blend of classic clowning and the kind of contemporary cynicism that equates pain and discomfort with the height of comedy…A joy to watch. Adept physical comedians with an equally impressive facility for verbal tricks and pathos…a seriously funny meditation on the psychosis we call greed.”—Oakland Tribune

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

A show for every season

We are pleased to close the 2005–06 season with The Miser, presented here in a signature production from our colleagues at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Molière has always been a challenge for modern artists: his insistence that broad comedy live alongside tragedy presents unique and perplexing problems. Is the playing style to be dominated by slapstick? How does one handle the darker motivations of the characters? Do the different requirements of performance and production prevent the creation of artistic cohesion, a single universe where the events of the play can live freely?

In the hands of the right artists, such obstacles can turn into strengths. Dominique Serrand, Steven Epp and their esteemed team of designers and actors have fused their talents to create a production which is unafraid of embracing the full spectrum of emotions and ideas presented by the play. The result is a show which dares to be poignant and hilarious, grotesque and beautiful.

The Miser is a terrific way for us to end 2005–06, filled as it has been with plays of every stripe and color. While many factors go into the construction of any season, our single overriding priority is to present productions of great quality and variety. We program with no set formula in mind: there is no fixed number of classic or familiar titles, no set number of world premieres, no regular equation we adhere to when piecing together the entire puzzle. In the end, the final version of our plans has to be continually surprising, full of exciting possibilities and respectful of the ambitions of the artists as well as the imagination and intelligence of the audience.

We thank you for all your past and present support. There is no way for us to move forward with confidence or courage without audiences such as you: people unafraid of ideas, unafraid of examining and appreciating the fruits of the imagination, unafraid of art. Thank you for supporting us, and I hope we continue to measure up to your expectations.

Fondly,

Tony Taccone

The comedy of tragedy

Dominique Serrand talks with Ryan McKittrick about The Miser

Ryan McKittrick: In rehearsals, you’ve often talked about the tragic elements in Molière’s comedies. Could you explain what you mean?

Dominique Serrand: Racine and Corneille had a great influence on Molière. He actually directed and acted in some of Corneille’s plays, and the two writers watched each other very closely. I appreciate Ariane Mnouchkine’s film Molière because it shows how all Molière wanted to do in his early years was perform tragedy. He hated traditional farce. He thought it had become stale. So what he eventually did was draw from the new tragedies and from the traditions of commedia dell’arte and farce to create a whole new genre. Tartuffe, for example, is profoundly tragic. It has very funny moments, but some of the writing has absolutely no comedy in it. Since the 1970s, many directors have been looking at Molière as a very powerful voice, not just a humorous one. At the end of a Molière play you need to feel agitated.

What is tragic in The Miser?

The play seems close to the times we’re living in today—cynical and without hope. The tragedy in The Miser exists between the lines, in the silence between the characters. It’s a desperate world. The language is based on lies, because when you’re dealing with a tyrant everything has to be coded. It’s difficult to translate the play, because the language of the original text naturally seems old to us. But it’s important to distinguish the difference between what is just antiquated and what was convoluted in Molière’s own time. The characters in The Miser are often forced to think carefully about their words and disguise their thoughts; as a result their phrases are frequently long and profoundly unnatural. There’s a distance between the characters because they don’t dare speak the truth. When they do, the language becomes very fast. The scenes between La Flèche and Harpagon, for example, are quick and direct, but every time La Flèche needs to lie, he has a long sentence.

The Miser is much darker than many of Molière’s early plays. What inspired the change of tone in his playwriting?

When Molière wrote The Miser, both Tartuffe and Dom Juan had been censored. This obviously had a severe impact on his company’s financial and spiritual life. Molière was bitter when he wrote The Miser, and it’s an angry, mean play. David Ball conveys that in his adaptation and pushes the muscle of the play. The director Roger Planchon, who staged several productions of The Miser, said it was one of the most desperate plays Molière ever wrote. Was Molière beginning to fear his own humor?

What makes such a serious play funny?

Molière understood the comedy of tragedy. He liked to find the most pathetic situations, the most difficult situations, and make them funny. That’s one of the things I remember most from having worked on his plays so many times. There’s an odd dance between humor and the darker sides of our humanity that makes us laugh.

How do you read the end of the play, which seems like such a hasty comic conclusion?

There’s no end to The Miser. The miser remains a miser. True. But the children have moved on. Their love is a form of revolt against their father. If you don’t look at it as a farce, the ending is a real success for the children. Even though they’ve been hurt and stained by their upbringing, they’re able to foresee a future.

In David Ball’s adaptation, Harpagon has his own peculiar way of speaking. Is this something you find in the original French script?

Yes. As I was re-reading Molière’s play, I looked very closely at the language and noticed that Harpagon’s syntax wasn’t right. Molière invented it—and he probably made up some of the lines while he was on stage playing Harpagon. The character speaks improperly because of his miserliness. You would think that since he’s a miser he’d use fewer words. But Harpagon is miserly about everything except his own language.

Have any actors or directors influenced your perception of this play?

The French actor and director Jean Vilar was the first to play Harpagon standing up straight. It was a big step. His miser was agile, solid, strong and alert. Vilar completely changed the way I looked at the character and the play, because he didn’t play an old man. He played a man who has made a choice to be the way he is.

How did the set design for this production evolve?

When I first met with set designer Riccardo Hernandez, I described pictures I’d seen from Cuba of extraordinary old architecture that’s been poorly maintained—even violated and desecrated. We looked at pictures of beautiful 18th century rooms that have been divided in half with concrete blocks. We decided to set the play in an ancient world that refuses to embrace the new. The struggle to sustain a certain way of living without spending any money to maintain tradition seems like a very conservative impulse to me. The great conservatives trash their traditions constantly, and Harpagon is the ultimate paranoid conservative. The set is also designed for tragedy. A tragic space is one that the audience understands from the outset. Our set is a completely open space that doesn’t really change over the course of the production. The journey is not about a quest. It’s about a struggle.

Molière’s miser

By Ryan McKittrick

A coughing sexagenarian whose every thought, word and action is determined by greed, Harpagon is one of Molière’s most notorious characters. For more than three centuries, audiences have been charmed by the skinflint’s obsessive scrimping and disturbed by the consequences of his avarice. Harpagon’s frenzied antics give The Miser its comic momentum, but the character also casts a dark shadow on the play. His financial paranoia is as unsettling as it is entertaining.

Harpagon is a descendant of the old curmudgeon Euclio from Plautus’ Pot of Gold—one of the many plays Molière borrowed from when he wrote The Miser. Molière grew up studying Roman drama at the Collège de Clermont in Paris, a prestigious Jesuit school where teachers encouraged their students to learn Latin by staging plays. While he was writing his adaptation of Plautus’ Amphitryon in 1667, Molière must have revisited Pot of Gold and seen in the Roman hoarder an opportunity to ridicule the bourgeois tightwads of his own day.

Molière also modeled Harpagon on Pantalone, the tightfisted Venetian merchant of commedia dell’arte. Italian commedia was a performance style Molière knew well. Twelve years touring in the French provinces had brought him into contact with traveling Italian actors, and when he returned to Paris in 1658 Louis XIV granted Molière’s company permission to share the theatre at the Petit-Bourbon with a commedia dell’arte troupe. The two companies worked alongside one another for two years, until the Petit-Bourbon was demolished to make room for the expansion of the Louvre. Molière’s troupe then moved into the Palais-Royal, which became its home until the playwright’s death in 1673.

In addition to being the company playwright, Molière was also one of the troupe’s leading actors. He created the role of Harpagon for himself, bringing to the stage his impeccable comic timing and a love for physical humor that he had inherited from the Italian actors. Molière was better known for his generosity than his parsimony, but a few of his friends must have noticed at least one similarity between the playwright and his penny-pincher. In the second act of The Miser, Harpagon confesses to the matchmaker Frosine that he’s worried his young bride-to-be, Mariane, won’t be attracted to a 60-year-old man. Molière was experiencing similar marital anxieties when he played Harpagon. In 1662, the playwright had married Armande Béjart, an actress who was half his age. Problems developed quickly in the relationship. By the time Molière wrote The Miser, he and Armande were living in separate houses. She stayed in the city and he spent most of his time at a tranquil hideaway on the outskirts of Paris—they probably saw each other more frequently in the theatre than at home. Molière may have amplified offstage tensions in his casting of the play. It’s possible that Madeleine Béjart, Molière’s ex-lover and probably Armande’s mother, played the go-between Frosine and that Armande played the reluctant Mariane.

The Miser premiered in September of 1668 at the Palais-Royal. Molière’s play George Dandin had been a flop earlier that year, and Tartuffe, his attack on false devotees, had been banned from the stage under pressure from a religious order. Clearly, the troupe needed a hit that season, but The Miser wasn’t the success the company hoped it would be and the initial run ended after just four performances.

The cool reception of the premiere is an aberration in The Miser’s production history. Over the past three and a half centuries, it has been one of the most frequently performed plays at the Comédie-Française—the national theatre Louis XIV created after Molière’s death by merging his company of comedians with the tragedians from the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Henry Fielding’s English adaptation of the play, which renamed the lead character “Lovegold,” was one of London’s most successful plays when it premiered in 1733. Fielding’s adaptation was revived frequently in London in the 18th century and was even popular enough to be brought to the New World. In 1767 it was produced in Philadelphia by one of colonial America’s fledgling troupes. By the 20th century, the Comédie-Française was so confident in the play that the troupe decided to use it as a fundraising vehicle. Convinced Harpagon’s greed would inspire charitable sentiments in the audience, the Comédie-Française brought its production of The Miser to London in 1922 to raise money for the Institut Français and the restoration of the Rheims Cathedral.

Only Tartuffe is staged more frequently than The Miser today. It is difficult to ascertain why 17th-century Parisians didn’t admire the play as much as subsequent audiences have. One possibility is that they were frustrated by the language. Parisians were accustomed to five-act comedies written in verse, and The Miser is scripted entirely in prose. “What is the meaning of this?” an anonymous duke is said to have exclaimed after seeing the play. “Is Molière daft, and does he take us for simpletons to make us sit through five acts of prose? Did anybody ever see such nonsense? Is it possible that anybody can like prose?”

But surely not all audience members were as adverse to comic prose as the offended duke. Perhaps the first audiences were also disoriented by the dark undertones in a play that had the surface appearance of a satirical romp. The extremity of Harpagon’s greed gives him an idiosyncratic charm. But his frugality takes on a violence that threatens to destroy everyone around him—especially his children. When the sycophantic Frosine compliments Harpagon on his health, she tells the cantankerous codger, “You’ll bury your children and your children’s children.” Determined to keep his son and daughter’s inheritance from their deceased mother for himself, Harpagon responds immediately, “Well, that’s good to know.”

Harpagon’s son, Cléante, is a gambler who rebels against his father’s stinginess by wasting his money on fashionable apparel. Cléante is as devoted to spending as his father is to hoarding. The clash of economic interests, exacerbated by a conflict of romantic interests (Cléante and Harpagon both want to marry Mariane), keep the father and son at each other’s throats. They torture each other psychologically and emotionally, and by the end of the play each has wished the other dead. Goethe took the tension between Harpagon and Cléante quite seriously. “[Molière’s] Miser, where vice destroys all love between father and son, is especially great, and in a high sense tragic,” the German writer once remarked.

Harpagon is devastated when he realizes his beloved strongbox that he buried in the garden has been stolen. Left alone on stage, Harpagon cries out in panic: “They’ve cut my throat! They’ve stolen my money!…Won’t somebody bring me back to life by returning my money or telling me who took it?” The critic Marcel Gutwirth has interpreted Harpagon as a symbol of death—an old man enamored of lifeless gold whose own life is buried in the ground from the beginning of the play. In The Miser, greed is not just a vice. It is a sickness that preys on the young, a deadly force that is only narrowly averted by the 11th-hour arrival of a dubious deus ex machina.

Death was certainly on Molière’s mind when he wrote and acted in The Miser. By 1667, the playwright had been infected with the tuberculosis that would take his life six years later. He was in very poor health around the time The Miser premiered in Paris. The 46 year old playwright must have known he was seriously ill, but he tried to cover up his sickness by giving Harpagon a phlegmatic cough. Molière transformed his own malady into a stage gag, concealing death behind the mask of comedy.