During an early scene in Duck Soup, the great movie by the Marx Brothers, a malicious ambassador named Trentino calls his spies, Chicolini and Pinky, into his office. The two (Chico and Harpo, respectively) storm into the room, and before the ambassador can get a word in edgewise, they proceed to wreak utter havoc on him. In the span of less than two anarchic minutes they manage to pull off no less than 13 sight gags, ranging from lighting his cigar with a blowtorch to cutting off the tails of his jacket with a gigantic pair of scissors. It’s pure lunacy, a perfect storm of nonstop madness with a comic logic all its own.
Artists who create physical comedy are always in search of the perfect shtick. The perfect gag. The perfect joke. You’d be surprised how meticulous and obsessive the search can be. Every extended comic sequence requires a set up, a sequence and a payoff—blended with perfect timing. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, even years to find the exact formula that will unlock or complete a comic routine. When you watch a creative team racking their brains in an effort to work out the logic of a challenging scene, it becomes obvious that comedy, indeed, is serious business.
Tonight, we bring you an ensemble of gifted artists brandishing their own particular brand of comic lunacy. For months they have labored over A Doctor in Spite of Himself, Molière’s satire on the medical profession. But to be perfectly honest, the medical profession is simply the jumping-off point for an all-out assault on our funny bones. No joke is off limits save the ones that don’t work. No physical business is off base save the ones that can’t be done well. The company attacks the material with relentless verve, at a breakneck pace that would make the Marx Brothers proud. It’s pure, unadulterated, raucous entertainment.
Led by Chris Bayes (a masterful director of many commedia plays) and Steve Epp (whose performances at Berkeley Rep in The Miser and Figaro left an indelible memory), the company rides into Berkeley Rep after conquering audiences at Yale Rep. And they mean to do the same thing here. Those of you who are averse to this kind of work should be on your guard. In spite of your best efforts, you may find yourself in stitches. These guys are dead serious.
by Benjamin Fainstein
The quintessential Parisian, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who later invented for himself the moniker Molière, was born in 1622, the son of a Royal Valet and Court Upholsterer. To cheer him up after the death of his mother, Poquelin’s grandfather introduced him to the performing arts at age 10; a fiery passion for the theatre ignited in the boy’s heart, and from that moment his constant desire was to enchant audiences with his acting. He received an education in philosophy and law at the prestigious Collège de Clermont, but upon graduating from the school he rejected the inheritance of his father’s title and his future as a comfortable bourgeois gentleman. Poquelin’s theatrical dreams confounded his father, who had hoped his son would take over the family business and lead a respectable life within a French society governed by class structure and manners; thus Molière essentially divorced himself from familial ties with the decision to pursue a career on stage. In particular, he wanted to play the great tragic roles of Pierre Corneille, and while he held the clownish acts of the boulevard in high regard, the future comic genius spent much of his early career engaged in the pursuit of tragedy.
His first venture, the Théâtre Illustre, which he co-founded with his lover-collaborator, the actress Madeleine Béjart, flopped disastrously in Paris, and the personal backlash Molière suffered for his poor skills as a tragedian struck him like a kick in the teeth. Humiliated and embittered, Poquelin convinced the troupe to hit the road. They played in the French provinces for 12 years, where their fortunes turned from vagrancy to celebrity upon the inclusion of Molière’s first comedies in the repertory. The company became so adept at performing that their presence ousted other previously successful troupes. After a particularly warm reception in Lyons, the ensemble returned to Paris, having secured a post as the official comedians of the King’s brother the Duc d’Orléans. Back in the capital, they quickly astonished King Louis XIV with their hilarious antics and biting satire, and the lavish Sun King would become not only Molière’s ardent fan, but also his guardian against the treacherously rigid French socialites, critics, academics, and religious officials.
As Molière’s abilities as an entertainer blossomed, so did his talent for sparking scandal. Virtually every opening night incited outrage. His first major success in Paris, The Affected Young Ladies (Les Précieuses ridicules), took aim at the pretentions of the salon crowd and exposed the silliness beneath their artificial pomposity. While Molière would time and again evade punishment by claiming slyly that his plays were just a bit of fun, in actuality he created caricatures of real members of the gentry. Among others, The School for Wives (L’École des femmes), Dom Juan (Don Juan), and Tartuffe (Le Tartuffe) followed in this playfully accusatory vein; Tartuffe, a savage ridicule of hypocrisy which was perceived as a derisive comment on religious fervor, nearly led the playwright to the chopping block. Louis saved Molière from a heathen’s execution, but not even the King could allow Tartuffe to appear on stage, and Molière was forced to revise the original text twice before coming up with the still edgy version commonly read today.
In addition to his subject matter, Molière also bucked fearlessly against the restrictive literary formality that marked the French neoclassical period. The rules for drama that Aristotle had laid out in the Poetics governed playwriting at that time. The most salient features were the preservation of what Aristotle termed the “unities”—of time and of action. The unity of time dictates that the story of a well-crafted play take place over the course of approximately 24 hours; the unity of action decrees that a play should be concerned with creating a streamlined central plot without being distracted by subplots or extraneous occurrences. This period also embraced the unity of place, prescribing that a play should occupy a single location and not attempt to traverse wild geography in its storytelling. Molière’s hero, Corneille, in an episode that might be termed a “Great Moment in Theatre History,” had come under fire in 1637 when his epic play Le Cid stretched the unities to their breaking point. The action of Le Cid takes place over the course of 24 hours in a single location, but it presents perhaps the most exciting day imaginable in the human experience, including the outbreak and end of an entire war, a love story come to fruition, and other events that realistically could not occur in just one revolution of the earth’s axis.
Similarly, Molière played fast and loose with the unities without genuinely breaking them, and perhaps he got away with as much as he did because Aristotle focused on tragedy and had not delineated distinct rules for comedy. Molière’s plays feature tight structures, but he managed to write scenes superfluous to the central plot when he knew they would educe chortles and chuckles; in A Doctor in Spite of Himself, for example, the scene in which Sganarelle provides consultation to the country folks Thibaut and Perrin is a send-up of the provincial populace but has nothing to do with the main plot. Molière also dispensed entirely with the Roman poet Horace’s guiding principle of decorum, which stipulated that the business of art was to instruct and please audiences. He instead chose to provoke their baser qualities to make his points. Ever the inventive trickster, Molière flew in the face of French linguistic purism, making up words for comic effect. Though eminently capable of composing traditional Alexandrine verse, he also devised his own verse-prose hybrid style when it suited the needs of his projects. Molière’s work pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable comedy, and his company performed tirelessly in the Palais Royal for 15 years, gaining an unparalleled reputation for mocking social convention and the falsehood of so-called learned men. They also managed to make enemies of the other official acting companies, most notably the tragedians of the Hôtel Bourgogne, who had laughed him and Madeleine out of Paris so many years before. In his constantly cunning efforts to maintain King Louis’ favor, and knowing the monarch’s passion for music and dance, Molière invented the comédie-ballet, collaborating with composers Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier to create extended evenings in the theatre that presented dances and concerts interspersed between acts of his plays.
Molière’s success, however, came at a high price. Over the years, he developed severe hypochondria. Plagued by illnesses both real and imaginary and constantly fearing his own death, Molière escaped the air of Paris, thick with both scorn and expectation, for the countryside. He dealt with the departure of many actors from his ensemble in the face of an ever-fickle box office and the deaths of numerous collaborators in the course of his career. He suffered accusations of incest upon marrying his young wife Armande, who was Madeleine’s daughter and possibly his own. He even lost Madeleine herself, when the great actress, his nearly lifelong partner in art, turned her back on the theatre—and on Molière—to live the final years of her life as a devoutly Catholic private citizen.
Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, in his novelistic biography The Life of Monsieur de Molière, attributes these difficulties to Molière’s passion for the theatre, referring to it as a “disease.” While Bulgakov plays somewhat fast and loose with the facts of Molière’s biography, one particularly wonderful passage reads as follows:
The man stutters and breathes improperly when he speaks. I can also see that he is quick-tempered and subject to abrupt changes of mood. He easily passes from moments of gaiety to moments of dark reflection. He finds ridiculous traits in men and likes to make them the butt of his jests.
On occasion he carelessly slips into frankness. At other times he tries to be secretive and cunning. He can be recklessly brave, but he can also shift within the moment to irresolution and cowardice. You must agree with me that with these characteristics he will not have an easy life, and will make many enemies!
But let him live his life!
Molière’s passion for the theatre burned until the very end. In 1673, he presented The Imaginary Invalid (Malade imaginaire) and, in a moment of irony so astonishing it could only happen to someone like Molière, collapsed from illness on stage during the fourth performance. He died later that night. In the 17th century, professional acting was synonymous with sinning for a salary, and as such, Molière was refused a Christian burial. The loss of Molière left the French theatre scene in turmoil, leading the King to dictate a merger of the three official acting companies, a union which initiated the world’s first national theatre, the Comédie-Française.
In his 1900 treatise Laughter, French philosopher Henri Bergson writes that comedy “does not exist outside of what is strictly human,” concluding that “by laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it.” Few dramatists have been so consumed by this idea as Molière, whose passion for the theatre—and his certainty in its power to illuminate human inanity—propelled him to risk not just his inheritance and social status, but his very life, for the liberty of his art and the elicitation of our laughter.
by Benjamin Fainstein
The emergence of commedia dell’arte in the mid-16th century marked the rise of professional acting in Europe. Troupes of nomadic performers proliferated across Italy before migrating to Paris some 70 years later at the behest of Cardinal Richelieu. The commedia style is comprised of familiar stock character types and comedic scenarios, combining improvisatory dialogue and gleeful bits of physical comedy known as lazzi. In fact, commedia dell’arte is actually shorthand for the genre’s full title of commedia dell’arte all’improviso, in which it becomes clear how essential improvisation is to the style and sets it apart from the commedia erudita, its highly scripted and complexly plotted counterpart. The “arte,” furthermore, refers not to “art” in the traditional sense of the word, but to the fact that the performance is made by artisans of the theatre—professional actors. Commedia plots usually revolve around a pair of witty but naïve, barefaced young lovers (Innamorati), whose affections are constantly endangered by the harebrained escapades of their masked counterparts, among them arrogant generals (Capitano), pedantic merchants (Pantalone), capricious clowns (Arlequino), and grotesque physicians (Dottore).
The costumes of traditional commedia types and their influence on physicality were an essential tool for communicating with the audience—they were not only funny to look at, with their exaggerated body shapes and wildly colorful patterns, but also provided a way for townspeople to recognize instantaneously what they were watching. Take Pantalone, for example: in practically every commedia scenario, he is an old man of the merchant class who alternates between tenderness and tyranny. His portrayal as a money-grubbing miser is all but expected, and he functions as either the father of one of the young lovers or as a potential suitor to the young woman in question; his opposition to the girl’s marriage provides the essential conflict, and the Innamorati are forced to scheme their way (with the help of witty servants) past parental oppression. By the end of the commedia performance, Pantalone will have received his just desserts, either via the loss of his authority or by coming to accept the lovers’ desires.
Knowing the basic outlines of the plots and the devotion to specific costuming—the Pantalone mask always features a long, hawk-like nose, bushy eyebrows, and white hair, matched by the actor’s bent-over gait due to old age and a miserly spirit—allowed audiences to delight in the variations individual Pantalone performers could provide, and rival troupes competed over who could enact the most astonishing lazzi and crack the most sidesplitting jokes. In A Doctor in Spite of Himself, Molière translates Pantalone to the character of Monsieur Geronte, who opposes his daughter Lucinde’s union with the poor Léandre.
The scenarios commonly unfurl in the span of three acts, in which the madcap characters become increasingly entangled in webs of lust, jealousy, and general misunderstanding. The usual progression is as follows: at the beginning of Act I, everything seems to be going well for everyone, but over the course of the act, a conflict arises and difficulties develop. In Act II, even more complications take shape, and in Act III the situation escalates into a moment of true crisis. In the final moments of the play, problems are solved, lovers united, and the hapless heroes are rewarded with either prizes or punishment—sometimes both, depending on what their behavior deserves.
Although pinning down the exact origins of the commedia dell’arte is a murky task at best, the Paduan dramatist Angelo Beolco, who became known for his theatrical alter ego Il Ruzante (roughly translated as “the barnyard romper”), is considered the best example of proto-commedia; his comedies were often obscene pastorals that boldly critiqued the religious and political leaders of the Italian city-states during the war-torn 16th century. When accepting his honors as a Nobel Laureate in 1997, present-day Italian playwright-comedian Dario Fo—an adroit perpetuator of classic Italian comedy refurbished for contemporary audiences—named Beolco and Molière as his two guiding masters, noting that “they were despised for bringing onto the stage the everyday life, joys, and desperation of the common people; the hypocrisy and the arrogance of the high and mighty; and the incessant injustice. And their major, unforgivable fault was this: in telling these things, they made people laugh. Laughter does not please the mighty.”
Commedia’s roots, though, trace back even further to the New Comedy of ancient Greece, championed by Menander, who had learned more than a few tricks from his predecessor Aristophanes and whose techniques were later adopted by the Roman satirist Plautus. The legacy of commedia dell’arte is far-reaching and ubiquitous: its intelligent slapstick form can be seen in everything from the films of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers to parodic spoofs like the movie Airplane! and the world of adult animated series such as The Simpsons.
Molière delighted in the whimsy and farcical world of commedia, which often featured pastoral antics and intrigues resulting from concealed identities, and early in his career he even trained with the Italian comedian Tiberio Fiorilli, the man who won fame for playing Scaramouche. He drew inspiration from the Italian practice, but in adapting it for his own meticulously scripted plays, he shifted the locations indoors to drawing rooms, thereby increasing the topical bent of the humor and forcing French sophisticates to observe their own folly on stage. Furthermore, he reveled in commedia’s vulgarity but granted a greater dimensionality to the stock characters. Molière employed his wit to propel plot and character development in addition to displaying the virtuosity of his ensemble, thereby importing the scrappy spontaneity of commedia into a literary form.
The funny business of A Doctor in Spite of Himself comes from both physical lazzi and verbal derring-do. Eccentric costumes and a few masks exploit the theatricality of its characters, releasing them from the confines of realism and launching them towards the realm of objectified figurines. The knotted, but familiar, plotlines and open delivery to the audience give a nudge-nudge, wink-wink feeling of participation in the storytelling while forcing observers to remember they can see themselves in the foolishness. Similarly to commedia, Doctor features doubling in its love plots, ribald farce, concealed identities, and an attention to rhythm so specific it seems improvised—in a way, Molière manages to toe the line between commedia dell’arte and commedia erudita.
A Doctor in Spite of Himself (Le Médecin malgré lui) was composed hurriedly in 1666 to serve as theatrical triage for the tepid commercial response to The Misanthrope, a play which is now considered one of his most genius works but was less digestible to its original audience, perhaps because its tone sways from his usual buoyant humor to insightful melancholy. It was common for Molière to devise and refurbish his plots from fables and other plays (he was constantly accused of plagiarism), and the wildly successful Doctor, derived from a mishmash of sources in addition to the recognizable commedia scenarios, was written purely to delight the crowds and win back their favor. Molière evidently culled from the medieval French fabliau The Ugly Sight (Le Vilain mire), which relates the story of a woodsman who masquerades as a doctor; a tale by Rabelais about a cunning wife who feigns the loss of speech to deceive her husband; and his own troupe’s earlier plays Love, the Doctor (L’Amour médecin) and The Woodcutter (Le Fagotier).
Sganarelle, the titular Doctor in Spite of Himself, appeared in many of Molière’s plays and was portrayed by the author himself. He appears generally as an egotistical bungler, vacillating between states of impulsive self-destruction and goofy dreaminess, possessed of both cunning and extreme gullibility. A Doctor in Spite of Himself would be the character’s final appearance in Molière’s oeuvre, and here Sganarelle is elevated into an unwitting (albeit admittedly self-serving) parodist of pretention and agent of true love, performing double duty in satirizing the medical profession while abetting the union of two clever young lovers. Molière wrote extensively about the way forced marriages turn love into a commodity, and, in his plays, those who dictate economics over romance become tantamount to criminals.
In addition to the propagation of exuberant commedia dell’arte ensembles, the post-Renaissance Italian theatre celebrated significant advances in scenic technology and stage machinery. Incorporating elements of perspective drawing into theatre architecture, the proscenium arch became a permanent fixture, accompanied by the expanded use of poles and pulleys, allowing for innovative special effects and for such wonders as chariots to appear on stage, which Molière exploited for their imaginative usefulness.
Much of Molière’s impact resulted from his acute awareness of what was funny—and what could be made fun of—during his era. So while A Doctor in Spite of Himself has never ranked amongst the playwright’s masterpieces, it provided him with abundant opportunities to win over the public with scattershot jabs at everyone from Aristotle and Hippocrates to provincial folk and dysfunctional couples. In bringing to light this new adaptation, Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp have taken up the same tradition, culling from comedic styles ranging from commedia dell’arte to the tramps of early 20th-century cinema to cultural signifiers cleft from the collective consciousness of 2011. They have not strayed from the original storyline or altered the fundamental natures of the characters, but they have found a way to make these familiar clowns speak absolutely in the now, through both their syntax and a vast collection of topical jokes and references spanning more than 100 years’ worth of happenings.
What’s more, the design elements of this production heighten the juxtaposition of old forms with new ideas (and old ideas in new forms): in the costumes we can observe 17th-century shape and style updated with modern associations and patterns; the brio of the lighting design envelops the world of the play in a sprightly mood; and the interplay of scenic elements with puppetry provides a mischievous opportunity to experiment in comedic scale—that which is large becomes small and vice versa, both literally and metaphorically. Bayes and Epp have tailored the script to the particular members of this ensemble, just as Molière did for his own company. They have incorporated a live band into the production, reveling, just as Molière did, in music’s potential to aid in both comic and tender tones. And finally, just as Molière before them, they have striven to create a work of art that lives in the present moment without, for a moment, forgetting its past.
by Julie McCormick
Steven Epp, who co-adapted A Doctor in Spite of Himself with director Christopher Bayes, graciously answered a few of our questions about the process of bringing a 17th-century French play to life on a 21st-century American stage. Epp, who returns to Berkeley Rep after appearing in Figaro and The Miser, is known for his physical comedy and biting wit.
Could you give us a little bit of background on this project? How did it get started, what was the impetus for it?
Well, the project started as a commission from Intiman Theatre in Seattle. We did the production there in the fall of 2010. They commissioned Chris to direct something, and he threw several projects at them. They decided to go with A Doctor in Spite of Himself and then let us do our own adaptation. So that’s kind of how it first started. The show had its initial run there and was a big hit, and from there it was decided that the show would move on to Yale and Berkeley Rep. Chris is on the faculty at Yale, and he and I did a production of Servant of Two Masters at Yale Rep two years ago, and it was very successful, so they were looking to do another Chris and Steve project.
So from the beginning you knew it was going to be a collaborative adaptation?
Yes. With something like Molière or Goldoni, which is originally in another language, it’s always an issue of choosing what adaptation you want to do. Chris first said it’d be best if we could do our own. We had to sort of convince them, but then they let us go ahead and do it. Chris and I go back. He and I started together at Theatre de Jeune Lune in the early days. So we have worked together and have known each other for 27 years. During those years at Jeune Lune, we were doing a lot of collaborative creation, especially in those early days, creating a lot of new comedy work material. Then we were onstage together for six years constantly. We have a shared history and a shared language, particularly with comedy.
Can you explain a little bit more about what that looks like? What is the day-to-day work like? What roles do each of you take?
Chris is directing and I’m in the show, so there’s a director-actor relationship, but we’re also looking at it as writers. He was in Brooklyn and I was in Minneapolis. We were working from a literal translation, then we would each take a scene and go at it. We wrote a first draft that we felt still very much followed the structure of the play and the characters and the plot and all those things, but we also tried to find the essence of the language that works today in American English. A lot of it has to do with the rhythms and finding the right words.
As Molière said himself, Doctor is not on the same level as some of his other plays, such as The Misanthrope and Tartuffe. At the time, he was deep into trying to get Tartuffe to be allowed to be performed, and he had written The Misanthrope and that was not well-received at all; it only got a couple of performances before it got shut down. So he was really fighting for this part of his work that is far more critical and provocative and more complex, really. So, in a way, when he wrote Doctor he was going back to the commedia influence in his early career. He wrote the play in like, five days. He needed a hit. He knew how to make people laugh and he knew how to create a good comedy. He said the script is a bunch of nonsense, and it really is. It’s purely an excuse for a really fun, crazy, entertaining evening.
And so we very much felt that to be true to the play, you need to embrace the spirit of Molière, the great comedian and the great entertainer, in his sense of irreverence, in his sense of anarchy, in his sense of inventiveness and his sense of aliveness and freshness. He was not writing old plays, he was not writing classical plays. He was writing new plays for a company of actors that he knew very well. The plays were very focused on the audience at that moment. He probably knew most people in the crowd, and he knew everything that was going on at court, in society and among the aristocracy. He knew who had said what two nights before and what they were talking about down at the bar. So it’s very fresh. We know that he invented words, that he broke rules of syntax, and he sometimes worked in verse and sometimes in prose; the way he went back and forth was considered irreverent and incorrect. He didn’t follow anybody’s rules. He just made them up. I think you have to have that kind of playfulness and that invention in an adaptation, and that’s very much what we embraced.
I think in that sense we’re very true to the spirit of Molière, but that we have created a play that is very much our own. We’ve continued to work it and change it from day one. In Seattle we had a really great first draft that read very well, was very funny, very alive, very playful, and when we got into the theatre after a week of rehearsal it was all different. And by the time we got to opening it was all different again, and then when we started at New Haven after a very successful run, we made changes to almost every line in the play. We’ve had quite a number of cast changes, and the show got redesigned in New Haven. The space is different. We had the opportunity to go back and revisit it, so we didn’t just say, “well, let’s go back and remount what we did,” we really went back and said, “well, we loved that,” or “we’re not quite sure if that worked,” or “that could go further,” or “we don’t think that’s funny anymore.” All those questions were in the air.
We also had to let the new actors find their niche. It’s not really healthy to say, “You have to do exactly what that other person did.” It usually doesn’t work; it’s kind of deadly. We need them to find how they do this material, what they can bring to it. A lot of it is just the business, that’s the nature of the actors in the room. Chris and I are used to working very collaboratively, very inventively on our feet. He usually assembles a cast of people who he worked with or who have studied with him—he’s a great teacher of physical comedy and commedia and clowning, and other various forms of comedy—so there’s a great deal of play and playfulness in the room. Chris really makes the rehearsal room feels like a big playground. We have the musicians in the room with us from day one, so the music is being integrated constantly, and they’re as a much a player in the piece as any character. Usually the pieces get way expanded, and then you start putting it all together and start running it, and you realize, well, now the show’s two hours long. Then you start choosing and tightening, and you realize you gone too far—it’s too vulgar, it’s too naughty. Then you start going, this is where we can be a little more irreverent. This is where it needs to remain a little more innocent. This is where it can go really over the top. You find it as you go along.
What’s the attraction to A Doctor in Spite of Himself right now?
I think it’s a great vehicle for a delightfully comic evening. I think there’s a certain kind of topicality to the medical profession, perhaps, due to all of the discussions about health insurance and all those things that we as a culture and a nation are struggling with. It was a whole different issue for Molière. At the time, the medical profession was not at all a developed science. It was really leeches and hocus pocus and quackery, and it was actually pretty scary. There were a lot of charlatans. I don’t know what the medical profession back then shares with today, but I think there is a certain frustration that people have. How we get medical attention and care, and it’s something worth satirizing. I don’t think of the play as an in-depth, provocative examination of that; it’s pretty light. Everything from the Marx Brothers to Sid Caesar’s shows to The Simpsons to South Park to a Saturday Night Live sketch at its best, is like a child of what Molière was doing in a play like this. It’s entertaining, anarchic and irreverent—it’s just a very fun ensemble of characters with a lot of machinations and mayhem and craziness, and there are songs and music and a lot of physical comedy, and some sweetness around the edges. It’s got a nice little sweet finish, like a nice wine.
What should people know before they see this play?
It doesn’t require a whole lot other than the expectation of coming to have a good time. It’s really just an invitation to laughter. It’s in the play—laughter is the best medicine. Consistently people from the audience say, “Man, I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time, and I didn’t realize how much I needed that.” It’s a tough world out there right now and sometimes you do just need a really good laugh.