Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord‘s LE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME, now at the Lincoln Center Festival, matches high style with a ragamuffin disdain for it. Molière’s send-up of social snobbery under the reign of Louis XIV, in which the petit bourgeois M. Jourdain aspires to aristocratic status, veers from mannered satire to a savage buffoonery. All manner of pretenders come to mind, economic, social, political, artistic and intellectual, from celebrity poseurs to the little men of history whose dictatorships have been both petty and monstrous. The sight of Jourdain, tricked into believing he has acquired the rank of a Turkish “Mamamouchi,” fawned over by a mishmash of barefoot dancers and faux dwarves, might be a scene from Jarry’s Ubu or Ionesco’s Exit the King. Surely, one thinks, he is just an envious man putting on airs. But there is something dangerous in him, the inadequate ego appealing, as he often does in this production, to the collective ego of his audience.
This is not, however, to agree with the notion that persons ought to accept as a given their stations of birth, that the fortune of a born aristocrat is naturally deserved and the aspiration of a “lesser” hubris, or worse, a palpable danger. Such is perhaps to be expected of a play written at the behest of the Sun King, who presided over one of the most stratified cultures in history. Louis doubtless intended, in his commissioning of the play, to put the socially pretentious in their place, a project in which all of us can, up to a point, delight. But more important is the deeper ground, which Molière perhaps intuited, on which to stand against Jourdain: the pretender to nobility affirms aristocracy as a value, desiring not to overthrow hierarchy but to rise in it. In that respect, he is justly feared, an Ubu, a Bérenger roi, a Franco, an Erdoğan, a Mussolini, or a T– in the making. The petty man with an injured sense of himself is the most dangerous of all.
Also the most buffoonish, even if, in this production, Pascal Rénéric is too dismissive, in the role, of Jourdain’s humanity. He assumes airs too consciously ridiculous to be taken seriously; at least there ought to be a pathos in his being taken down, a sense that he had some other potential. It is the one misstep, to my mind, on the part of the director Denis Podalydès, who allows, in other respects, the richness of the play, and its contemporary resonance, to emerge. He is not alone in the achievement, which is shared, in particular, by the music director Christophe Coin, the costumer Christian Lacroix, and the choreographer Kaori Ito, along with the actors, dancers and musicians.
Molière’s collaboration with the composer Lully is fully embraced, the musical interludes retained (rather than cut or trimmed), giving free reign to the intoxicating grotesquerie of Baroque opera. The production descends from uppity satire – the dancing master, music director, philosopher and tailor competing for supremacy in Jourdain’s effort to acquire gentility – to a thorough deconstruction of dance, music, sophistry and fashion. It’s period theater coming apart at the seams, collapsing, in the curtain call, to obsequious disorder, arms flying, approval solicited from anyone who will listen, all false status, onstage or off, doubted and torn to shreds.
For information on LE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME and the Lincoln Center Festival, click here.