Commentary, May 1990
Inspiration rarely takes practicality into consideration. Inevi-tably you’re in a hurry, pencil-less, and half-asleep, in a check-out line with five kilos of dog food, when the stuff creeps into your life and transports you. And sometimes it’s at high speeds in the presence of sublime banality.
With retinas battling to stay between the broad margins of “Burying Molière,” John Strand’s sixth play, I was nearly turned into 2 percent by a Danish yogurt truck on the A3. With its student cast from Paris, New York University’s iconoclastic Experimental Theater Wing opens “Burying Molière” at NYU’s Mainstage One in New York on May 10th, for a nine-day stint, directed by Pascal Rambert, 28, one of the brightest lights among the younger generation of French directors.
IKEA decomposed into a splotch of royal blue, and the program notes on “Burying Molière” dangerously beckoned me closer. The dented center rail ominously waved by like a venomous snake.
“Burying Molière” takes place, for the most part, on the evening his body is laid in its unmarked grave. Seven actors and actresses of his troupe, and a few other charac-ters from his life (including the King himself, incognito) show up at the gravesite. It is their final chance to determine who this man was, a tyrant, a hypochondriac, a sycophant, a cuckold – and a superb actor and poet, one of the greatest figures ever to appear on the French stage. And Molière also has his final word on what it means to live in an age of hypocrites, to be manipulated by those in power – and how impossible it is to know the truth about the people around us, even the ones we love.
I had thought of those final scenes as I waited with the playwright and his young family at the check-in counter at Roissy, as they prepared to squeeze into charter seats on a bulky TWA, forced to expatriate for regrettable reasons. Those in power meant our politicians, but it also meant our administrators, our bosses, our colleagues, our bank accounts. The wind howled through a hole in the floorboard as a poid lourd sailed by with dead fish from the coast.
This stuff is about all of you out there trying to keep to your convictions, reap the inventions of your imaginations and souls, and to not jump off bridges or buildings for the artististic compromises you’re pressed to make. It was reaching me as one eye glanced at the rear reflector. A Belgian in a Ford with a horse trailer gave me the head-lights, and my trusty rustbox veered into the break-down lane.
“On the afternoon of February 17, 1673, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known as Molière, was stricken while playing the lead role in his comedy “The Imaginary Invalid.” His actors carried him to his apartment near the theater. Although he had been a mordant critic of the church, one of his final requests was for a priest. A servant was sent to get one, but upon learning that the dying man was the infamous Molière, the priest refused to come. Molière died shortly after. He was 51.”
I pulled into one of those over priced gas stations with twenty pumps, and savored the story amidst dense wafts of pungent lead-free.
“Because he had failed to officially renounce his profession of actor before his death, the laws of the church forbade Molière a Christian burial. The Archbishop of Paris, who detested actors in general and Molière in particular, ordered him buried in unconsecrated ground, after sunset, without cere-mony.
“On February 21, 1673, France’s greatest playwright was buried in an unmarked grave in the dead of night.”
A Renault 19 pulled in behind me and honked. I looked contemptuously at the six pack of Contrex on the back ledge and pulled out without gas, comforted by the long line of fellow vehicles waiting to pay.
“It was an inglorious end, but Molière had suffered other indignities in life. He had staked everything, his career and the welfare of the actors in his company on an official acceptance at court. King Louis XIV eventually became Molière’s patron and proclaimed his company “The King’s Troupe.” But what he gained in financial freedom, Molière lost in artistic freedom. Two of his best and most sharply critical plays, “Tartuffe” and “Don Juan” were censored. He was often “invited” – in fact, he was ordered – to write trivial comic verse for the King’s lavish ballets, in which the King himself danced. There was no question of dis-obeying a royal request, and Molière gave up precious months of his tragically short life to work on these comedy-ballets and other trifles to please the King. In this, as in other ways, Molière allowed himself to be manipulated by royal power.”
Durrell wrote to his friend and mentor Henry Miller, “All art is about art.” I rolled up to the Caisse; the employee wore earphones and had a calloused right thumb from heavy Carte Bleue manipulation. “Burying Molière” fit. A contempo¬rary playwright was communing with one of the greatest theatrical talents of all time. The dialogue was running between the living and the dead, in the play and out. I couldn’t seem to get this communicated to the bored attendant. In burying Molière he was resurrecting the tragedy of his sacrifice. The costumes belonged to the period while the demeanor and language were contemporary. The truest struggles in life – love, art, and freedom – are always universal, and the audience perpetually remains the same. I had to buy a lousy road map of the Ile de France to get the automatic barrier to free me.
The air of Paris smelled with burnt carburants. The speedometer held steady at 120. There was so much on the radio I couldn’t get a thing. A jet with a bulky nose pointing west left a dark, fading trail above the Porte de Bagnolet. I flipped to the last page of Strand’s three-act play. Molière was speaking from the dead.
“Bury me, and let me rest. Cover me with the mud of Paris, and let me forget the mistakes I’ve made. Let this casket rot away with the years, let it crumble like my strength, my ideals. Let the mud fill my mouth, stuff my ears and blind my eyes, to keep me from dreaming through the centuries. Fill my skull with it, so there will be no thought but darkness. Every grain of dirt is one of my regrets. Every pebble, another opportunity I lost. Bury me, and crush this rebel heart under the weight of stones. Let the world forget. This dishonest life is over.”
My thread-bare Michelins squeeled as I veered onto the peripherique where at least half of all good epiphanies are born. Molière was right up there with me in the death seat. I looked away, glad they were burying him on Broadway