translated by Stephen Mulrine
Arguably one of Molière’s best-known and most loved plays, The Misanthrope is a classic comedy that satirises the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society.
Alceste, the misanthrope, hates all mankind and despairs of its falseness. He believes that the world could be perfected if only people were more honest with one another. But his candidness soon starts to make him enemies and he becomes the target of malicious rumours. He alienates his love, Célimène, by reproaching her coquettish behaviour and is summoned before the court of marshals to defend his negative opinion on some poetry composed by a powerful noble. Alceste begins to realise that the only way to be left alone is to disengage from society itself – but he struggles to persuade Célimène to go with him and is ultimately left alone.
Molière is responsible for elevating comedy to the status of the great tragedies written by his contemporaries Racine and Corneille. Though The Misanthrope is widely considered to be his comedic masterpiece, it was actually a commercial failure when it first appeared in 1666 at the Palais-Royal in Paris. Perhaps its uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy caused consternation among those original Parisian theatregoers since it represented a significant break from Molière’s usual farcical fare. However, its stature has only increased since then and the play is now an established part of the theatrical canon.