The archetypal angry middle-aged male splutters to life in Molière’s Der Menschenfeind (The Misanthrope)
Our current love affair with the instant gratification of insults cannot be blamed solely on an unfiltered social media culture. Misanthropy – hating humanity – has been a comic staple for centuries, most notably in the character Alceste, the self-righteous foil of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, and more recently in the work of Louis CK and Woody Allen.
Le Misanthrope premiered last month at the Volkstheater as Der Menschenfeind, a modern adaptation in rhyming verse by Jürgen Gosch and Wolfgang Wiens. Written 350 years ago in the highly mannered reign of Louis XIV, the play reveals the bitter pill of Molière’s satire: misanthropic free speech is a double-edged sword.
Directed by Felix Hafner, Der Menschenfeind opens with Alceste (Lukas Holzhausen) front of stage, sourly appraising a sea of playfully stacked champagne and martini glasses. A curving white staircase descends into a heavenly endless party zone. Alceste seethes over the hypocrisy prevailing in a present-day court of backstabbing socialites. “Freundschaft ist beschmutzt wenn zu viel überall benutzt!” (Friendship is abused when too much overused!), cries Alceste to his long-suffering friend Philinte (Sebastian Klein), who is more forgiving of human faults.
Unable to accept that our frailties are what make us human, Alceste is both infuriated and infatuated by the witty younger socialite Célimène (Evi Kehrstephan), who believes that “Liebe ist ein Investment. Es braucht eine Retour” (Love is an investment. It requires a return). When Alceste trashes a love sonnet to Célimène by the powerful Oronte (Rainer Galke) – expressed here as an excruciating, warbled Austropop song – Oronte seeks Alceste’s ruin. Already swimming in libel suits,
Alceste chooses exile, and is crushed when Célimène refuses to leave society.
Werner Fritz’s rich grey and purple costumes emphasize the characters’ aloof world. The shiny black background of Paul Lerchbaumer’s white minimalist set wraps the characters in a Studio 54 embrace of booze, drugs and dance music. The cast is caught in a Ronde of escapism, portrayed as an endless film loop: The entrances and departures, cued by party music, are a comic tour de force, each character assuming their perfectly smiling selfie profile in an instant, despite the heated insults.
The adaptation, true to Comédie-Française tradition, plays for broad laughs. Alceste is unrelentingly apoplectic, and Célimène overly shrill at times to be a convincing social butterfly.
Sadly, the English and French supertitles were lit too weakly to be legible. Regardless, the night ended in rapturous applause: A shorter duration by losing the inessential character of Célimène’s manservant contributed to this, as did the Urwiener comic touches and the hilarious food fight between the shrewish Arsinoé (Birgit Stoeger) and Célimène.
Le Misanthrope was an initial flop, banned during the French Revolution and criticized by Enlightenment luminaries; in later years, it was rehabilitated as a masterpiece and syllabus staple. With other major plays banned in his lifetime, Molière trod a subversive line between satirizing and appeasing the nobility (the Sun King played a bit part in a later work). The Volkstheater’s modern take reflects our current times, torn between the need to maintain civil discourse and the compulsion to prick thin-skinned egos through the power of the pen.
Vive la Satire.
Der Menschenfeind (The Misanthrope)
Dec 31 extended through Feb 2017 with additional dates being planned