The Would-Be Gentleman was first presented at court in 1670 in the Grand Gallery of Chambord, a royal castle on the Loire, which, like all the royal residences, was large and luxurious. The play, by command of Louis XIV, was to be a “turquerie.” In 1699, an ambassador from Turkey had visited the king, and enthusiasm was still high for the exotic. Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote the music and Molière added his comedy to it. The expenditures indicate that the initial production was elaborate. It was a great success, and the play has remained one of Molière’s most popular.
Twenty-first century productions of the play often cut the ballet scenes. The play is, however, actually a combination of comedy and ballet, in which the ballet is an integral, if separable, part. Dance has a literary or symbolic function as the extension of Monsieur Jourdain’s obsession with display; the more preposterous the ballet, the better Jourdain is shown to like it.
Although in some way no more than light entertainment, The Would-Be Gentleman has become one of the best-known French plays and Monsieur Jourdain one of Molière’s most celebrated characters. He is something of an archetype in French tradition of the bourgeois who tries to conform to aristocratic manners and circles.
The English translation of the play’s title is somewhat misleading, as gentilhomme means “nobleman” and the juxtaposition of Le Bourgeois and Gentilhomme should be understood as a contradiction. It is an idea, according to Molière and the court for which he wrote, worthy only of ridicule. The satire, however, is relatively mild; Monsieur Jourdain is more a buffoon, and the comedy is essentially farce, rather than a profound critique of vicious social traits.
Of the inner circle into which Monsieur Jourdain is trying to gain admittance, the audience never sees more than the marchioness, Dorimène, and the count, Dorante. The marchioness has a minor role and is not only the object of Monsieur Jourdain’s absurd affection but...
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