The Misanthrope by Moliere is a play about manners and ethics of the French nobility. Alceste is a rather grumpy, off putting character who believes in personal integrity- in acting and talking to someone the same way as you talk and feel about them when they aren’t there (no being polite to their face and bitching behind their back- be rude to them in person too if that is how you feel!) He would rather not falsely call someone a friend, until he truly considers them as such. Most of his contempories prefer to hide negative thoughts about someone in order to follow social niceties.
Surprisingly, he has fallen in love with a socialite who loves to say witty but rude things about people she and her guests have in common. She says she loves him, but is she true?
The play contrasts the extremes of fake pleasantness vs harsh truthfullness in its characters, with only Alceste’s friend Philinte acting with a happy medium- being polite in social circumstances, but truthful when a friend needs to be told how he is going wrong.
It is a fairly pleasant read, but I found myself wondering by the end what the point really was. It is funny because recently my brother and I ended up accidentally both separately attending Tartuffe (or the Hypocrite) at the theatre on the same night. He felt like he couldn’t see why that play was written- what the point was- whereas I didn’t feel that way. Tartuffe is a play about a conman who has weaselled his way into the favour of the father of a rich family by pretending to be a holy man. He in fact is a terrible man who wants to sleep with the wife and steal all their money. He is creepy, dirty, sleazy and the type of man who makes your skin crawl, but at the start the whole family can see this but not get the dad (and grandma) to. This set it up for a good fun time of the family trying to plan how to bring him down, with lots of humour and awkwardness and catastophies and a steady drive towards the climactic confrontation. At the same time there was an underlying commentary on people who are false or self serving in religion, and those who are gullible or seem to prefer to not look too deeply at what is going on.
I suspect that like with many plays, I would perhaps have gotten more out of the Misanthrope if I saw it performed. I suppose that the issue around where the border is between telling white lies to keep people happy and being fake, is one that holds throughout the ages and is still worth contemplating now.