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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 7 JULY 2013 — How to avoid your wife being unfaithful to you? Why, buy her early on at the age of 4, make her your ward, and then marry her after having sequestered her in a convent for thirteen years with explicit instructions to ensure she remains "as idiotic and simple" as possible. Such is the plan devised by Arnolphe, a gentleman of advancing years who is petrified at the thought of possessing an unfaithful wife. But in Molière’s popular play, written in 1662, and a plot that remains news today (with victims including the young Viennese Amanda Kampuch),  it doesn’t quite work out like that.

Taken from the convent, the seventeen year old Agnès is kept isolated in Arnolphe’s house on an island, with only two scatter-brained servants as company, while he plans the wedding. But he makes the mistake of leaving on business and while the cat’s away, the mice will play. We soon discover that the pure and innocent Agnès isn’t quite the simpleton she is made out to be. She, plays, flirts with and is soon in love with a passing stranger, the young Horace, who falls for her hook, line and sinker.

But upon learning her story, the unfortunate young man makes the monumental error of confiding in … Arnolphe, who, to add to his sins,  has given himself aristocratic airs by demanding to be addressed as Monsieur de La Souche. And imagine Arnolphe’s reaction upon hearing Horace’s tale of woe, of courting a lady who is imprisoned by a vile and grotesque old man, non-other than himself!

Thierry Hancisse (Arnolphe) and Jérémy Lopez (Horace)
in Molière’s
L'Ecole des Femmes
at the Comédie-Française in Paris
Photo: Cosimo Mirco Magliocca

As the play opens in the current production at the Comédie-Française, Thierry Hancisse, magnificent in the role of Arnolphe, is pouring out his heart and his anguish to his old friend, Chrysaide, telling him of his plan to marry his ward whom he has loved from the moment he saw her. Far from being the vile, grotesque, and ridiculous character he is often portrayed as being, Arnolphe is lamentable, pathetic and pitiful as he tries every trick possible to forward the marriage, for he is truly in love with the girl, with a passion which finally breaks his heart in two. Hancisse brings a Shakespearian dimension to Arnolphe, turning him into a figure of tragedy despite his evident stupidity.

Adeline d’Hermy, luminous, is a true fairy-tale princess. Reading the list of the ten rules of conduct for young brides she touched the heart and won the admiration of all as she grew from an ill-informed, ignorant adolescent to a woman with a mind of her own. Likewise, Jérémy Lopez was excellent in the difficult role of the well-meaning, ingenuous Horace whose only misfortune was to blurt out his troubles to his lover’s unwelcome and discomfited suitor.

The staging by Jacques Lassalle, general administrator of the Comédie-Française from 1990 to 1993, was brilliant, beginning with the idea of setting the play on an island to ensure Agnès’ continued isolation from the world outside. One could only gain access by a raft and pulley, while Horace, for his secret visits, rowed up to it in a boat. A transparent tulle backcloth which covered the forefront of the stage and appeared opaque or faded from sight depending on the lighting, gave the illusion of an inside/outside, while further ingenious lights on the house and a tree indicated the changing times of day, the atmosphere being enhanced by evocative musical choices.

L’Ecole des Femmes, is not simply a farce, a slapstick comedy for Molière poses the very serious question of women’s access to knowledge and of their position in society. A success at the time it was written and performed in the very same theatre, it brings as much enjoyment to see it today, just 350 years later.


Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.

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