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Gerald Carpenter: Elite Theatre Brings ‘The Miser’ to Oxnard

Classic comedy by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin plays for the next two weekends

For the next two weekends, the Elite Theatre Company of Oxnard will present its new production of the classic comedy The Miser by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better-known as Molière (1622-73).

To avoid shaming his father by putting his name on a marquee, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin called himself Molière.
To avoid shaming his father by putting his name on a marquee, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin called himself Molière.

The director of Elite’s production is Elissa Anne Polansky, and the producer is Frank James Malle.

The “miser” of the title, a rich, stingy money-lender named Harpagon, is not so much the protagonist as a set of conditions under which the rest of the characters suffer. According to Brander Matthews, who got it from Ferdinand Brunetière, a play “must reveal the human will in action … the central figure in a play must know what he wants and must strive for it with incessant determination” (A Study of the Drama, 1910).

Viewed in this light, Miser has two central figures — Harpagon’s son and daughter, Cléante and Elise, who want with all their hearts to marry the people they love, not serve their whole lives as the mere instruments of their father’s designs.

Matthews goes on: “If the obstacles against which the will of the hero has to contend are insurmountable, Fate or Providence or the Laws of nature — then there is tragedy, and the end of the struggle is likely to be death, since the hero is defeated in advance. But if these obstacles are not absolutely insurmountable, being only social conventions and human prejudices, then the hero has a possible chance to attain his desire — and in this case we have the serious drama without an inevitably fatal ending. Change this obstacle a little, equalize the conditions of the struggle, set two human wills in opposition — and we have comedy. And if the obstacle is of a lower order, merely an absurdity of custom, for instance, and we find ourselves in a farce.”

The Miser is comedy, not farce, though modern productions often succumb to the temptation of frantic farcical pacing and exaggerated caricature — as if the playwright were Georges Feydeau instead of Molière .

Matthews, a professor at Columbia University, wrote the introductions to the individual plays in a 1908 edition of Molière’s collected works. In the preface to The Miser, he observed that “Molière … is the first dramatist who has really treated the modern question money, and laid emphasis on the harm which excessive love of it can do in the family and in society.” This is the key to Molière’s achievement, I think. Virtually all of his contemporaries, set their tragedies in ancient times and their comedies in the spas and country houses of the greater and lesser nobility.

Molière has taken the new, coming middle class as his subject. The foundation of bourgeois society is not tradition, or patents of nobility, or honor, or religious principles; it is money, and the desire for money is the engine that drives most of Molière’s plays, if not all of them.

The Elite Theatre Company is located at 730 South B St. in Oxnard. The Miser plays at 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $17 for adults, and $15 for students, seniors and military. Call 805.483.5118 for reservations, or click here for more information.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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