Master of French Farce
With M. Muclair after the show at the Theatre du Marais.
Walking down the streets of Paris in the 1950s when I was a young man studying in London, I spent days drinking in the special air of Parisian culture. I was thrilled with the richness of its painting galleries and their magnificent collections and the large number of theatre houses. On my regular holiday visits to Paris I developed a serious interest in French plays which had a very different style vis-a-vis English plays. To enter a theatre seemed to me in those early years, like entering a place of homage. The dim lights, the soft carpets in the lobby and the hush in the auditorium gave me a feeling of sobriety and thoughtfulness. As the years went by I made contact with Samuel Beckett in Paris, witnessed his plays both in French in Paris and in English in London. All had a deep effect on my mental state. On a much later visit in 1989 I made it a point to continue my passion for French plays and visited the "Theatre Du Marais" where the renowned Jacques Muclair was staging "L' Avare", "The Miser" by Molière. The elegant wood paneled theatre hung with magnificent drapes was a pleasure to the eyes. I sat down in my vantage seat and soon the thick velvet and tasseled curtains parted to reveal a simple stage. The comedy kept the audience in a responsive mood as they watched the wily Miser perform his role with skill. It was Jacques Muclair who played the character of Harpagon, the Miser. He was Director of the play and interpreted the role with flair. Keeping the traditions of French farce he kept the tragic-comedy in momentum, so that the viewers laughed and saddened alternatively.
The "Compagnic Jacques Muclair" was established in 1976 under the name "Theatre du Marais" and held a series of successful plays among which were Electra by Sophocle, Chairs by Ionesco, Harlequin Superstar by Jacques Muclair The Misanthrop by Molière, Androcles and The Lion by Bernard Shaw.
During the interval, there is a charming custom that the audience mingles over drinks in the lobby and review their responses to the play they are witnessing. It is a useful social custom and helps assess the stage proceedings. My French escort had made a request on my behalf to Director Jacques Muclair, that I was a playwright from Bangladesh and wished to meet with him. He confirmed this to me during break and I was delighted to hear that I would soon be meeting the great Muclair. At the end of the play we went back stage and I met Monsieur Muclair, a marvelously sweet faced and smiling person, unlike the 'Miser' he had been depicting. Not tall but well built and sturdy, he put his arm round my shoulder and welcomed me warmly. We chatted for almost half an hour in the Green Room and he invited me to join him for dinner next Sunday. He told me there was a lovely Indian restaurant called "Sartaj Mahal" on Rue de Turbigo, specialised in Indian and Pakistani tandoori. He told me he enjoyed sub-continental cuisine. He jokingly said in French, "After the spectacle of the Miser, I must spend money to convince you I'm a large hearted man!"
Over the sumptuous meal on the appointed Sunday Jacques Muclair explained to me that he believed set designs should not be too elaborate. His set designer Jacques Noel was competent in this technique, creating effects without expensive and bulky props. He focused more on the acting quality and reaching the audience through the dialogues and characterisations, rather than emphasising costumes and stage decor.
As the evening went on we talked about Molière the playwright himself. What an outstanding being he was. Born in 1622 until his death at the age of fifty-one in 1673 he went through two phases. One of humiliation and struggle for the first fifteen years, then success and fame for fourteen years. He no doubt nursed delusions of grandeur, as one who wished to revolutionise the acting methods of tragic actors. The audience however was not willing at that time to accept his reforms. After his first setbacks he worked hard to become a fine comic actor, a playwright, a director, a theatre manager and a publicist. It was only a matter of time before Paris discovered it needed him, as much as he needed Paris.
Later on in 2002 when I met Ranjit Bolt the unique and talented translator of Molière's "Tartuffe", I came to realise more and more the influence of Molière on French cultural life. He never left Paris after 1658 and became an imbedded part of French thinking. We should remember that France was at the heart of European cultural life in the 17th century. French thought dominated the ideology of the period, French style in clothing, manners, the arts, architecture, painting, sculpture and literature. It is for no small reason that Molière is translated into other languages and given so many productions outside France.
My sojourns in London and Paris had filled my cup of happiness as I witnessed "the Miser" in Paris and "Tartuffe" in London.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009