Money and Metafiction: The box office success of The Plain Dealer over Le Misanthrope
by Mark Schauer
That William Wycherley’s 1676 play The Plain Dealer is based upon his French contemporary Moliere’s Le Misanthrope from a decade earlier is a commonly accepted tenet among critics: Both Alceste in Le Misanthrope and Manly in The Plain Dealer display misanthropic tendencies. Both insist, however, that their misanthropy is not directed at all people, just those who dissemble and flatter in a hypocritical way. Both are initially in love with women who possess acid tongues in private, yet are guilty of exactly the same public flattery the men despise. Yet The Plain Dealer greatly exceeded its source material in popularity, at least during its initial stage run, and there is very little critical consideration as to why Wycherley’s play, which is generally considered the coarser of the two, outperformed its better. With this paper I hope to show that the relative success of Wycherley’s play can likely be attributed to the business concerns faced by Moliere that Wycherley was exempt from, the unvarnished, vulgar satire of The Plain Dealer that was informed by previous crowd-pleasing English plays, and The Plain Dealer ’s much larger dollop of misogyny.
Whereas Wycherley was a gentleman playwright, Moliere was a working one who, like Shakespeare, depended on the success of his plays to earn his livelihood. In addition to writing his troupe’s plays, he also acted in them (usually in the lead role, as was true in Le Misanthrope) and managed the company, additional burdens that Wycherley did not have. Plays were often, “conceived, written, learnt and performed in a fortnight,” (Golder 252). To put this in perspective, in 1668-69, two seasons after Le Misanthrope, Moliere’s players gave 192 individual performances, the vast majority of which were double bills of plays that ran for less than a week, as well as 17 command performances to the king and wealthy patrons. For unfortunate actors of the era who could not rapidly memorize and recall lines from so many plays, a stage prompter wasn’t much help: During this time period, the prompter was not situated stage center in the floor, but in the wings, far from the downstage actors who oftentimes were obstructed by wealthy patrons sitting on either side of the forestage. Moliere’s script for The Misanthrope, written in a complex Alexandrine meter while The Plain Dealer was written in conversational prose, was likely even more onerous for a harried troupe to learn quickly, and the physical realities of the stage made prompting unwieldy. The audience may have picked up on this and told their friends, resulting in a short run. Additionally, Moliere’s vocal delivery was, according to Voltaire, encumbered by, “a kind of hiccup which was quite unsuited to serious roles” (Durant 107). Indeed, critics like Edward Sullivan contend the later success of Le Misanthrope rested upon the interpretation of the Alceste character furnished by Rousseau and successfully brought to stage by the actor Molé in the late 18th century: “a starkly tragic figure whose misfortunes suggest those of Moliere himself,” whereas Moliere played the lead character as sympathetic and admirable, but “perpetually struggling to get out of situations that are created by him when he attempts to apply his rigid and impractical principles” (Sullivan 496). Though the King’s Company in Drury Lane experienced similar staging concerns and schedules nearly as hectic as those of Moliere’s company, Wycherley, a writer of independent means, was immune from any pressure beyond his vanity while crafting The Plain Dealer.
The Plain Dealer’s initial success over that of Le Misanthrope goes beyond mere staging and rehearsal differences, however, and was decided mostly by the style both were written. Self-reference was an anticipated calling card of plays in this baroque and decadent era, and metadrama is present in Le Misanthrope in only the very first scene, where the character Philinte references Moliere’s comedy The School for Husbands in a conversation with Alceste, upon which he with irritation tells him to, “spare us these inane charades”(I,i). The Plain Dealer ups the ante considerably with extensive, show-stopping references to both The Country Wife and Wycherley himself in the more-pivotal second act of the play, well after we have been introduced to the play’s main characters: Olivia engages in a lengthy tirade against The Country Wife, which she describes as smutty: the fact of attending without blushing or condemning it is prima facie evidence of depravity in a woman, she contends, and upbraids Eliza for defending it. At its climax, Olivia claims that the infamous china scene inspired her to, “break all my defiled vessels,” in her home (II,i). Wycherley then delivers the coup de grace to his source material, lambasting its Alexandrine meter: The fop Novel adds that he knows the unfortunate author of The Country Wife, who disregarded his good advice for writing successful plays: put them into rhyme, “for Rithme, you know, often makes mystical Nonsence pass with the Criticks for Wit…” (II,i). (That Wycherley’s adolescence in France was spent under the tutelage of Madame de Rambouillet, whose salon was lampooned in Moliere’s early play Les Preciuses Ridicules, may explain the venom (Miles 68).)