HE WANTS IT ALL
“I’ve arranged to be secure forever,” Arnolphe tells his friend Chrysalde toward the beginning of Molière’s School for Wives. Arnolphe has spent the thirteen years prior to the first scene of the play building the foundation for his perfect world, brick by self serving brick. He spends the two hours of the play itself watching helplessly as the whole structure slowly but inexorably crumbles.
Like so many people in our own day, Arnolphe believes in the perfectibility of his world. With enough money and attention, he is convinced, he could move mountains, change the course of rivers, or fly to the moon. He is a very satisfied self-made man. We can assume that the wealth of which he boasts is the result of the singularly forceful personality we see on display. The strong, even domineering personality is a frequent role model in today’s business world, often attaining a preeminence that brings with it the status of a public celebrity. Think Donald Trump or Jack Welch or Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. An assertive personality likely gained a person points in Molière’s time as well. It was, however, where one stood in the good favor of the king that ultimately brought success, as Eileen Warburton points out in her essay. That was what promoted and occasionally saved Molière himself. But Arnolphe discovers to his horror that the very talents and character traits that brought him success in his public life are utterly useless at home.
With the technology available to us today, our own efforts to perfect our world really do result in moving mountains, changing the course of rivers, and flying to the moon. Technology has also become a tool in our efforts to perfect ourselves in our private lives. Today’s 60 year old looks younger and is more active than his or her counterpart in Molière’s day, or even in the mid-20th century. While much of that can be attributed to a healthier diet and exercise, technology plays a principal role as well. Youth-prolonging drugs and cosmetic surgery have become the weapons of choice for putting off the inevitable predations of age. If Arnolphe had had access to Botox and Viagra and maybe a brow lift, he would have felt better armed for the struggle and might just possibly have been a little more successful in fending off Horace’s amorous advances toward Agnes. But alas, armed with just his own “haggard face,” the desperate Arnolphe resorts to groveling before Agnes, and that serves only to make him even less appealing to her.
That obsession with youth has afflicted men for centuries, even millennia. Ancient Greek and Roman comedies frequently featured the late middle-aged father foolishly panting after his son’s girlfriend, a tradition made familiar to us in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was an archetype that Molière inherited and enthusiastically embraced. “In that boy’s presence, what hell I undergo,” whines Arnolphe at the end of the first act. Underneath their youthful good looks, he warns Agnes, young men are “all scales and talons…devils of the vilest sort.” In more recent cultural and social norms, that mockery of preening, prowling middle aged men is less evident. The cartoonist Peter Arno made a whole career from the 1930s to the 1950s out of skewering ridiculous older men’s pathetic flirtations with preternaturally nubile young women.
If that older man-younger woman scenario hasn’t changed much in fifty or a hundred or two thousand years, what the 20th and 21st centuries have given us is greater acceptance of older woman-younger man pairings. In classical times, that was a recipe for disaster. Phaedra fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus and nothing good came of it. By the 1930s though, screwball comedies featured rich older women who kept pampered younger men right under their husbands’ noses (My Man Godfrey, The Women) to audiences’ unending delight. Sunset Blvd (1950) portrayed a more troubling version of the same relationship.
Today we are more accepting of this phenomenon and even have an admiring name for women who are drawn to younger men. Cougars. In recent popular culture, these women have many faces: nurturing (Summer of ’42), needy (The Last Picture Show), playful (Desperate Housewives), predatory (The Graduate), tragic (The Reader) and in its most extreme example, just plain weird (Harold & Maude). In what passes for real life, Demi Moore (48) and Ashton Kutcher (32) have been the poster couple for cougardom in our popular culture.
Poor Arnolphe, born too early to see his plan bear fruit. But if he had been successful, wed Agnes and filed away the cuckold’s horns, we might never have gotten to know him. Molière knew what his audience wanted. And 350 years later, we still want it and still get it. They will probably still be laughing at his foibles 350 years from now. Arnolphe is secure forever, not in the way he planned, but in the pantheon of great humor and great literature.
The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.