The Learned Ladies

Court Theatre

Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards

Court Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Court Theatre has often produced shows in rep, usually to underscore some similarity between the two. Twenty-two years ago I saw Hamlet one night and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s comic retelling of the tragedy from the point of view of the two court weasels, the next. In another season Court ran The Beggar’s Opera with Alan Ayck-bourn’s comedy A Chorus of Disapproval, about a provincial theater company trying to produce John Gay’s play.

But when Charles Newell took over Court’s helm from Nicholas Rudall six years ago, he made producing shows in rep a yearly rather than occasional event. Under the Newell regime, what usually happens is that the two shows compete for critical praise and audiences, and eventually one “wins” and gets extended.

This practice has proved to be good business, virtually guaranteeing that one of the shows will be a hit–or at least will seem to be. But it hasn’t always made for good art. Some years it wasn’t easy to see why the two shows had been paired. Last year, for instance, Lillian Hellman’s naturalistic 1939 drama The Little Foxes played in rep with David Hirson’s witty, postmodern La Bete, a play written in 1991 in the style of a 17th-century verse comedy.

This year, however, Newell has chosen two pieces–a 17th-century French comedy and a contemporary adaptation of an 18th-century Japanese puppet play–that work together remarkably well, each illuminating the other.

Moliere’s The Learned Ladies is a perfectly elegant, entertaining little work, especially in Richard Wilbur’s graceful translation. This is classic Moliere, with a deluded authority figure, a good-hearted daughter, a flamboyant hypocrite who’s also an unworthy suitor, and a worthy man the daughter would like to marry. The story might not be as strong as the one Moliere spins in The Misanthrope or Tartuffe, but he still manages to get in a few nice digs at 17th-century eggheads in general and Parisian literary society in particular. Having done that, he’s free to focus on the business of uniting the right people.

Some directors try to make Moliere something he’s not, either by tarting him up with lots of slapstick or by emphasizing his serious side to the detriment of the comedy. As director, Newell follows a more graceful path, winning laughs when Moliere clearly wants them but also making us care, if only a little, for his characters.

By contrast puppet-play master Chikamatsu Monzaemon wants us to care a great deal about the protagonists of Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards. In this sublime, poetic–and, in the less pejorative sense of the word, sentimental work–Chikamatsu paints a portrait of Japanese court life of the late Heian era, 600 years before his time. As the program for the show points out, this period represented the calm before the storm, a time of peaceful feudal rule that was followed by four centuries of unrest.

Chikamatsu’s play, also directed by Newell, emphasizes the extreme courtliness of this life; no one, not even the lord of the manor, is permitted to state his feelings directly in public. Much of the plot revolves around the proper and improper ways of getting what one wants. The most direct character, the Iago-like court adviser Morotaka (played magnificently by John Reeger), is the play’s villain. His desire for the fair Karumo is far too overt, and his draconian methods of getting her are based on a passionate need for revenge. The two pairs of lovers at the center of the story, on the other hand, have perfected the art of indirection. They clearly yearn for each other but endure all kind of privations, including a six-year exile from the court, before they’re allowed to couple.

At first glance it’s hard to see what this sweet, slow-moving Japanese drama has in common with Moliere’s comedy. But watching the two plays back-to-back it’s hard not to see striking parallels. For one, both are very much about the battle between propriety and authenticity, duty and desire, giri (“obligation”) and ninjo (“passion”), as the Japanese put it.

Both plays are the products of hierarchical societies bound by traditions and rules–France during the Sun King’s zenith and Tokugawa-era Japan, unified by an autocratic military state. And in each country a rising merchant class was just beginning to upend the aristocracy. In each country the bourgeois had fewer political rights than their lords but were accumulating wealth at a rate that would soon make them a class to be reckoned with. Moliere wrote plays for the aristocracy about a middle class with comic aristocratic pretensions while Chikamatsu portrayed the milieu of the merchant middle class–still peasants at the time–as a place where the lovers could find themselves and happiness.

In each play the battle between desire and duty is paralleled by a more understated battle between traditional and new ways of doing things. A proper French girl of Moliere’s time would have submitted to her parents, married the schmuck they picked for her, and accepted without question the inevitable awful wedded life. But she may also have yearned for more freedom in choosing a spouse.

In the era that Chikamatsu describes, court customs would have kept samurai Yoshitsugu and lady-in-waiting Karumo apart, especially once it became clear that the higher-ranking Morotaka had designs on her. But as Chikamatsu notes with regret over and over, that old, proper world is falling apart. His fantasy court is led by an impossibly wise, selfless, and clever lord and lady, but it’s not hard to read between the lines and see that they represent a tradition already more honored in the breach than in the observance. Like Moliere, Chikamatsu offers us flawed protagonists who’ve learned how to play the system: they conform to duty and thereby earn a right to their passions.

This battle between order and desire is played out as much in the structure of these two plays as it is among the characters. Both playwrights were themselves bound by tradition and rules. Moliere wrote The Learned Ladies entirely in rhymed couplets, a technique that effectively put the brakes on both passion and comedy, guaranteeing that we never feel a great flood of passion or fall out of our seats laughing. Living in our sitcom-besotted age, it’s hard not to be impatient with how long it takes Moliere to tell a joke. Sometimes his setups take so long we no longer care about the punch line when it comes.

Likewise Chikamatsu’s work, as adapted by British playwright and poet Peter Oswald, is rigid and rule bound, full of elaborate, sometimes obscure metaphors and symbols–for example, the reappearance throughout the story of a titmouse. Chikamatsu’s simple “samurai meets girl, samurai loses girl, samurai gets girl” story takes forever to unfold. He interrupts the flow of the tale with events at court (including a round of the game of poem cards mentioned in the show’s title) and several intensely beautiful monologues delivered by the moon.

Yet the literary forms that bound Moliere and Chikamatsu also enabled certain subtleties of expression that might have been lost in louder, more direct storytelling. Especially in Moliere, the ornate, formal language heightens the intensity of small physical gestures. It’s amazing how quickly and efficiently he makes clear that his protagonist, Henriette, will be happy only with Clitandre. Or how moving it is when Yoshitsugu and Karumo embrace at the end of Fair Ladies.

In our noisy, overly eroticized culture we’re not used to seeing such powerful but quiet moments. I hope Newell and company won’t have to choose between these two elegant, subtle beauties, because each of them makes us appreciate the strengths of the other.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow/Lisa Ebright.