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The Bourgeois Gentleman

Term Definition
The Bourgeois Gentleman

The title of the play the Bourgeois Gentleman, by Moliere, actually contains a contradiction in terms. That is: a member of a bourgeoisie could by definition not be a gentleman in 17th-century France, because a gentleman was nothing other than a member of the aristocracy. Moliere thus sought to criticize both the pretentiousness of the middle class in wanting to be aristocratic and the snobbery of the aristocracy in holding to their own status. 

Summary Of The Bourgeois Gentleman 

The Bourgeois Gentleman—English for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme—is a comedic ballet by French playwright Molière (1622-1673) with music by Italian-French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). Comprised of five acts, the play was premiered on Oct. 14, 1670, before Louis the Great at the Château of Chambord in the heart of France.

The play centers on the character of Monsieur Jourdain, a middle-aged bourgeois man whose sole aim in life is to rise up into the upper class. To that end, he has taken up song and dance—exclusive pastimes of that era's nobility—while donning foppish clothing and affecting an upper-crust dialect; all practices that make the husband/father look foolish, as recurrently pointed out by his wife. His daughter, Lucille, wishes to wed the middle-class Cléonte, but Jourdain objects, as the elder wants his girl to marry an aristocrat. Cléonte overcomes this by disguising himself as the son of a Turkish sultan and—upon gaining Jourdain's blessing— marries Lucille in a lavish, albeit ridiculous ceremony.

The Bourgeois Gentleman - Themes

The Bourgeois Gentleman lampoons 17th century concepts of upward mobility and high-brow pretension. The title was intended as an oxymoron, since the word "gentlemen" referred exclusively to men born to nobility in French Renaissance society; thus "gentleman" and "bourgeois" (middle class) were mutually exclusive terms in Molière's time.

As with many theatrical works of its era, The Bourgeois Gentleman abounds with references to the Ottoman Empire. In that sense, the play stands as an example of les turqueries: an imitation of Turkish art and culture that was popular in Western Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. The trend was supercharged during a 1669 visit of Louis XIV by Ottoman ambassador Suleiman Aga, who caused a scandal by dressing casually for the meeting and refusing to bow before the King. Banished to Paris, the Turk set up a coffee house with the waiters donning Ottoman-style attire.

Additional background information

Choreographed by dance notationist Pierre Beauchamp, with set constructions by Italian designer Carlo Vigarani, the initial run of The Bourgeois Gentleman featured some of the finest actors of Versailles, including Molière himself in the role of Jourdain. Further performances commenced at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris on Nov. 23, 1670.

In 1912, the play was adapted for the German-speaking market under the title Der Bürger als Edelmann by Austrian dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929). Featuring music by Romantic composer Richard Strauss, this newer version initially tried to incorporate Ariadne auf Naxos, an operatic sequence with alternate plot twists, but this was soon extracted from the play and staged as an independent work. 

Beginning in 1932, Russian choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) began staging modernized versions of The Bourgeois Gentleman, the first of which featured the Original Ballet Russe, which included the famed dancing talents of David Lichine and Tamara Toumanova, among others. After moving stateside in 1934, Balanchine continued staging versions of the play on through to the 1970s. When the choreographer fell ill by that decade's end, theatre producer Jerome Robbins took the reins for a much-acclaimed New York City Opera staging.

In 2005, The Bourgeois Gentleman was restored to its original form by director Benjamin Lazar and choreographer Cecil Roussat in collaboration with Le Poème Harmonique. Staged at the Utrecht Baroque Festival, historians have referred to this production—which had Jourdain absurdly attired to absolute authenticity—as the most faithful of all to Molière and Lully's 1670 concept.

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