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ABOUT THE PLAY

Molière's penultimate play, The Learned Ladies (six men, five women), bears a striking resemblance in its structure and story to Tartuffe. That is to say, he stole from himself. At the time he wrote it, he was old, sick, and out of favor with the king. He needed to poke fun at a group unable to poke back. Where better to go than the women's movement of the 17th-century? Molière installed the mother of the house in place of Orgon, and the character of Trissotin in the place of the infamous religious hypocrite. Of course, as with most of Molière's plays, there is an imminent forced marriage between the villain and an unwilling daughter. This particular Molière opus is infrequently performed, even in the fine classical translations available, because, well, women have come a long way baby, and the play seems horribly sexist if it is translated as written.

This adaptation was written to be performed in a stylized 20th-century setting. Just about any time between 1910 and the present will work. The language, although in verse, is modern and needs a setting and style conducive to its tone. However the productions at Classic Stage Company and ACT utilized a fantasy period. Hence, the women wore stylized panniers over pants. This particular approach should be done only with an elaborate budget to support the fantasy. Other productions have utilized New Orleans during women's suffrage, the 1950s in Paris, and of course the women's movement of the 1970s.

The story: Philamente and her daughter Armande are rabid supporters of the new intellectual movement among women. In her overzealous zeal, Philamente has taken in an impoverished poet who is ready to take her in. She wants to marry her younger daughter Henriette to him so that he will improve her mind. She wants to marry the handsome and slightly reactionary Clitandre, who was in love with her older sister until she spurned him for intellectual pursuits. Add to this a meek husband, a loony if lovable sister, a practical brother-in-law and a couple of mouthy servants and you have the makings of a sprightly evening of theater (see reviews!). Judge for yourself as you read the sample scene.


LEARNED LADIES CAST
(in order of intelligence)

 

MARTINE: the maid, street smart and sassy (any age)
LEPINE: a houseboy (can be played as a female) (20s-30s)
ARISTE: Brother to Chrysale, the voice of reason (50s)
HENRIETTE: Daughter to Chrysale & Philamente, sweet (20s)
CLITANDRE: Henriette’s suitor, hotheaded but a good guy (30s)
TRISSOTIN: a house guest and a bad poet (40s)
VADIUS: another poet, rival to Trissotin (30s)
JUDGE: played by Vadius
PHILAMENTE: wife of Chrysale, a liberated woman (50s)
ARMANDE: Older sister of Henriette, a wannabe liberated woman (30s)
BELISE: Sister to Chrysale, very eccentric but lovable (60s)

 

SCENE SAMPLE

The following scene between ARMANDE and BELISE, followed by ARMANDE and HENRIETTE, opens the play.

(At curtain rise we are in the living room of CHRYSALE and PHILAMENTE, a bourgeois couple, or in its modern terms, upper middle-class. Their home has been "decorated" in the latest neo -- intellectual fashion. Books hang festoon from abundant shelves. Strange scientific equipment seems to be the style du jour. There is a telescope on the balcony. BELISE is discovered dancing. The servants move about the room reading books, except for Martine who cleans. The servants are unaware that BELISE is dancing with them. And HENRIETTE enters and watches her aunt for a few moments. The servants exit. BELISE sees HENRIETTE.)

BELISE

Hello, my darling!

HENRIETTE

     Aunt Belise!

BELISE

                                                Come dance!

HENRIETTE

What dance is this?

BELISE

                                    A dance of sweet romance,

Or dark and tragic love.

HENRIETTE

                                    No, please let's see

A dance of marital festivity!

            (She takes a piece of lace and covers her head to make a veil)

BELISE

How lovely, deer.  With someone by your side,

You'll make a very, very charming bride.

ARMANDE

            (entering)

Well, this is quite a spectacle!

BELISE

                                                Hello!

ARMANDE

What's going on in here, I'd like to know.

BELISE

Come join our dance, my dear, and you will see!

ARMANDE

No thanks, such foolishness is not for me.

BELISE

Your sister’s far too serious!

HENRIETTE

                                                Alas!

BELISE

(seeing her handsome, well built


Buddhist scripture teacher in the doorway)

Oh dear, I've got to go, I'm late for class!

ARMANDE

What's this about?

HENRIETTE

                                    What?

ARMANDE

                                                This!  A marriage veil?

HENRIETTE

Why not?

ARMANDE

               Because you might as well choose jail.

You'd give up all the joys of single life?

HENRIETTE

I see great joy in being someone's wife.

ARMANDE

I must sit down.  My sister' s gone insane.


The very thought!

HENRIETTE

                                    But why should I her recent train

My natural choice?

ARMANDE

                                    It's vulgar, base and lowly.

HENRIETTE

The word that springs to mind for me is holy.

ARMANDE

How smug you are!  You know the great disdain

I feel for marriage!

HENRIETTE

Please, let me explain.


The images that I would choose to see


Are pleasant ones of home and family.


Myself, a husband, children in a nest


All filled with love and laughter, Heaven blessed!


And every night in bed between the sheets,


 I'm served a fantasy feast of nuptial treats.

ARMANDE

Revolting.

HENRIETTE

               It does not fill me with fright.

ARMANDE

It's sad how much your mind won't see the light.

HENRIETTE

Perhaps, but what's enlightened is my heart.


It does not wish to spend its life apart


From one whose filled it with such tenderness.


I am in love, I'm guilty, I confess!

ARMANDE



Good Lord, your mind’s in such a low estate


That you are telling me you choose this fate?


In household’s prison, asking to be locked


With spouse and screaming babies? Well, I’m shocked.


My dear, you must give up this foolish goal.


Through knowledge you will elevate your soul


And leave the burdens of domestic life


To other women, who enjoy the strife.


When one gets married, intellectual


Pursuits are simply ineffectual.


How can you think when all your time is spent


In housework and domestic argument?


Please, set your mind at high consideration


And think a bit of mother’s liberation.


The eyes of learnéd men are fast upon her,


And not with lust, but deference and honor.


I’d sing your praise as learned far and wide,


Before I’d stoop to sing, “Here Comes the Bride.”


Oh, Henriette, it’s truly rapturous


To study differential calculus!


It’s hard at first, but what a satisfaction


The first time you make sense of such abstraction!


Read Blaise Pascal on probability,


Boyle’s elements and Milton’s history,


And Newton’s orbit of the moon! It’s thrilling!


Such studies are rewarding and fulfilling.


This wealth of knowledge is what should inspire you,


And not some man, who thinks he might desire you,


And make you slave to laws devised by men.


Philosophy must be your husband then.


Its very nature serves to elevate


Our souls to heights at which we may create


Environs where our lust can have no sway,


Where carnal passions can be kept at bay.


Thus, thoughts of pleasure have no ill effects


And one can turn one’s back on S-E-X.

HENRIETTE

Sweet sister, from our Lord we’ve been ordained


With different functions. What is to be gained


From being something I’m not meant to be?


If you want to espouse philosophy,


The heights of worthy, learnéd speculation,


Then I wish to embrace domestication.


Let’s not disturb what Heaven has arranged.


I do not want my instincts to be changed.


I’m happy for you in your worldly flight


To great philosophy’s stupendous height,


But flying to me is one of those things


For which God would endow us all with wings


If we were meant to fly. So leave me here,


In earthly bliss and pure domestic cheer


To follow mother in her lesser role,


But one which helps to elevate her soul.

ARMANDE

If mothers whom you wish to imitate,


Then use her finer parts to best create


The model.

HENRIETTE

But, my sister, think on this:


We’d not be here if not for wedded bliss.


The basest parts of marriage, as you say,


Are what gave all of us the light of day,


And I, for one, applaud the time she chose a


Moment to forget Kant and Spinoza
.

Accept with grace this marriage that I want,


And soon I may produce a new savant


Here's what the critics had to say
about The Learned Ladies:

(Click on each review for pop-up window)

Steven Winn
San Francisco Chronicle, April 23rd, 1993

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Aileen Jacobson
New York Newsday, March 8, 1991

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Dennis Harvey
The Bay Guardian, April 28, 1993

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Pat Buck
Sarasota Review, May 1994

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Dorothy Smiljanich
Tampa Tribune, April 25, 1994

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John Beaufort
Christian Science Monitor, March 20th, 1991

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J. Handelman
Sarasota Herald Tribune, April 18, 1994

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Peter Haugen
Sacramento Bee, April 23, 1993