«Introduction I was eleven years old when I read Molière’s Amphitryon to myself for the first time; I laughed so hard that I fell over backwards. ...»
I was eleven years old when I read Molière’s Amphitryon
to myself for the first time; I laughed so hard that I fell
T roubled by ill health and by the continuing difficulties of
his play Tartuffe, a version of which was banned yet again in
August, Molière retreated for much of 1667 into a rented house
in Auteuil. What came of this retirement was Amphitryon, a play
very different from his other major comedies. Its characters
were not seventeenth-century French people but ancient Greeks, and Greek gods with Roman names; its comedy had not the consistent range and tone of, say, The School for Wives, but combined the flavors of vaudeville, of fantasy, of high comedy and even of opera; its medium was not the conventional alexandrine couplet, but a supple vers libre which could modulate easily between the several planes of Amphitryon’s comic action, and unite them. This novel offering, made all the more exciting by b B introduction the use of stage machines for “flying” the actors, was first presented at the Palais-Royal in January, 1668, and had at once a striking success.
The story of Amphitryon is an ancient one; both of Homer’s epics allude to it, and Hesiod recounts it. Essentially, it amounts to this: that the father of the gods (Jupiter, in Molière’s play) grows enamored once again of a mortal woman—in this case Alcmena, the wife of the Theban general Amphitryon; that during her husband’s absence in the field, Jupiter descends to earth, takes the form of Amphitryon, and is thus received into Alcmena’s bed; and that the result of their union is the demigod Hercules. Molière’s chief source for Amphitryon was a Latin tragicomedy of the second century B.C., the Amphitruo of Plautus, and he was influenced as well by Jean Rotrou’s prior French adaptation, Les Sosies (1636). It is generally agreed that Molière, though borrowing freely, made all borrowings his own, and that he conferred on all his material, old or new, a decisive unity, humanizing the deities of the tale and telling it entirely in the key of comedy.
The plot and subplot of this play tell how two gods, Jupiter and Mercury, usurp the identities of two mortals, Amphitryon and his valet Sosia. Because that creates a situation not only outrageous but (in modern times) incredible, the story belongs to the category of fantastic farce. Nevertheless, this farce has been found, by many readers and scholars, to embody a number of ponderable themes. One such theme, that of entrapment in one’s role, is introduced in the prologue by Night’s “old fashioned” insistence on Olympian decorum, and Mercury’s praise of Jove’s periodic refusal to “let the jeweled bounds of Heaven confine him.” The theme of constraint and convention recurs variously throughout the play, and especially in such a character as Sosia’s bitter wife Cleanthis, who, as she twice complains, is the prisoner of her conventional virtue. The title character himself may perhaps be seen as a prisoner of his precious honor.
b B introduction A second motif, which invites comparisons between Amphitryon and Molière’s Don Juan, is the high-handed amorality of the powerful, and their indifference to truth. Mercury assures Night in the prologue that morals apply only to “those of low degree,” and Sosia, in Act Two, Scene 1, makes it plain that the great require lies and flattery, and would have all fact and opinion tailored to their advantage. To the overbearing Amphitryon, Sosia says, “I’m the servant and you’re the master, Sir; / The truth shall be exactly what you please.” Above all, we observe a lordly amorality in Jupiter, who, for the sake of a night’s pleasure, disrupts the happy marriage of Alcmena and Amphitryon. A French critic argues that, since we the audience are privy to Jove’s imposture from the beginning, we feel superior to the baffled Amphitryon and enjoy a complicity with the god. That may in some measure or at some moments be true, but seigniorial license is not the ideal of the play, and Jupiter’s behavior should make us think, in modern terms, of something like Fitzgerald’s “vast carelessness” of the rich.
The warping effect of masters on servants is a third theme, and it is introduced at the outset by Mercury, who, despite his divinity, is Jove’s overworked and complaining lackey. Like all lackeys, Mercury has surrendered his individuality and exists to execute the will of another; when he boasts, he boasts of his association with the mighty: “I, who in Heaven and on earth am known / As the famed messenger of Jove’s high throne.” It may be assumed, I think, that in some of Mercury’s malicious treatment of Sosia or Amphitryon, he resembles the man who, having been bawled out at the office, comes home and kicks the dog.
But of course it is Sosia (the largest part in the play, and the one played by Molière) in whom the psychic cost of servitude is most fully shown. Intelligent but spineless, he clearly sees and says that his existence as “Amphitryon’s man” has meant the loss of true personality and a life of servile dissimulation. Not being his own man, Sosia is incapable of a free loyalty or a mature love; his b B introduction stunted emotional life consists in a solicitude for his physical self, in the form of gluttony, cowardice and narcissism; he further compensates himself by daydreaming (as when he imagines himself Alcmena’s valued courtier) and by the exercise of an insolent wit.
The three pervasive ideas I have mentioned all have to do with role and status, and so does a fourth one—the problem of identity. Identity does indeed become a problem when one is confronted with a living, breathing double, and Amphitryon and Sosia respond to the challenge very differently. Amphitryon sees himself as the world sees him—as an honored military hero and the husband of Alcmena. There is an absolute equation, in his mind, between himself and that image, and anyone else who pretends to it must be an impostor deserving death. Sosia’s response is less simple, because in becoming Amphitryon’s mere instrument, and a “performer” in both senses of the word, he has already been estranged from an authentic self. Furthermore, he is more rational than the violent Amphitryon, and so can find himself addressing the question of who he is in a logical, inquiring and even philosophical way. Despite Sosia’s cowardice, his double Mercury cannot quite manage to expropriate his name, and his role as “Amphitryon’s man,” by brute force alone. In the latter part of Act One, Scene 2, however, the god demonstrates a total knowledge of Sosia’s present mission and message, his family history, his unhappy marriage and his record of petty crimes, leading the surprised Sosia to mutter, “Except by being Sosia, how / Could he know so much?” Sosia then studies Mercury’s person closely, finding it quite like his own, and discovers by interrogation that Mercury can remember, and claim to have done, a deed that Sosia did “when no one was around.” It now seems to Sosia that he has no rational, evidential ground for denying Mercury’s claim to his identity. Having made that concession, yet bothered still by the feeling that he “must be someone,” Sosia struggles thereafter to maintain that there can b
B introductionbe two Sosias in the world—Mercury meanwhile treating him as a non-person who is “on standby,” as we say, for an identity which he may have when Mercury is through with it.
One might gather, from what the characters are and say, that in the world of this play, old patterns of being are not viable; that identities are problematical; that the strong are cavalier and unprincipled, and their inferiors debased into pawns. In any age, comedy could convert such glum premises into laughter, but they had a special pertinence and bite in Molière’s day—a time, in France, of crumbling tradition and of forcefully imposed new order. Nigel Dennis’ hilarious novel Cards of Identity had a similar pertinence to the painfully transitional state of English society after World War II.
A final concern of Amphitryon, and its central core, is love and marriage. Sosia has not the emotional resources for married love, while Cleanthis is starved for tenderness and soured by the want of it; the quarrelsome scenes between this couple (including the one in which Mercury plays Sosia’s part) continually counterpoint the amorous dealings of their betters. Of these betters, the most complex is Jupiter. Though Mercury says that, in his descents to earth, Jupiter “lays his selfhood by” (sort tout à fait de lui-même) the person we meet in Act One, Scene 3 is quite simply Jupiter in disguise, pretending to be a Theban general— as Americans abroad pretend, sometimes, to be French or Italian. What this visitor seeks is sexual delight, emotional conquest, the opportunity to play-act and the connoisseural or touristic pleasure of sampling human feelings. This last is a chief objective when he comes onstage in Act Two, Scene 2, uttering
the following aside:
Because Jupiter, in posing as a mortal, has taken on no human limitations, those lines are not an expression of hopeful intent but a divine fiat; the words of Jove, as he will later say, “are the decrees of Fate,” and in this speech he has ordained what shall happen in the ensuing scene. Thus there is no sincerity or suspense in his suicide threats—how could there be?—but a great deal of manipulative cruelty, since Alcmena believes him to be her husband. The purpose of his wholly theatrical behavior is to enjoy the playing of a scene, and to savor both “her young tears” and his own mastery.
The one thing in Amphitryon that requires a bit of historical explanation is Jupiter’s insistent rigmarole about “the husband” and “the lover.” Many of the précieuses, or bluestockings, of Molière’s day had a proto-feminist disdain for the slavery of marriage and for its sensual aspect, and cultivated (instead of marriage, or in addition to it) platonic love-relationships of the highest spirituality and refinement. Molière’s The Learned Ladies (1672) was to mock this separation of marriage and love, husband and lover, in its portrayal of Armande. Meanwhile, the first audience of Amphitryon would have been amused to hear a highminded précieux distinction from one who had just accomplished a sly physical conquest. Does Jupiter suppose that his fancy talk of “husband” and “lover” will appeal to Alcmena? If so, he is, despite his omniscience, very imperceptive as to her character.
What such talk clearly does reflect is Jupiter’s comically balked desire to appropriate all of Alcmena’s love to himself, a thing he can scarcely expect to do while disguised as Amphitryon.
We might almost think, when we first see Amphitryon with Alcmena in Act Two, Scene 2, that Jupiter has preempted his “lover” side and left him nothing but “husband” qualities. He is strangely ready, from the beginning, to encounter some marital dissonance; and, hastening to mistrust his wife’s fidelity, he soon arrives at the state of rage (near-tragic in its tone) which he will maintain for the rest of the play. It is a brutal rage based in part b
B introductionon jealousy, and, to a greater extent, on the loss of his honor.
Since the play’s action, in which he is a victim throughout, does not show us Amphitryon’s more attractive aspects, we must try to remember that he is a handsome young hero, that Alcmena loves him deeply, that he must possess the charm and passion which Jove has imitated in order to deceive her, and that we, in his predicament, might do no better than he. Jules Vuillemin observes that Amphitryon’s stature, far nobler than that of the usual figure of comedy, causes his absurd fate to reflect satirically on the general human condition, and on us who witness it. We glimpse in him, perhaps, our derisory relationship to forces greater than ourselves.
Amphitryon’s love is possessive, in the sense that Alcmena is essential to his picture of himself. Cleanthis’s needy love is also possessive in its hopeless, badgering demand that Sosia do his marital “duty.” Jupiter’s love—if the word applies to Jupiter at all—is ruthless, exploitative and (strangely, since he is king of everything) self-aggrandizing. It is Alcmena who, though present in three scenes only, and absent from the whole third act, is the standard whereby the play’s other lovers are to be measured.
She is, quite simply, a perfect wife: beautiful, modest, warm, spirited, sensible, witty and honest, she conceives of married love as a happy mutual state in which both body and soul are given their due. She says, as Irving Singer puts it, “that she cannot and will not distinguish between lover and husband: her husband is her proper lover, and her lover must provide not only the pleasures of their mutual passion, but also the goods of a married life in common.” In a play full of users and used, and of manipulative lovers, Alcmena stands for the fact (as Cordelia does in Lear) that true and unselfish love can be.
It may seem a gross imbalance of structure that, in the play’s final scene, Alcmena is absent and Amphitryon mute. Yet Alcmena’s eloquent absence may serve to underline how little Jupiter’s “clearing of her name” could appease her horror at his b
B introductioncold, shallow deception. Amphitryon is speechless because, for all Jove’s “sugarcoating” and grand promises, and for all his own concern with prestige and appearances, his chief reaction is that of a violent man who bas been stunned by greater power. We may also read into Amphitryon’s silence his response, in Act Three, Scene 7, to Posicles’s suggestion that Alcmena may have
been quite blamelessly deceived:
Such errors, in whatever light one views them, Are bound to touch us where we live, And though our reason often may excuse them, Our honor and our love will not forgive.