Sean Dixon

Molière, Nomi & The Cold Genius

I’ve never been much of a social satirist, though I still hold out some hope. One of my hands down heroes is the great French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière.

My admiration started when I was a student, when I was called upon to play the role of Moliere in a play by Mikhail Bulgakov about the difficulty of being an artist under the thumb of a tyrant — in Moliere’s case Louis XIV (though this Sun King bore no small resemblance to Bulgakov’s own colossal irritant — or irritating colossus — Joseph Stalin).

In preparation for putting on our play, we were obliged to view a four-hour biopic of Molière’s life, made by the great French theatre director, Ariane Mnouchkine and starring Philippe Caubère in the performance of a lifetime.

The movie features grand countryside vistas and cinematic scenes in bustling marketplaces (including, if I remember correctly, a man flying high above the city with a pair of mechanical wings) showing how comfortable and capable Mnouchkine was with the medium…

But its climax is contained, very theatrically, in a stairwell, with the players in Molière’s company carrying their tubercular actor-manager up to a destination that will never be reached. One gets the distinct impression, watching, that the players are running up and down and up and down on the same two or three steps, the way one might perform such a scene onstage.

Molière’s death is one of the most famous ever recorded in the annals of the theatre. He was in the middle of a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire, a play about a hypochondriac, when he collapsed onstage, coughing up blood. He got up and completed the performance before collapsing again and being carried home to his death, still in make-up and costume. He died with his show-must-go-boots on.

Ariane Mnouchkine, “Moliere,” (1978)

The thing that amazes me now, looking at this clip twenty some odd years later, is the fact that the actors are so young. They’re younger than the parts they’re playing at this point in their lives. When I first saw the film, I was playing parts like this too, with greasepaint and streaks of white in my hair. So it’s a part of this film’s tribute to the theatre that I failed to notice the first time around. How could I? I was younger than they were. But the film gives actors a chance to act — to project themselves out of themselves — rather than merely present slight variations on themselves, which is how actors are most often obliged to behave in contemporary cinema.

The music, which I heard for the first time watching this scene, is the famous aria of the Cold Genius from Purcell’s opera King Arthur. The aria is also known as The Cold Song, and it was famously ripped off by Michael Nyman for his soundtrack to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover — an accomplished movie albeit unloved by me…

Peter Greenaway, “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,” (1989)

Nyman claims to have transformed Purcell’s aria by repeating the phrase countless times in a minimalist fashion. But it has always seemed to me that Purcell was just as aware of the power of minimalism in his day as Shakespeare and Cervantes were of the power of postmodernism in theirs. Just because somebody coined a term, doesn’t mean the action it describes did not previously exist. Language might have power, but it shouldn’t have the power to erase history. That’s just Orwellian.

I want to be clear. I’ve got no problem with borrowings, literary or musical. What bothers me about this one is the notion that Nyman thinks he has boiled something down to its essence — through the use of this term minimalism — which Purcell had already boiled down to its essence. Like he learned something from the man and then turned around and claimed to have made it up himself.

Nyman’s take is also less stirring, less beautiful, less. It’s mediocre, more akin to Mnouchkine’s depiction, if I remember correctly, of Lully.

Before Nyman, the Cold Genius aria had already been rendered with great (ahem) minimalist power in a performance by Klaus Nomi, who recorded his own chillingly beautiful take on it not long before his death.

Klaus Nomi in Henry Purcell’s, “The Cold Song,” (1979)

Recently, when I posted the climactic scene from Mnouchkine’s film on Facebook, somebody wrote to say I should check out the Nomi version. I think I’d heard it once long ago, perhaps even before I saw the Molière film, but I didn’t put the two together until just that moment.

Thus we have Nyman’s mediocre composition book-ended by two great performances of the brilliant piece of music from which it cribbed.

I sympathize with Nyman though. I really do. I know what it’s like to labour in the shadow of genius. I had to contend with the problem every night I played the Molière part. I would begin the performance inadequately, stepping alone into a spotlight and trying to perform a solo bit designed to portray the man’s improvisational ability and comic timing. Night after night, I failed.

The director, Alexander Hausvater, finally pointed out to me, with some exasperation, that by the end of the show I always had command of the ensemble and could always pull of a variation on the solo opening bit, this time from Le Malade Imaginaire, without any problems at all. I always had the audience in the palm of my hand. Could I not please bring the expertise I had acquired by the end of the play to the start of the play?

I could not. Nor did my awareness of this irony help me in any way. I never got it at the start. I always had it by the end.

The truth was, it took a full two hours traffic to teach me how to be anything like this man.

Perhaps, if I had learned, like Nyman, to stand on the shoulders of greatness, rather than honouring it in the manner of Klaus Nomi, I might have fared better. In my efforts to rise to Molière’s level rather than pulling him down to mine, I only got it a little bit right.

But I cherish that little bit. It’s a little bit of genius. Not cold genius either. I still recall the heat of it. And it’s all mine.

– Sean Dixon

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Sean Dixon is a novelist, playwright, and actor. His novels include "The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn" and "The Girls Who Saw Everything" ("The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal" in the U.S. and the U.K.) — named one of the Best Books of 2007 by Quill & Quire. His plays have been produced in Canada, the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and three have been collected in "AWOL: Three Plays for Theatre SKAM." There is also his drama, "A God in Need of Help."