In praise of bourgeois theater

LI loves Roland Barthes. But we don’t share all of Barthes’ tastes. For instance, Barthes said, in an interview, that he could never feel “close” to Molière. In Molière, he saw foreshadowed the bourgeois theater for which Barthes, famously, had extreme distaste. No Artaud or Brecht came out of Sganarelle’s pocket.

What came out of Molière’s pocket – Labiche, Nestroy, Offenbach – is oriented to a certain kind of laughter. For Barthes, this laughter came out of the smiling, healthy lips of the bourgeois as a sort of baying of the hounds. It was unlocked by simple contradiction: those contradictions which unfolded, tactically, as characters scheme to realize desires which are, on the surface, prohibited by the bourgeois order, but which turn out to be eminently subsumable under that order. That is, in fact, the function of the laugh – it is an acknowledgement of weakness and an acceptance of the underground order, that social supplement which drains off certain irrepressible desires. It is the humor of the wink, the humor of dinner theater, the humor of the suburban ethos depicted on the tv sitcom, in which hypocrisy is exposed not as a way of critiquing the system, but as a weapon to make the system seem total. Whatever doesn’t destroy you makes you weaker. And: everything you want is here, anyway.

So we understand Barthes dislike - and surely his view of Moliere as the ultimate bourgeois writer is influenced by Sainte-Beuve - but we don’t share it. We believe there is a certain aesthetic glory to the humor of the wink. But more than that, the great bourgeois farceurs throw a demonic light on the strategies of their characters, by which they turn the closed system into a Piranesian series of echo chambers. Barthes, we believe, never read Kraus – which is a shame. Kraus would have, perhaps, unlocked for him the dimension in Nestroy and Offenbach, and by inference, Molière, which Barthes seems to miss (besides which, we think the avant garde gesture of separating Brecht from Molière is foolish – Brecht is tied to cabaret, to the humor of Karl Valentin, for instance, by so many lilliputian threads that you can’t yank them out - and that humor in turn leads us inevitably back to Moliere).

In the essay, Nestroy and Posterity (der Nachwelt), Kraus writes:

“If art is not what they [the patrons of good taste] believe and allow, but is the distance between a spectacle and a thought, is the shortest connection between a gutter and the Milky Way, then there has never been a messenger under the German heavens quite like Nestroy. Evidently I mean, never among those that have reported, with a laughing face, that life is an ugly business. We will not disbelieve his message just because it arrives in a couplet. Nor because, in his hurry, he gave the hearer something catchy to sing, because he satisfied with contempt the needs of the public, in order to be able to think a little higher without being interfered with. Or because he wrapped his dynamite in cotton wool and only blew up his world after he had led it to firmly believe that it was the best of worlds; and because he had the spirit to lay on the shaving cream, when it was time for cutting necks ... although otherwise he didn’t wish to give anybody any trouble.”