Thursday, 6 February 2014

Molière, the Masters of Sex and the tragedy that is life itself

When Dorothy Parker was writing screenplays for Sam Goldwyn, he became upset at her refusal to write anything with a happy ending – the kind that produced films which made money.

‘I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn,’ Parker told him, ‘but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.’

It was when I saw a fine film about the life of the French playwright Molière that I realised all you had to do to write a tragedy: give the story of an entire life.

Molière’s life, I have to say, is a particularly egregious example: he more or less ran away from home to join a troupe of travelling actors, whose leading lady, Madeleine Béjart, became co-director of the company with him and also his mistress. There came a point when Madeleine absented herself for some time and returned with a baby girl, Armande, whom she introduced as her sister. Molière and she brought Armande up and, once she was an adult, Molière married her. To this day, no one knows for sure whether he married his own daughter, though it’s possible that she was Madeleine’s illegitimate daughter by another lover.

Molière’s relationship with Madeleine didn’t end in spite his marriage, which was just as well: Armande gave him a terrible time, falling for any minor sprig of the nobility who tipped his hat at her. Madeleine was Molière’s comforter through bad times, which made her death a particularly harsh blow in a life which had a great many painful events.

Molière: great comedies
but his life was no laughing matter
A year to the day after Madeleine’s death, Molière appeared in the leading role of his own play, the Imaginary Invalid. The audience was astounded by the quality of his performance: you could have believed he was dying on stage. Members of the company watching from the wings, however, weren’t fooled: they knew he was dying. Immediately after the final curtain call, they whipped him off the stage and back home, but it was too late to save him. 

Dying on the anniversary of the loss of his lifelong partner, with whose daughter he’d had a joyless marriage. What more does one need for tragedy?

These thoughts came back to me recently when I finished listening to Masters of Sex, Thomas Maier's biography of William Masters and Virginia Johnson. They were the people who carried out the first extensive and scientific study of human sexual behaviour, debunking a whole range of thoroughly damaging myths about sexuality that had been entertained for countless generations before them.

Masters and Johnson eventually married, but twenty years later Masters divorced her – because he had met again the woman whom he had hoped to marry while he was still a medical student half a century earlier. The story he told was that he had personally flown his private plane several hours to find her the flowers she most liked, while she was in hospital. When he got back, however, visiting hours were over and he had to leave them with a nurse – who apparently never delivered them.

By the time he returned to the hospital the following day, she had already been discharged and, convinced of his indifference – after all, as far as she knew, he hadn’t bothered to visit her while she was ill – she soon married someone else.

At the end of his life, as Parkinson’s was taking hold of him, he tried to rekindle his young man’s dream. At that stage, he and Johnson were coming to terms with the fact that the clinic they’d founded, while highly successful scientifically and medically, was never going to be a business and that they were going, both of them, to live their final years in comfort but not in wealth.

Johnson therefore found herself alone as she entered old age, while Masters was in the grip of a debilitating disease which ultimately killed him. Johnson inherited all the papers of the clinic when it closed but finding it burdensome to keep paying $300 a month to store them, she eventually destroyed hundreds of casenotes of sexual observation and treatment and thousands of hours of tapes.

Masters and Johnson: hit the peaks but then sank
Both died in reduced, saddened circumstances, after achieving a great deal but having known the disappointment of not leaving the legacy they’d hoped for. ‘Billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending,’ as Dorothy Parker pointed out. They were just two more. As Molière was another.

All it takes to make a tragedy: a life seen through to its end...


Anonymous said...

You and Dorothy Parker are right of course. In the same spirit, didn't Enoch Powell say that all political careers end in failure?


David Beeson said...

Yes, and it's one of the few of his comments that I'm happy to quote - I rather regret not having included it in this post. Most apposite, and well pointed out, San