Broadway Features and Reviews
The Philanthropist: Twisting Moliere
By Daniel Luzer, Broadway Magazine
Moliere's 1666 play The Misanthrope is often considered one of the funniest plays written in any language. The story concerns Alceste, a character whose dislike for hypocrisy is so intense that he rejects polite social conventions and believes in being brutally honest all the time.
British playwright Christopher Hampton was so fascinated with the comedy that he decided to turn Moliere's play around, creating a title character who aims to please everyone and apologizes for everything that happens. "I always divide people into two groups," Hampton once said. "Those who live by what they know to be a lie, and those who live by what they believe, falsely, to be the truth." Written as a response to Moliere's The Misanthrope, The Philanthropist was first performed at the Royal Court in London in 1970. The bourgeois comedy, examining social and moral principles, looks at the narrow lives of intellectuals.
The Philanthropist centers on Philip, an Oxford academic and lecturer in philology who is a linguistics genius and works out unusual and intricate anagrams for fun. He is also nice, very nice. So nice, in fact, that he failed at teaching English literature because, so positive about everything, he could not criticize effectively. The Philanthropist begins with Philip and a colleague tutoring a student. Later, friends come for a dinner party where Philip handles himself awkwardly, as he does with all social situations.
Meanwhile, outside of academia, terrorists have assassinated the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Next on the list are England's 25 most eminent writers, who are being murdered one by one. One guest of Philip's, a successful novelist, does not know if he should be "relieved or insulted" that he is not targeted.
The Philanthropist premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1970 and opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1971. It was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. In the original production, The Philanthropist was set in a dystopian 'Near Future.' In subsequent performances that future simply became the present.
The Philanthropist is set to return to Broadway this spring. Tony winner Matthew Broderick will play Philip in the Roundabout Theatre Company 2009 production of Hampton's play.
The production will begin previews on April 10, 2009. While the play is now almost 40 years ago, the biting humor of The Philanthropist, like that of The Misanthrope, proves to hold up well over time.
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