Have you ‘met’ the sixteenth-century French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne yet? Reading Sarah Bakewell’s book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer set Michael Barry off on a journey of discovery that led to his new play The First Modern Man. Learn more in the second of our three-part series with him – and then get booking!
Michael Barry‘s new one-man play The First Modern Man, about French Renaissance philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), gets its full-length premiere at London’s The Hen & Chickens Theatre running from 19 February to 2 March 2019, with a press night on 21 February. Jonathan Hansler stars as the sixteenth-century melancholic French noble, directed by Helen Niland.
Michel de Montaigne wanted to retire to a contemplative life – but he had too much on his mind. He wrote his ideas down as a way of coping with melancholy and, by doing so, created the essay.
Barry’s The First Modern Man is set in de Montaigne’s library where, as his guest, we share the thoughts of a humane, clever, funny commentator on whatever comes into his mind: sex, cannibals, philosophy, death, witches, life, foreign travel, coaches, thumbs, colonialism, judicial torture, even ‘world’ music – and his cat.
The First Modern Man runs from 19 February to 2 March 2019 at the Hen & Chickens Theatre, 109 St Paul’s Road, London N1 2NA, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are priced £8-£12. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!
Michael Barry: Meeting Montaigne
I first discovered Michel de Montaigne when a friend gave me Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I thought this sixteenth-century Frenchman sounded very interesting: open-minded; curious; humane; witty; and extraordinarily honest.
I bought The Essays, and from then on, I was a fan. I felt both admiration and kinship. I think this is a common response; he seems to create a closeness with his readership. I thought I was unique in feeling that Montaigne was like me, until I came across an article by Bernard Levin, in which he says that all Montaigne’s readership has this experience. He disarms by his directness.
I wanted to write a play about him for several reasons. Firstly, I felt I wanted more people in the UK to know about his remarkable Frenchman. It seemed very odd to me that the only people who seemed to know about Montaigne were those who’d studied French literature. This is strange because he invented the essay form – and this is a form in which English writers excel. It seems to agree with us, that short piece in which a recognizable character muses about an idea, or event, or problem in a way that engages us as much by the personality of the writer, as the arguments deployed. Think of G.K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf….
Montaigne invented the essay form – and this is a form in which English writers excel
But the more I thought about Montaigne, the more areas of our lives he seemed to touch. You can trace a line from him through Descartes to Sartre; all that focus on the individual started with him. We take it for granted now with so many personal ‘thought pieces’ in papers and on blogs. But our individualism – which seems so natural – started with him. This itself is a massive contribution to philosophy and culture and would merit a play on its own.
But then he did so much else. Europe hunted ‘witches’ with a bloody fervour; I’ve read somewhere that over 100, 000 (mainly women) were executed. His was a voice pointing out that the issue was one of mental health, not demonic worship. Imagine opposing judicial torture at a time when cutting tongues out, smashing bones on a wheel, and burning at the stake, were routine methods?
Our individualism – which seems so natural – started with Montaigne
Montaigne wrote against it. Even though he was a noble – which would have made it a bit easier – it always takes guts to go against the flow. Imagine saying that the colonizers were the barbarians, not the native peoples, when the New World seemed a huge new treasure house to plunder? He wrote with a courage and directness and humanity that I love. I hope my play in a small way helps him be better known.
The structure of the play is based upon my own experience of meeting the man, if I can put it that way. Although there are lots of characters I could have brought in: his friend, Etienne de la Boetie; his wife and mother, both enigmas whom it would have been fascinating to explore; Marie de Gournay, his arch fan, editor, and possibly mistress. This would have been a very different play.
The structure of the play is based upon my own experience of meeting the man
Bringing in more characters would in some way have reduced the experience of Montaigne himself. Making a plot, working on the interplay between characters and so on, would have left less time for the man himself. It seems to me that encountering Montaigne is a very personal, intimate, conversational experience, and that is what I wanted to create by making a one-character piece.
I hope I’ve given some idea of what was around him in his world: the series of shots which echo through the play; the interruptions by unseen servants and countrymen; even the miaowing of his cat. Overall though, I wanted to keep the quiet, close conversational tone, which is how I think most of us readers experience Montaigne.