Michel de Montaigne is credited with inventing the essay writing form. What would he have made of the proliferation of today’s equivalent blogging and vlogging? How might he have voted in the EU Referendum? In the final instalment of our three-part series, The First Modern Man imagines the sixteenth-century thinker tackling these 21st-century phenomena. Plus, did you see him on London Live? Watch here – 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: Montaigne in the 21st century
Montaigne would have been astonished by the current blogging/vlogging/social media frenzy. He must have been aware of how his contemporaries (some of them, anyway) regarded his truthful accounts of his life as rather odd, vulgar, and not quite ‘the thing’. However, the outpourings of self and ideas which we have all around us would have struck him – I think – as far too much of a good thing.
The outpourings of self and ideas which we have all around us would have struck him as far too much of a good thing.
He believed in honesty; but I also think he would have recognised indulgence when he saw it. Certainly, he would not have understood cults of popular celebrity. After all, his family, from his great grandfather onwards, had their eye on the prize of nobility. It was Montaigne who first adopted as his usual signature ‘Michel de Montaigne’ not using his family name of Eyquem. He was indicating his noble status. In his essays, he at least once refers casually to his family having had the estate for over 100 years. This is not an accident.
He believed in honesty; but I also think he would have recognised indulgence when he saw it.
In France at that time, living without paying taxes (that is, from the produce and profits of your own estate) was one of the tests by which a family was accepted as noble. I think he would have seen celebrity as something spurious and ignoble. But no matter how surprised he would have been, he would have written about these new things with humour, wit, a knowledge of the historical context, and humanity.
One of the reasons I’ve written The First Modern Man now is that I feel, as I think most do, that the debates around Brexit have become unnecessarily vicious; there seems to be a need to denigrate and belittle the other side and calm argument has become very rare.
I suspect – but am not completely sure – that Montaigne would have been a Remainer
I suspect – but am not completely sure – that Montaigne would have been a Remainer. He believed he had family connections in England and seems generally to have been a bit of an Anglophile. He notes the upset and religious turmoil caused since Henry VIII. Other things being equal, he sees the benefits of supporting the status quo.
But I am sure he would have recognized argument on both sides, and he certainly wasn’t afraid of difficult choices. He says: “Leaving a bad state for an uncertain one, is always a good choice.” And that is an argument that supports the Brexiteers.
Watch: Michael on London Live
“He wrote about himself with an honesty that was completely new”… Michael Barry shares more thoughts on Michel de Montaigne – including on melancholy, mental health, the meaning of ‘essay’ and possible plagiarism care of Shakespeare – in this fascinating interview with London Live.