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Molière

Molière

The French dramatist Molière (1622-1673) wrote comedies that range from simple farces to sophisticated satires. The master of French comedy, he was both the product and the critic of the French classical period.

As author, director, producer, manager, and actor, Molière lived fully the life of a man of the theater. His adventures can be understood only in this context, for his medium of expression, the theater, was also that which best gives expression to his life. The Paris of his day was alive with theatrical activity. Not only did the public attend his plays, but it also took sides for or against the playwright. His friends and enemies were divided along literary, rather than social, lines. Since he put a little of himself into each character he created, he was not exempt from personal attack when he offended the sensibilities of certain groups. Many of his enemies were powerful members of the court, and only because a number of his friends were also powerful figures was he able to continue writing and presenting his works. His comedies, which often dealt with exaggerated passions, evoked equally passionate responses from his audience. Against such a backdrop, the life of Molière was played out amidst intrigues and financial concerns both on and off the stage.

Molière, born Jean Baptiste Poquelin, was baptized in the church of St-Eustache in Paris on Jan. 15, 1622. His father, a member of the rising bourgeoisie, purchased the post of official furnisher (tapissier ordinaire du Roi) at the court. The young Jean Baptiste grew up in the shadow of the court, the most lively section of Paris. Like many of the great writers of his time, he was educated at the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit institution. There he received a solid classical background, and he may have known some of the future libertine thinkers, such as Pierre Gassendi and Cyrano de Bergerac. After finishing his secondary education, he studied law briefly and was admitted to the bar in 1641.

Choice of Vocation

At this point Molière was to take over his father's post at the court, but such was not to be the case. Ever since he was a small boy, he had been attracted to the theater. Tradition affords the image of the little boy grasping his grandfather's hand as they both watched the farces and tragedies at the Hôtel de Bourgogne or at the fair at Saint-Germain. When Tiberio Fiorelli, called Scaramouche, came to Paris in 1640, Molière struck up a warm friendship with the Italian actor-mime. He also met at this time a young actress, Madeleine Béjart, with whom he was to be associated until her death in 1672.

In 1643 Molière renounced the hereditary post his father held and chose instead the theater. Since the life of the theater was not considered very respectable, he assumed the name "Molière" in order to spare embarrassment to his family. That same year he signed on with the family of Madeleine Béjart and nine other actors, who formed a troupe known as the Illustre Théâtre. As the most recent of three Parisian companies, Molière and his friends fared very badly. In 1944, ridden by debts and having served two terms in debtors' prison, Molière was forced to abandon this venture. He and the Béjarts joined another company, whose tours were to take them all over France for the next 13 years. In 1650 Molière became the head of the troupe, and he managed to secure the patronage of the Prince of Conti.

Although little factual evidence of his travels and tribulations is available, it is certain that Molière and his itinerant players learned much in the provinces. Molière was a hard worker. The short, stocky man with a large head and melancholy eyes frequently acted, sometimes under a harlequin mask, with the troupe he managed. Rhythm and mime, learned from the Italians, were an important part of their style. When the company was finally called to give a performance before Louis XIV in 1658, it was Molière's farce, Le Docteur amoureux, that most amused the King. The King's brother became patron of the troupe, and Molière returned to the city of his birth.

First "Cause Célèbre"

In December 1662 Molière presented his latest comedy, L'École des femmes, in five acts and in verse, before the King. It was to be his greatest success. The play centers about Arnolphe, a bourgeois who delights in watching the signs of cuckoldry all around him. In order to spare himself the same shameful fate, he chooses for his bride a child whom he then raises in total ignorance. The principal comic device of the plot rests upon the fact that his young rival, ignorant of Arnolphe's identity, tells him exactly how he plans to steal Agnès from under his nose. The play gave rise to a storm of protest, known as the "Quarrel of L'École des femmes." Molière's enemies, jealous of the King's favor toward the playwright, attacked him on grounds of irreligion, vulgarity, plagiarism, and immorality. Rather than answer his enemies directly, Molière chose to vindicate himself by writing a response in the form of a play. His Critique de l'École des femmes, presented in June 1663, dramatized the controversy by introduction and discussion on stage of both the critics and the criticisms. The raison d'être of the play may be summed up in the celebrated formula pronounced by the character Dorante: "Je voudrais bien savoir si la grande règle de toutes les règles n'est pas de plaire, et si une pièce de théâtre qui a attrapé son but n'a pas suivi un bon chemin (Is it not true that the greatest of all rules is to be pleasing, and if a play has attained that end, has it not followed the right road?)."

The "Quarrel" served a purpose much larger than the comedy on which it was centered. In fact, it served to put comedy on an equal footing with tragedy as a legitimate literary form. Until that time it had been considered a humble stepchild of great French classical tragedy, exemplified by many of the works of Pierre Corneille. Molière proved that the passions and vices ridiculed through comedy were just as deeply rooted and universal as those that lent themselves to the creation of tragedy. In an age firmly committed to the superiority of tragedy and the dictates of Aristotle's Poetics, Molière reestablished comedy in a place of honor.

Battle of Tartuffe

In May 1664 Louis XIV organized at Versailles a splendid celebration called Les Plaisirs de l'Île Enchantée. It was here that Molière was invited to perform Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur. The play's title has become synonymous in French with hypocrite and, in particular, a hypocrite in matters of religion. The plot centers on the household of Orgon and its plight after the head of the house has taken in a spiritual adviser who is an impostor and a rogue. Only Orgon and his mother are too blind to see through the mask of piety; the other members of the household are aware of Tartuffe's hypocrisy. The latter group must resort to extraordinary means in order to convince Orgon of his error. In the final version of the play, intervention of the King himself, through an emissary, is necessary to dispose of Tartuffe.

It is not surprising that the play incurred the wrath of the powerful Society of the Holy Sacrament. This order of puritan religious devotees advocated restraints and assumed postures not unlike those of Tartuffe. Although the King harbored no love for the puritans, even he was ineffective in lessening their hold over a segment of the aristocracy. For 5 long years Molière struggled for the right to perform his play—even in amended form—but to no avail. Finally, in 1669, the "Peace of the Church" put an end to the powerful group, and Tartuffe was revived with great success at the Palais Royal.

Dom Juan

The interdiction of Tartuffe in 1664 left Molière with a gap in his repertory program. In spite of the fact that Dom Juan was composed hastily and in prose, a growing number of critics regard it as one of his greatest plays. Certainly, the popularity of the Don Juan legend attests to the compelling nature of the protagonist.

Molière did not originate the legend and, in fact, borrowed from a variety of sources. Nevertheless, his Dom Juan bears the stamp of its creator. Like his predecessors, this Dom Juan is struck down by a statue, but only after he has assumed the mask of the hypocrite. As long as he asserts his liberty from outside the social framework, he remains free and invulnerable. His downfall becomes possible, however, when he seeks to subvert society from within. There is a significant difference between the hypocrisy of Tartuffe and that of Dom Juan. Whereas the former is a servile and often vulgar hypocrite, the latter maintains the aloofness and superiority of the aristocrat.

Dom Juan was presented in February 1665 and was favorably received. After Easter, however, the play was mysteriously removed from the boards, and it was not published until after Moilère's death. It remained almost unknown until the 20th century.

Le Misanthrope

Molière first presented Le Misanthrope in June 1666. Although he had been granted the personal patronage of the King, illness, marital problems, and melancholy had left their mark on the playwright. Yet, during this unhappy period, Molière conceived and presented a work that attests to his mastery and genius.

Alceste, the misanthrope of the title, is at war with the aristocratic society of which he is a member. Like many other characters in the dramatic universe of Molière, he seeks to impose his own imperfect vision upon society. He will settle for nothing less than absolutes in a world governed by relative values. Because of this attitude he is basically a comic figure, and all the more so when he asserts in the final scene that only by leaving aristocratic society will he become the perfect aristocrat.

Last Years

Le Misanthrope pleased a small number of admirers, but it lacked the popular appeal necessary to make it a financial success. L'Avare, presented 2 years later, failed miserably, and Molière faced grave monetary problems. It required a comedy-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), to bring in the public once again.

Not the least of Molière's hardships was a hacking cough, which he tried to mask as a comic device. When overcome by a coughing spell onstage, he made it seem voluntary and exaggerated. In his last years, however, his condition worsened greatly. He had little faith in medicine, and one might argue, justifiably—for doctors had been unable to help him. In 1671 he gave Les Fourberies de Scapin, a bright comedy reminiscent of his early farces. But the best commentary on his condition was the biting work that was to be his last: Le Malade imaginaire. During the fourth performance, on Jan. 17, 1673, Molière was seized by convulsions. He died that same night, attended only by two nuns, having been refused the right to see a priest.

Further Reading

Much of the immense Moilère bibliography is in French. Biographies in English which merit particular attention are John L. Palmer, Molière (1930), and Ramon Fernandez, Molière: The Man as Seen through the Plays, translated by Wilson Follett (1958). Other biographies include Henry M. Trollope, The Life of Molière (1905); H. C. Chatfield-Taylor, Molière: A Biography (1906); D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Molière: The Comic Mask (1959); and Mikhail Bulgakov, The Life of Monsieur de Molière (trans. 1970), a lively fictionalized biography.

An important critical study of Molière's works and a forerunner of much recent criticism is Will G. Moore, Molière: A New Criticism (1949). Judd D. Hubert, Molière and the Comedy of Intellect (1962), is a more psychologically oriented study. Lionel Gossman, Men and Masks: A Study of Molière (1963), also reflects modern trends. A more varied critical perspective appears in Jacques Guicharnaud, ed., Molière: A Collection of Critical Essays (1964). Recommended for general historical background are Henry Carrington Lancaster, A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century (5 vols., 1929-1942), and P. J. Yarrow, The Seventeenth Century, 1600-1715 (1967). □

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Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 1622–1673)

MOLIèRE (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 16221673)

MOLIèRE (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 16221673), French playwright, actor, and troupe director. Born into a successful merchant family, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin received an education from the Jesuits and was studying law when, at the age of twenty-one, he renounced his career to join a troupe of itinerant actors. In 1643 he signed a contract with the actress Madeleine Béjart and other members of her family to establish a troupe which they called the "Illustrious Theater," but they were soon unable to pay their bills and Poquelin, who had assumed the stage name Molière, was jailed for debt in 1645. Once released, he and his troupe departed to tour the provinces. From 1646 to 1658 they staged plays throughout the French countryside, with Molière gradually assuming a role as the troupe's leader, principal actor, and creator of scenarios for the farces that the group performed along with their centerpiece tragedies. In 1653 the prince de Conti, royal governor of Languedoc, engaged the actors as his personal troupe, granting them status and financial stability until Conti's abrupt "conversion" to a life of religious austerity led him to withdraw his patronage. In 1658 the Illustrious Theater returned to Paris and were granted another opportunity to please the more difficult audiences of city and court, where they played first at the Louvre palace. The king's brother Philip, duke of Orleans, became their sponsor.

Beginning in 1659, Molière focused on performing his own plays, though he professed ambivalence about his new status of published author in the preface to his play Les précieuses ridicules (1660; The affected young ladies). His attention to performance and staging and to the improvisational traditions of the commedia dell'arte remained paramount in his comedies, even as he developed an increasingly sophisticated vision of the comic genre. His greatest achievement as an author was to have invented a "comedy of character" that introduced psychological depth to stock comic situations, in the process drawing on traditions from popular farce and more serious drama. Beginning with L'école des femmes (1662; The school for wives), he wrote fiveact comedies in verse, as well as comédies-ballets combining music, dance, and poetry with the clownish elements of commedia dell'arte. His comic characters often have a single dominant trait or "mask," suggested in many of the titles of his plays, as in L'étourdi (1655, The bungler) and L'avare (1668, The miser). They also portray the social obsessions of Molière's elite audiences, as in his satirical portrait of educated women, Les femmes savantes (1672, The learned ladies) or in his penetrating portrayal of salon society, Le misanthrope (1666).

Having secured the favor of the young King Louis XIV, Molière undertook to fight, from the stage, the attacks on the theater being mounted by radical religious parties of the Catholic reform movement. A first version of his play Tartuffe, portraying a religious hypocrite who deceives his gullible and devout host and attempts to seduce his wife, was staged in 1664. It was immediately banned by the church's censors and attacked in print by Molière's former patron Conti, among others. Molière withdrew the play, but continued to press for its revival, at great personal risk, until a final version, which included a flattering panegyric to the king, was produced under royal protection in 1669. Meanwhile, in 1665, he composed and produced Dom Juan, a disquieting and innovative version of the story of the legendary seducer of women, who in Molière's version is a libertine and an atheist, a modern, educated nobleman who has lost his moral bearings.

Throughout the first decade of the reign of Louis XIV, Molière produced plays commissioned for court spectacles, many of them on short notice, in which he also played the principal role. His L'impromptu de Versailles (1663) gives us an amusing inside look at his own troupe at work attempting to rehearse a play that Molière has not had the time to finish. George Dandin (1668) was first performed at Versailles with ballet and musical intermèdes written by the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac was commissioned for a court spectacle at the château de Chambord in 1669. Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The would-be gentleman), a comédie-ballet also produced in collaboration with Lully, premiered at Chambord in 1670.

Molière died 17 February 1673, after collapsing during a production of his play Le malade imaginaire (The imaginary invalid), in which he was playing the title role. Denied burial on sacred ground because of his profession, he was finally interred, secretly and at night, in his parish cemetery by special permission of the king. The manner of his death has become part of his legacy; students of the theater regard him as an iconic figure, devoted to the stage, whose work bridges the gap that so often divides the play as text and performance. The chair in which Molière was seated during his last production is preserved in the halls of the Comédie Française, an institution founded by several of the members of his troupe six years after his death, and today the world's oldest theater company.

See also Commedia dell'Arte ; French Literature and Language ; Lully, Jean-Baptiste .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Molière. The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays. Translated by Maya Slater. Oxford and New York, 2001.

. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Georges Couton. Paris, 1981.

. The School for Wives. Translated by Richard Wilbur. New York, 1971.

. Tartuffe and Other Plays. Translated by Donald M. Frame. New York, 1981.

Secondary Sources

Calder, Andrew. Molière: The Theory and Practice of Comedy. London, 1993.

Scott, Virginia. Molière: A Theatrical Life. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Elizabeth C. Goldsmith

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Molière

MoliÈre

Born: January 15, 1622
Paris, France
Died: February 17, 1673
Paris, France

French dramatist, writer, and actor

The French dramatist Molière was the master of French comedy. His plays often attacked hypocrisy (pretending to possess qualities one does not actually have). He also directed, acted, and managed theater groups.

Early life

Molière was born Jean Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, France, on January 15, 1622. His father was a successful upholsterer (one who puts soft coverings on chairs) who held the post of official furnisher at the royal court. Molière had been attracted to the theater since childhood. When Tiberio Fiorelli (called Scaramouche), an Italian actor, came to Paris in 1640, Molière struck up a friendship with him. Molière was educated at the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit (Catholic order devoted to educational work) institution. There he received a solid classical background, and he may have known some future freethinkers, such as the dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac (16191655). After finishing his secondary education, Molière studied law briefly and was allowed to practice in 1641.

Chooses career in theater

Molière was expected to take over the post his father held, but in 1643 he decided to devote himself to the theater. He had met a young actress, Madeleine Béjart, with whom he was to be associated until her death in 1672. Since the theater life was not considered very respectable, he assumed the name "Molière" in order to spare embarrassment to his family. He joined a troupe known as the Illustre Théâtre that included Béjart and her family. By 1644, having served two prison terms as a result of the company's debts, Molière joined another company with the Béjarts and toured all over France for the next thirteen years. In 1650 Molière became the head of the troupe, and he managed to secure the patronage (support) of the Prince of Conti.

Although little evidence of Molière's travels is available, it is certain that he and his players learned much while performing in the French provinces. The short, stocky Molière was a hard worker. He frequently acted, sometimes under a clown's mask, with the troupe he managed. When the company was called to give a performance before Louis XIV (16381715) in 1658, it was Molière's comedy, Le Docteur amoureux, that most amused the king. The king's brother became patron (supporter) of the troupe, and Molière returned to Paris, the city of his birth.

Success and criticism

In December 1662 Molière presented a comedy, L'École des femmes, before the king. It was to be his greatest success. The play centers around Arnolphe, a middle-class man who chooses a child for his bride, whom he then raises in total ignorance. A young rival, unaware of Arnolphe's identity, tells him exactly how he plans to steal the girl from under his nose. The play caused a huge protest, known as the "Quarrel of L'École des femmes. " Molière's enemies, jealous of the king's favor toward him, attacked him as immoral and claimed he had stolen the story from another writer. Molière chose to answer his enemies in the form of a play. His Critique de l'École des femmes, presented in June 1663, included a discussion on stage of both the critics and the criticisms. The "Quarrel" served to establish comedy as an accepted form of literature.

In May 1664 Molière was invited to perform Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur, an attack on religious hypocrisy, for Louis XIV at Versailles, France. The play angered the Society of the Holy Sacrament, a powerful religious group, and for five long years Molière struggled without success for the right to perform his play. Finally, in 1669, the power of the Society had lessened, and Tartuffe was revived with great success at the Palais Royal. Dom Juan, first presented in February 1665, is considered one of Molière's greatest plays, although it was not published until after his death and remained almost unknown until the twentieth century.

Later years

Although Molière enjoyed the personal support of the king, he struggled with illness, marital problems, and depression. Still, during this period he wrote and presented a work that shows his mastery and genius. Le Misanthrope, presented in June 1666, pleased his admirers, but it lacked the popular appeal necessary to make it a success. L'Avare, presented two years later, failed miserably, and Molière faced extreme financial (related to money) problems. A comedy-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), helped bring in the public once again.

Molière had also developed a bad cough, which he tried to mask as a comic device. When overcome by a coughing spell onstage, he exaggerated it in an attempt to make the audience laugh. The condition worsened greatly, but Molière had little faith in medicine. In 1671 Les Fourberies de Scapin, a bright comedy similar to his early works, was presented. On February 17, 1673, during the fourth performance of his last work, Le Malade imaginaire, Molière began having seizures. He died that same night, attended only by two nuns, having been refused the right to see a priest.

For More Information

Bermel, Albert. Molière's Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Life of Monsieur de Molière. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1970. Reprint, New York: New Directions, 1986.

Scott, Virginia. Molière: A Theatrical Life. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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Molière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin

Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière (zhäN bätēst´ pôklăN´ môlyĕr´), 1622–73, French playwright and actor, b. Paris; son of a merchant who was upholsterer to the king. His name was originally Jean Baptiste Poquelin. Molière was the creator of French high comedy; his genius lay in exposing the hypocrisies and follies of his society through satire.

Life

In his youth Moliére joined the Béjart troupe of professional actors. Madeleine Béjart was for years his mistress, but in 1662 he scandalized many by marrying Armande Béjart, who was either Madeleine's younger sister or her daughter. The little company, headed by Molière and called the Illustre Théâtre, settled (1643) in Paris, but their venture failed (1645), and they spent the next 13 years touring the provinces. They returned in triumph with a performance of Molière's Le Docteur amoureux for Louis XIV. Under royal patronage this troupe, performing at the Palais Royal, enjoyed continuous success; it is known as the ancestor of the Comédie Française. Molière had, nevertheless, to contend with rivalry from the Hôtel de Bourgogne and with cries of impiety and slander from critics and other authors.

The Plays

The great variety in Molière's work stems from his being at once actor, director, stage manager, and writer. Influenced by the commedia dell'arte, he wrote farces, comedies, masks, and ballets on short notice for the entertainment of the court. He is best known for the great comedies of character in which he ridicules a vice or a type of excess by caricaturing a person who is its incarnation: Le Tartuffe (1664), on the religious hypocrite; Le Misanthrope (1666), on the antisocial man; L'Avare (1668, tr. The Miser); and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670, tr. The Would-Be Gentleman), on the parvenu.

Other plays in which vices are personified are Les Femmes savantes (1672, tr. The Learned Women), on the fashionable, affected intellectuals whom he had already lampooned in Les Précieuses ridicules (1659), often called the first comedy of manners and Le Malade imaginaire (1673), on the hypochondriac. Molière was acting the title role of the latter when he was fatally stricken. Also comedies of character, but depending more on absurdities, are L'École des maris (1661, tr. The School for Husbands) and L'École des femmes (1662, tr. The School for Wives), which was followed by a skit against the critics, La Critique de l'École des femmes (1663); and Don Juan (1665), an adaptation of the old story of the libertine.

The playwright's farces are uproarious—Sganarelle (1660), Le Médecin malgré lui (1666, tr. The Doctor in Spite of Himself), George Dandin (1668), Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671, tr. Scapin, the Trickster), and La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas (1671). Among Molière's other works are the poetic Amphitryon (1668), after Plautus; L'Étourdi (1653?, tr. The Blunderer); Le Dépit amoureux (1656, tr. The Amorous Quarrel); and Le Mariage forcé (1664, tr. The Forced Marriage).

Bibliography

A primary source on Molière's career is the careful Registre or daybook of programs, expenditures, and receipts of the Paris company from 1658. It was kept by the actor Charles Varlet de la Grange (1639?—1692).

See also biographies by H. M. Trollope (1905), D. B. W. Lewis (1959), J. Palmer (2d ed. 1965), and V. Scott (2001); studies by P. A. Chapman (1941, repr. 1965), L. Gossman (1969), R. Fernandez (1929, repr. 1980), N. Gross (1982), and H. C. Knutson (1987).

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Molière

Molière (1622–73) French playwright, b. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. An acute observer of contemporary modern manners, Moli is regarded as the founder of modern French comedy. His best-known comedies include Tartuffe (1661), The Misanthrope (1667), and The Miser (1669). His work found favour with Louis XIV, but was unpopular with Church leaders. His last play was The Imaginary Invalid, during a performance of which he collapsed and died.

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Molière

Molière •Molière • première • son et lumière •Robespierre

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