The Most Performed Playwright at Today’s Comédie-Française in Paris: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin called Molière (1622-1673).

Nicolas Mignard (1606-1668). Molière (1622-1673) dans le rôle de César de la “Mort de Pompée”, tragédie de Corneille. Paris, Musée Carnavalet.

Molière was born into a well-to-do family on January 15, 1622 at Rue St. Honoré and grew up near the Bastille at Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris. The greatest genius of the French theater was baptized at St. Eustache as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. He adopted the stage name of Molière in the mid1640s after he founded his first theater troupe.

A type of Shakespeare of France – profound theater actor, writer and poet – Molière’s characters and wit are timeless – such as in Tartuffe (1664), Don Juan (1665), and The Misanthrope (1666).

French actor Romain Duris as Molière and Italian actress Laura Morante as Elmire in a scene from the 2007 movie “Molière.” The fictional film is told in flashback to 1645. It is a conflation of Molière’s life- indeed, in 1645 the 23-year-old Molière was recently bailed out of debtor’s prison – and with his great, most controversial play, Tartuffe, of the mid1660s. In the film a historical Molière poses as “Monsieur Tartuffe” (a priest) who is to serve as tutor for Orgon’s children. Again, in real life, Molière played a part in his play but as householder Orgon, the trusting husband. For the film, young Molière as Tartuffe, similar to the play, falls in love with Elmire, the neglected wife of the household, the audience in romantic sympathy. In this scene Molière delivers a letter to Elmire from her secret admirer which, unknown to her, was written by a debonaire M. Tartuffe (Duris as Molière).

Whereas in the present day any type of true romance may be heart-warming, the 17th century viewed romance through a lens of means and ends, either of which could be scandalous. Molière’s great plays Don Juan and Tartuffe were halted in their tracks by the French church and state concerned with their giving rise to possible popular scandal deemed inherent in their characters and plots by religious and royal critics turned censors. In the mid1660s, the Archbishop of Paris condemned Molière’s work – and nearly the libertine Molière himself – and then turned to the highest state authority, the king, with whom the top bishop was privileged to be closely aligned, to carry out the sentence.

For Molière, the Ancien Régime was not yet dead as a doornail. The American and French Revolutions were a distant century in the future. The risk of the late 20th and early 21st centuries’ apostolic church selling its religion for parts in exchange for a seat at the table of the new global faith was not yet the acts of a chronically troubled mainstream religion in the 17th century. Though mixing it up may be the church’s normal path, it were those sort of irreligious observations of human life in the 17th century that was a major theme and articulation for Molière’s greatest dramas. It brought him into some trouble. While the young King Louis XIV (1638-1715) sanctioned the orders that banned some of Molière’s farces, the royal personage expressed his reluctance to do so. It had been the priests who were stung by Molière’s popular ridicule with its social danger of being overthrown by comic truths. Yet their will to cancel Molière proved only partly successful in the mid17th century – and hardly at all soon after.

French Literature in the 17th Century

The 17th century continued the wealth of French literature in its many genres – poetry (Malherbe; La Fontaine; Boileau); novels and fairy tales (Cyrano de Bergerac; Perrault); essays (Pascal; La Rochefoucauld; La Bruyère); philosophy (Descartes); theology (St. Francis de Sales; Fénelon; Bossuet) and drama (Corneille; Racine; and Molière), and many others.

Molière’s Comedy

Molière wrote based on actual facts of society and human nature and, using ludicrous incidents, looked straight ahead to a moral purpose – his plays were very instructive and had all the makings of high comedy. Further to attract us, Molière is the premier dramatist of wit.

His characters are not individuals but types – which allows for perhaps greater intensity than complexity. Though the French are not as known for comedy, the form is mostly indigenous, contrasted to tragedy as a dramatic form which came out of Italy.

Paris is a theatrical city. Similar to today’s Beaubourg, there were outdoor performances at the Pont Neuf and Place Dauphine. The Hotel de Bourgogne on Rue Etienne Marcel was used in the 16th century by the Confraternité de la Passion for passion plays. In the mid1620s when America was a wilderness there would be street parades of comedians in Paris to lure spectators into the theatre. Stock farce characters included Aurlupin (mean spirited school teacher), Gros Guillaume (dressed in a flour sack), and Captain Fracasse (break things). At the permanent flea market of St. Germain de Prés, spectacles were put on stage. Goods were sold, some of it junk, because, as Daumier observed, “people are always fooled.”

Molière’s mother died when he was 10 years old and he was raised by a nurse maid. In his later plays there are often such maids and servant girls.

Molière was a commuter student at the Collège de Clermont behind the Sorbonne and trained by the Jesuits who had a tremendous hold on educating the young in this period. Nobility and the well-to-do bourgeois were schooled together but segregated by a “golden barrier” of identity – an illiberal, reactionary practice. Molière received a strict, excellent education and was a Latinist. He went to Orléans to study law but didn’t pursue it. His father sent him to Narbonne to be a royal tapestry maker (the family business) but Molière was idealistic and chose to be in theater. Following his bliss, twenty-something Molière – around the time of the film scene – was close to penniless for the next 15 years.

Following the queen of the sciences (theology), cultural authorities officially ordered the boycott of theater as immoral. But the people in Paris mostly ignored these bought-and-paid-for kill joys of church and state and the theater life thrived.

Molière’s first theater production flops; bailed out of debtor’s prison by a street contractor

By the 17th century the Renaissance social fad of tennis had faded away and Molière rented empty courts for the theater. He joined Madeliene Béjart, four years older, and from a family of actors, and established his first theater.

To build the theater, Molière fell into debt in 1644. The first performances were a complete flop and Molière was thrown into debtor’s prison for 3 days until a paving contractor paid the bail to spring the young actor and writer, a remarkable historical fact. Molière’s first theater was auctioned off with the proceeds going to his creditors.

In 1646 Molière’s troupe relocated to the provinces, specifically Nantes. Success was fleeting and Molière very close to returning to his father’s business as a tapestry maker. Molière, like his fellow actors, could only afford to wear his street clothes on stage – or vice versa. Molière was part of just one theatre troupe among about one thousand in France.

Over time Molière’s troupe was moderately successful performing all over the Mediterranean. Though Molière kept a notebook to record his ideas and character types these personal items have been lost to history.

Portrait of Molière, c. 1658 , Pierre Mignard (1612-1695), Château de Chantilly. Pierre Mignard is one of the major classic French portrait artists. When he crossed paths with Molière in Avignon in 1658, after having worked in Orange and Saint-Rémy, a great friendship started between the two men, until the death of the writer in 1673. The painting in Chantilly probably dates from this meeting, because the model appears to be less than forty years old.

In Languedoc the governor was the king’s cousin, and brother-in-law to Mazarin’s son-in-law. The royals hired Molière but then Mazarin’s son-in-law had a religious awakening and ditched the mistress, returned to his wife and banished the theatre.  Molière was suddenly cancelled. Allowance of theater based on moral grounds would continue to evolve – though society enjoyed its entertainment value. Finding a need and then filling it, Molière sold drama as morality (and vice versa) and always cut it close to the bone.

It is around this same time that Molière – acquiring the favor of the king – wrote the first of his great works – Précieuses Ridicules in 1659. In 1662 he married Madeleine Béjart’s younger sister (Armande), though it was not a happy one. The king was godfather to their child where Molière performed at the Palais Royal for the king and royal family.

Artist’s imaginary depiction of Lully’s Armide, Salle du Palais-Royal, 1761, by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780), Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The middle 1660s was a high point for Molière’s plays – Tartuffe; Festin de Pierre (Don Juan) and Le Misanthrope were all written in those same two or three years (1664-1666). These greatest comedies of enduring genius, however, were not well received in its day by an obliging audience who took governance and religion very seriously. A prosperous man wanting to retain his hard-earned social position and yet continue to practice his theory of the stage as the layman’s pulpit, Molière fell back on lighter, innocuous spectacles to teach and entertain French society for the remainder of his life.

At rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris since 1817, Molière was denied a Catholic burial in 1673

Molière died in 1673 at 51 years old. Denied a religious burial for the simple fact that he was a theater actor, Molière was surreptitiously buried in a Catholic cemetery in the section of unbaptized infants. In 1792, during the French Revolution, Molière’s remains were transferred to the museum of French Monuments. In 1817, Molière was laid to rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery where he lies today.

Molière’s Tomb, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, 1854, Etching in warm black on ivory laid paper, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Molière’s legacy

Tartuffe disguises himself as a virtuous man and is a hypocrite. As the French celebrate Molière’s 400th birth anniversary they reflect on the relevance of Molière’s drama for today. Some argue that false faces in democracy are just as numerous as those in mid17th century Paris though perhaps in a different way.

The cancel culture can be said to derive of Tartuffe. Though not displaying a purely religious hypocrisy as in Molière’s original character, today’s Tartuffe hates the individual heart’s freedoms and hides their will to crack down on people by citing the “common good” or other platitude which usually includes a spectrum of needs and fears. Notions of superiority, duplicity, and simple stupidity are present in Molière’s Tartuffe – that is, the hypocritical type of 350 years ago. 

A supposed offense today is paired with Molière’s hypocrite of 350 years ago against a partisan viewpoint of the “higher interest” with its obligations and payments “overdue” to them from which as a penalty and means requires the ban, cancellation, and banishment –yet, almost conveniently, not of one’s fragile self, if opposed. While the perennial distrust of politicians is well known, today’s social breakdown is broader and endemic – with the inflation of hypocrisy a common denominator. 

Like a popular play on an outdoor stage in 17th century Paris, hypocrites can be better recognized, fortunately or not, by type. The use of virtue signaling – a brittle stance seen, heard, and understood at the first – can be one such type. When it becomes evident that it also serves their hidden ends, the audience, assuming its role, heckles and boos those stock farce characters off the stage with gusto.

Though censorship and restrictions of thought and action of others in its many forms is hardly always the result of hypocrisy, hypocrites (whichever side of the fence their belief or opinion may fall) are certain to take the short route to do so. Molière would have sufficient material today to write and perform another of his great dramas for our time and under a similar menace of cancellation by those powers grown antagonistic to his content, who can lower the curtain, at times overhastily, when opportunity enters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.