Molire (1622-1673), France`s greatest comic dramatist, who produced, directed, and acted in the plays he wrote. Many of his comedies addressed serious themes and pointed the way to modern drama and experimental theater.
Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris
Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, the son of a well-to-do upholsterer who worked at the king`s court, Molire attended the Jesuit Collge de Clermont. He then turned his back on a secure future in the position he could have inherited from his father and became an actor instead. After founding the Illustre Thetre (Illustrious Theater Company) in Paris with actors Joseph and Madeleine Bejart, he adopted the name Molire. Although the company foundered in 1645, he toured the French provinces in another troupe with the Bejarts from 1645 to 1658. During that time, Molire began writing short plays, influenced by French farce and the popular form of Italian theater known as commedia dell`arte.
In October 1658 the traveling company accepted
In October 1658 the traveling company accepted an offer from the king of France, Louis XIV (known as the Sun King), to present plays in the Thetre du Petit Bourbon, part of the Louvre palace in Paris. There Molire produced his first major comedy, "Les precieuses ridicules "(1659; translated as "The Conceited Ladies, "1732), a satire on the extravagant manners, style, and language of contemporary women who wished to distinguish themselves through excessively refined taste and behavior.
In 1662 Molire married Armande Bejart
In 1662 Molire married Armande Bejart, the much younger sister of Madeleine and also a member of his troupe. The marriage was not a happy one. This misfortune was reflected in "L`ecole des femmes "(1662; "School for Wives", 1739). In this play the character Arnolphe`s efforts to shape his much younger prospective bride, Agns, through education in a convent and his own tyrannical rules are defeated by Agns`s natural inclination toward Horace, a man her own age.
"Les precieuses ridicules "and "L`ecole
"Les precieuses ridicules "and "L`ecole des femmes "were highly successful and aroused considerable jealousy among Molire`s rivals. To answer his critics and satirize them in the process, Molire wrote and produced two short discussion plays in 1663: "La critique de l`ecole des femmes "( "The School for Wives Criticized, "1739) and "L`impromptu de Versailles "( "The Impromptu of Versailles, "1739). The king supported Molire during these battles and in 1664 became godfather to his son. That same year Molire wrote the first version of "Tartuffe "(translated 1670), a play that satirized religious hypocrisy. It was banned from the stage through the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church. Molire wrote two more versions of the play, in 1667 and 1669, and the third version was finally produced. During these years he also wrote seven of his greatest plays, including the complex "Dom Juan "(1665; "Don Juan", 1739); his masterpiece, "Le misanthrope "(1666; "The Misanthrope", 1739); "L`avare "(1668; "The Miser, "1739); and "Le bourgeois gentilhomme "(1670; "The Would-Be Gentleman, "1739), called a "comedy-ballet "because it included ballet interludes as part of the narrative. In addition to writing these plays (most of which are in rhyming couplets), Molire managed the business of his company, directed all the productions, and played some of the most demanding roles.
Molire`s last great plays were "Les
Molire`s last great plays were "Les femmes savantes "(1672; "The Learned Ladies, "1739) and "Le malade imaginaire "(1673; "The Hypochondriac, "1739). Ironically, Molire, who had been grievously ill for some time, played the role of the hypochondriac in his last play, fell mortally ill during the fourth performance, and died an hour after being taken home. Because of the disapproval of the Roman Catholic Church, it was only through the intervention of the king that Molire was allowed to be buried in holy ground, and this only in the dead of night.
Molire`s works reveal an evolution
Molire`s works reveal an evolution from farce to more serious comedies of manners and character. In terms of form, "Les precieuses ridicules "is important because, although a one-act play written in prose, it is nonetheless a sophisticated comedy of manners. Similarly, "L`ecole des maris "(1661; "School for Husbands, "1739) is significant because it addresses a more serious subject than earlier works and takes a more sophisticated form, a five-act social comedy written in verse in a meter known as alexandrine. "Tartuffe "and "Le misanthrope, "five-act plays in verse, mark the height of Molire`s career in the perfection of their poetry and the subtlety and complexity of their themes. Later plays innovated through their form; "Le bourgeois gentilhomme, "for example, was a comedy-ballet that paved the way for opera.
The society of Molire`s time
The society of Molire`s time, led by King Louis XIV, formed an intelligent and cultivated audience ready to appreciate a new style of comic drama and able to discern serious moral and social issues beneath the laughter and fun. Molire had the good fortune to write and perform during a creative and energetic age, and for a society that was itself theatrical in its interest in spectacle and its keen perception of the difference between reality and illusion. No less important for Molire were members of the audience from the lower classes (called "parterre "because they stood in front of the stage, the "parterre"), and he rated their understanding and appreciation of his plays very highly.
Molire was preoccupied with what it meant
Molire was preoccupied with what it meant to be human. He presents characters whothrough their hypocrisy, immoderation, vanity, tyranny, and greedexceed the acceptable limits of being human and must therefore be punished through laughter. The hypocrites Tartuffe and Orgon tyrannize the family. Alceste of "Le misanthrope "demands absolute sincerity of his merely human associates. Pedantic vanity dominates the learned ladies of "Les femmes savantes, "and Arnolphe tries to play God in forming Agns in "L`ecole des femmes." In all these plays, the qualities that win out in the end are authenticity, moderation, and respect for what follows nature`s plan or advances human freedom. Often the plot involves the efforts of old men to marry or marry off young women. Molire, who himself had taken a bride 20 years his junior with disastrous consequences, condemned such efforts to go against the order of nature. He celebrates the triumph of youth and fertility over old age and sterility at the end of such plays as "L`ecole" "des femmes, Tartuffe, Le medecin malgre lui "(1666; "The Doctor In Spite of Himself, "1739), and "L`avare."
No play better illustrates Molire`s
No play better illustrates Molire`s comic art in all its complexity than "Le misanthrope." Alceste, a suitor of the coquettish Celimne, has come to Celimne`s home to demand once and for all that she express her feelings and intentions. Alceste demands absolute truthfulness in all social relations, and Molire derives considerable comic effect from the character`s infatuation with the ever-false Celimne. Alceste`s friend Philinte stands for moderation in all things, including truthfulness, and the dialogue between the two men throughout the play analyzes this issue. Other suitors, meanwhile, arrive to plague Alceste. The prudish Arsine, in love with Alceste, duels verbally with Celimne in a scene of brilliant repartee. It is difficult to decide which of the many positions represented in the play Molire favors, but many critics feel that Eliante, Celimne`s cousin, who loves Alceste but will perhaps marry Philinte, best represents the author`s views. Eliante`s behavior and words reflect a philosophy of moderation like Philinte`s, but she insists there is something noble about Alceste and his views. Molire seems to suggest that even moderation itself can be excessive. The play ends as Alceste, rejected by Celimne, leaves to live by himself in the desert of the provinces.
French comedy since Molire is inseparable
French comedy since Molire is inseparable from his innovations. The Comedie Francaise, founded in 1680 as the first state-supported theater in France, has long been known as the house of Molire. The 18th-century dramatists Pierre Marivaux and Pierre Beaumarchais were deeply indebted to MolireMarivaux in his use of sophisticated language and Beaumarchais with his biting satiresas were many of the comic writers of the 19th century. Critics in more recent times have detected Molire`s imprint on writers of the theater of the absurd in the 1950s and on other experimental movements.
The clearest evidence of the enduring legacy
The clearest evidence of the enduring legacy of Molire can be found in the French language itself. Just as one finds in English, Italian, and Spanish expressions from the works of William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Miguel de Cervantes, respectively, so the French use lines from Molire`s plays in everyday speech, often unaware of their source.