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Remembering Molière

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on November 21, 2017

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Louis XIV and Moliere, painting by Jean-Leon Gerome

Molière was born 395 years ago. According to legend, his life came to an end while he was playing the lead in The Imaginary Invalid, his comedy about a hypochondriac who, during the final act, pretends to die. The character is eventually supposed to leap up and embrace his daughter, but Molière just kept lying there. Applause, curtain, house lights go up, the audience leaves. But Molière doesn’t budge. Enough already. Get up. I can hear his tired, frustrated colleagues. We get it. You’re dead. Enough joking around, come on. He doesn’t move. This is getting tiresome, Molière. We know you’re the “best comic playwright of all time” and everything, but come on. It’s not funny anymore.

Eventually, someone realized he was actually dying. They ran over to him. As Molière breathed his last breath, someone asked: “What does it feel like to die?” “It’s hard,” the master said. “But comedy is even harder.”

Did this really happen, or is it only a myth? Like most legends, it’s a fanciful tale, based on a truth.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in January 1622 to a well-off Parisian family. His mother died when he was 10, after which his father raised him. For high school, he enrolled at the elite Colllège de Clermont, still an elite state school today (albeit under a different name). This is where he first performed on the stage.

In 1631, Jean-Baptiste’s father obtained from the King the prestigious title of Valet de Chambre Ordinaire et Tapissier du Roi and ran a tapestry shop that sold furniture, fabrics and tapestries to the upper middle class and the wealthy aristocracy. Apparently, that was a very good job, perhaps because you got to work with carpets and upholstery. Young Jean-Baptiste inherited the job 10 years later. He studied law (though presumably not math or economics), but never qualified for the bar.

Like many young adults, the 21-year-old Jean-Baptiste rebelled against his family, his class, and the expectations of society. Instead of the cushy job replacing royal carpets, he ran off with his girlfriend, Madeleine Béjart, to found his L'Illustre Théâtre. Jean-Baptiste wrote plays and, along with his troupe and co-founder Béjart, acted in them. During the 17th century, actor was nearly as prestigious as ditch-digger or rag-and-bone salesman, so his father must have been quite proud. Two years later, the troupe went bankrupt. Jean-Baptiste was imprisoned for debt. His father was, undoubtedly, even more proud.

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Madeleine Béjart

Around this time Jean-Baptiste became Molière, perhaps to distance himself from the failed-theater-debtor guy and to save his father from the disgrace of having an actor in the family.

Molière and Madeleine formed a new troupe and performed in the countryside for 12 years. They were supported by the Duke of Orléans and other aristocratic patrons. Molière toured the provinces, writing and performing his own plays, though few of them are extant. His personal life, at this time, was characterized by a long-standing beef with Racine, the most renowned tragic playwright of the age. The two dramatists wasted a lot of time and energy dissing each other's work. In 1658 the troupe performed in Paris before Louis XIV at the Louvre, which at the time could be rented out as a venue. With the King’s blessing, Molière and his players were permitted to put on shows at other theaters in the capital. Although his original intention was to become a tragic playwright, Molière’s troupe quickly became known for comedy, satire and farce. In 1659 he had a minor success with The Affected Young Ladies, which lampooned the new Académie Française and other sacred cows of French society. Molière was condemned, by some, for his acerbic wit and mocking things that were meant to be taken seriously. He wrote and performed several masterpieces over the next few years, including The School for Husbands, School for Wives and The Imaginary Cuckold. His work was marked by absurd misunderstandings, scheming lovers, wily servants, a critique of social mores, and caricatures of the pretentious and sanctimonious. Over the next few decades, this template would be borrowed by English playwrights—for Restoration Drama—and, much later, by thousands of sit-com writers.

Molière married Armande Béjart in 1662. She was, ostensibly, Madeleine’s sister, but legend has it that she was actually her illegitimate daughter. In either case, Molière was, from her earliest years, Armande’s father figure, protector and mentor. They married when she was 17 and Molière 40. Nonetheless, the happy couple had three kids and Armande became the company’s leading lady. He allegedly continued his affair with Madeleine as well.

Molière’s satirical work and his unconventional domestic life attracted a great deal of criticism. As a response, he wrote new plays in which he attacked those who attacked him. They may have been playa haters, but Molière was clearly a playa hater hater.

Opposition to the playwright grew more heated. Molière was accused of marrying his own daughter, which wasn’t exactly true, and criticism was leveled at the disrespect, impropriety and “realism” of his writing. The king continued to support him, however, and even became godfather to Molière’s oldest son. For the time being, he was safe.

Then came Tartuffe. In this play, written in 1664, Molière accused the church and ruling class of hypocrisy, greed and immorality. Louis XIV banned Tartuffe after just a single performance. He enjoyed the production—indeed, it’s considered one of the greatest and most amusing plays ever written—but because of intense lobbying by the Church, the King was compelled to intervene. This wasn’t the last of his works to be banned, but the King continued to stand by his homme, largely because Molière never satirized the Crown itself. In fact, several years later, Louis not only unbanned, but also actively promoted, Tartuffe. First, he had to leverage more power over the Church.

It should be noted that in the early 1660s, as Molière’s first plays were being printed as literary works, poet and author Claude Le Petit was executed for publishing obscene materials. It was a challenging time for free speech, much like today in the US. Molière showed great courage, in this atmosphere, to be so unrelenting in his witty attacks and satiric barbs. He was risking more than censorship—he was risking his life.

Molière inadvertently invented and popularized a new type of entertainment, the comédie-ballet. Asked to stage a dance and a drama for the King, Molière discovered that he didn’t have the time or manpower for both. To wriggle out of the problem, he mashed both forms together into a single entertainment. The comédie-ballet, developing alongside the fledgling opera, combined music, dance and narrative action. The form was wildly popular for several decades before gradually fading away. However, it was instrumental in the development of musical theater.

In 1666 Molière had one of his biggest flops, The Misanthrope. Today, of course, it’s considered one of his greatest works. That’s the hallmark of Molière’s life: he was always popular and controversial, often simultaneously, but many of his greatest accomplishments were never fully appreciated at the time.

Molière had long suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, which may have resulted from his stay in prison. In 1673, while playing The Imaginary Invalid, he began coughing, bleeding, and then fell over. He got up and continued acting. Later, he collapsed again and was taken home. He didn’t actually die on stage, according to legend, though we’ll never know if he really joked about comedy being harder than death. Molière died a few hours later, without Last Rites. Two priests refused to administer the sacrament, while another agreed to but showed up late.

Because actors couldn’t be buried on Church grounds, Armande petitioned the King for a special dispensation. He agreed and so Molière was buried, at night, in a corner of the cemetery reserved for unbaptized infants. His remains were transferred to the Museum of French Monuments in 1792 and finally to Père Lachaise cemetery in 1817.

During his lifetime, Molière was continually at odds with the pillars of French society—Church leaders, physicians, the aristocracy, fellow thinkers and writers. He was popular with the general public, however. In fact, he’s considered the first celebrity author, the first to earth real money from his work and gain a worldwide reputation. For this we can thank his own genius, but also developments in printing, translation and international distribution.

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Molière signature

Molière is the father of French comedy and his influence, throughout the world, is both wide and deep, not only for humor but for the moral, philosophical and dramatic elements of his work. He also contributed to the French language. Tartuffe (a hypocrite), harpagon (a miser) and other terms are derived from characters or phrases in his writing. Molière led an exciting life, revolutionized French drama, wrote some of the world’s funniest plays, and turned the comic drama into a vehicle for profound social and political commentary. Not bad for a law school dropout and failed upholsterer. 

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