Moliere Creates Modern Comedy
Author: Laun, Henri Van
Moliere Creates Modern Comedy

1659



The seventeenth century was the period of a very remarkable literary
outburst in France, an outburst which has done much to mould French genius of
more recent times. The latter part of the century, which has been called the
Augustan age of France, the age of Louis XIV, has certainly been but seldom
equalled in the number and variety of the writers who adorned it. Yet it owes
much of its brilliancy, much of its rapid development, to the training of the
decades previous to 1650, and especially to the enthusiastic patronage of that
great statesman Richelieu. Were a Frenchman seeking for a single event, a
single date to mark the most striking moment of this literary era, he would
probably select the foundation of the French Academy by Richelieu, in 1635.
Or perhaps he might turn to the production of Corneille's most famous tragedy,
Le Cid, in 1633. Neither of these events, however, has quite what we would
recognize as a world-wide significance. The Academy has done much for France,
but it has always remained a French academy, and the forty "immortal"
Frenchmen who constitute its membership have not always owed their election
solely to literary eminence. Neither have Corneille's tragedies been accepted
as models by the world at large.

But under Corneille's influence the French stage developed from a state
of buffoonery and wooden imitation of the ancients to a state where a greater
artist than Corneille gave it really world-wide prominence. Moliere is not
only the most celebrated of French actor-managers; he is the greatest of all
character-comedy writers, the teacher of all future generations, and the
satiric scourge of his own. When in 1659 his comedy Les precieuses Ridicules
took Paris by storm, it did more than make a reformation of the manners of its
own. It taught the world what true comedy should be, and it sent ringing
through the universe forever a mighty trumpet-note against hypocrisy and
folly.

The drama attained its highest excellence and repute in the age of Louis
XIV, and we should not be making a very hazardous assertion if we were to say
that the literature of that epoch in France attained its height of glory in
the drama. No French dramatist has excelled Moliere, Corneille, and Racine;
no group of authors in the seventeenth century were more brilliant, more
powerful, more originative. When we turn our eyes upon the stage for which
these three wrote, we find ourselves in the full splendor of the Augustan age,
in all its refinement and culture, its luxury and elegance, its strength of
wit and justness of expression, its social polish and gorgeous display.

Great as was the advance made by the audience of Jodelle upon the
audience of the "moralities" and "sotties," the advance of the court and
society under the Valois was equally great. The Grand Monarque, listening to
a masterpiece of Corneille, Moliere, or Racine, surrounded by his brilliant
circle of lords and ladies, represented an almost incalculable development of
ceremonious culture, in idea, in apparel, and in general surroundings, since
the day when, about a hundred years before, while the blossom of the
Renaissance was barely expanded, the popinjay King Henry II looked on at the
first crude sketch of a French classical play. Stage, scenery, appointments,
audience, critic, music, actors, and authors, all now bore witness to and
adorned, as they were in fact the most elaborate product of, an Augustan age.

Paris up to this time had had little opportunity of knowing what true
comedy was. It had had farces in abundance, not only of home growth, but
imported, and from Italy in particular. When Moliere came before the public
with his homogeneous and well-trained company, and his repertory of excellent
character-sketches and comic situations, the prevailing sentiment was
expressed by a member of the audience which listened to the first production
of his Precieuses Ridicules: "Courage, Moliere; this is genuine comedy!"

France had long been waiting for genuine comedy; waiting rather by an
instinctive requirement of the national genius, and with an aptitude to
appreciate the highest comic art as soon as it might be manifested, than with
any definite conception of the exact thing that was lacking on the stage. The
French nature was precisely fitted to produce and to enjoy the loftiest style
of character-comedy, but no modern literature had hitherto exhibited that
which Moliere was to provide. The author of the Precieuses Ridicules and
Tartuffe was essentially the outcome of his age, the dramatist of drawing-room
life, whose genius enabled him to web the foibles of the salon with elegant
phraseology, and scenic effect with admirable poetic expression; and the
contrast between his lofty and conscientious work and the puerilities and
license of the Spanish and Italian models was as marked as it was readily
recognized.

Yet it was no easy matter to acclimatize in France even the high style of
comedy introduced by Moliere, and he had to intermix it with a good many
farces to make it go down. For twelve long years, leading the life of a
strolling player, Moliere observed and studied character; and when at last he
thought himself safe from opposition, under the powerful patronage of Louis
XIV, the Church, the University, the Sorbonne, and the bigotry of the
statesmen - once more united as in the age of Francis I - conspired to cast
stumbling-blocks in the way of literary freedom. It was the authorities of
the Church which, shocked and jealous at the enthusiasm which greeted the
appearance of Tartuffe, brought the veto of the King to bear against the
company of the Palais Royal; and though Moliere believed that his private
intercession had obtained the removal of this veto, his enemies were bold and
powerful enough during the absence of Louis, on the further representation of
the play, to prevent its production a second time. Moliere was able to cope
with his adversaries; yet it is a noteworthy fact that the decree of
excommunication passed against comedians in France was not absolutely
rescinded until the present century.

We do not forget that Corneille wrote comedies before Moliere; and indeed
there is no doubt that the younger of the two dramatists owed something, even
in comedy, to the older. Moliere began by adapting from and imitating the
Italian and Spanish comedy-writers, upon whom many of his first farces were
founded, and it is not at all unlikely that he even remodelled some of the
earlier sotties. It was perhaps due to Corneille's influence as much as to
anything else that his genius at last discovered its true level. He confessed
to Boileau his great indebtedness to Le Menteur. "When it was first
performed," he says, "I had already a wish to write, but was in doubt as to
what it should be. My ideas were still confused, but this piece determined
them. In short, but for the appearance of Le Menteur, though I should no
doubt have written comedies of intrigue, like L'Etourdi, or Le Depit Amoureux,
I should perhaps never have written the Misanthrope." Eliminate the generosity
from this confession, and no doubt the truth remains that Moliere did form his
best style of comedy upon the master of French tragedy.

Jean Baptiste Poquelin, who subsequently assumed the name of Moliere, was
born in the year that Francois de Sales died, one year after the birth of La
Fontaine, four years before the birth of his friend Chapelle and of Madame de
Sevigne. When Le Cid was first performed he was fourteen years old, and
twenty-two at the time of the first representation of Le Menteur. The son of
a valet-de-chambre tapissier of Louis XIII, he succeeded in due course to the
emoluments and honors, such as they were, of his father; but he had early
conceived a passion for the stage, and in 1643 he attached himself to the
Illustre Theatre of Madeleine Bejart, a woman four years his senior. With her
were already associated her brother Joseph, her sister Genevieve, about two
years younger than Moliere, and eight others, most of whom had dropped out of
the company before its final settlement in Paris.

For a year or two the Illustre Theatre tempted fortune in the capital
without success, and in 1646 they commenced a tour through the provinces which
was destined to continue for twelve years. The debts which they had incurred
weighed upon them during the whole of this time, and principally upon Moliere,
who was once imprisoned and several times arrested at the suit of the
company's creditors. No doubt these latter had discovered that the young
actor had friends who would rescue him from durance, which was done on several
occasions, but as late as 1660 we read of Moliere's discharging probably the
last of the debts for which at this period he made himself responsible.

The plays first acted by Moliere and his friends were, of course, the
farces then most in vogue; among others the comedies of Scarron and the yet
inferior productions of Denis Beys and Desfontaines. The former had written a
ridiculous piece called L'Hopital des Fous. The latter was the author of
Eurymedon ou l'Illustre Pirate, l'Illustre Comedien ou le Martyre de
Saint-Genes, and of several other inflated pieces. It would be difficult to
fix the exact date at which Molieres earliest plays were produced, but it is
probable that he began to write for his company as soon as he had enlisted in
it. He seems, like Shakespeare, to have, in part at least, adapted the plays
of others; but in 1653, if not earlier, he had produced L'Etourdi, and in 1656
Le Depit Amoureux.

The Illustre Theatre is heard of at Nantes Limoges, Bordeaux, Toulouse,
Narbonne, and Lyons, where Moliere produced his first serious attempt at high
comedy in verse, L'Etourdi. In 1653 they played by invitation at the country
seat of the Prince de Conti, the schoolfellow of Moliere. Three years later
they played the Depit Amoureux at Beziers during the meeting in that town of
the Parliament of Languedoc. At Grenoble, in 1658, the painter Mignard, with
other of his admirers, persuaded him to take his company - for he was joint
manager with Madeleine Bejart - to Paris; and this he did, after a concluding
trip to Rouen. In Paris they began by playing before Philippe, Duke of Anjou,
the brother of Louis XIV, who took them under his protection and introduced
them to the court.

At this time the company was considerably stronger, as well as richer,
than when it left Paris. There were now four ladies, Madeleine Bejart,
Genevieve Bejart, Duparc, and Debrie; the two brothers Bejart - the youngest,
Louis, had joined at Lyons - Duparc Debrie, Dufresne, and Croisac making, with
Moliere himself, eleven persons. It may be concluded that their tour, or, at
all events, that part of it which dated from Lyons, had been very successful;
for we find that Joseph Bejart, who died early in 1659, left behind him a
fortune of twenty-four thousand golden crowns. So at least we are told by the
physician Guy-Patin in a letter dated May 27, 1659; and he adds, "Is it not
enough to make one believe that Peru is no longer in America, but in Paris?"

The condition of the drama in Paris at the time when Moliere returned to
the capital was anything but satisfactory. There were in 1658 five theatres
in Paris: One at the Hotel de Bourgogne; one at the Marais; one under the
patronage of Mademoiselle, daughter of Gaston, Duke of Orleans; a Spanish
company; and an Italian company at the Petit Bourbon, under the managership of
Torelli. It was with the first and last of these that Moliere came chiefly
into conflict; and it is probable that the other three were of no great
account, at all events as competitors for the favor of the general public.
Torelli soon found that the newcomer commanded his hundreds where he himself
could only count by scores, and he gave up the Petit Bourbon to Moliere in
1659.

Moliere's company called themselves "Comediens de Monsieur"; and after
Torelli had left them full possession of the Petit Bourbon, their greatest
rivals in public favor were the company at the Hotel de Bourgogne, who played
Corneille, Scudery, Scarron, and other authors of less note. In 1659 Moliere
took the town by storm with his Precieuses Ridicules, a satire in one act on
the exaggerations of the Hotel de Rambouillet. This was followed in the
succeeding year by Sganarelle ou le Cocu Imaginaire; in the beginning of 1661
appeared Don Garcie de Navarre, a heroic piece in five acts, intended to
delineate the evils of passionate jealousy; and in the same year were produced
L'Ecole des Maris, a satire on unreasonable jealousy, and Les Facheux, a court
sketch of several kinds of bores; in 1662 L'Ecole des Femmes - an attempt to
show the danger of bringing girls up in too strict a manner - with its sequel,
the Critique de l'Ecole des Femmes, in the year after.

Boursault, an amiable man but a mediocre playwright, envious of Moliere's
growing fame, wrote for the Hotel de Bourgogne, which eagerly accepted, if it
did not bespeak, his piece, Le Portrait du Peintre ou la Contrecritique de
l'Ecole des Femmes, in which he attempted to bring his bother-author into
ridicule; but Moliere took ample revenge in his Impromptu de Versailles, in
which he soundly lashed his rivals, though it may be mentioned to his honor
that it was never printed during his lifetime. In 1664 he wrote the Mariage
Force, a one-act piece with eight entrees de ballet, specially designed for
court representation, in which the King himself was pleased to dance, and, a
month or two later, the Princesse d'Elide, a cumbrous and comparatively
inferior production, done in great haste at the command of Louis XIV, who had
determined upon an eight - days' festival in honor of Louise de la Valliere.

It was during these festivities that for the first time was represented
the first three acts of Moliere's masterpiece, Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur, a play
well worthy of the best and most legitimate subject which satire can have to
deal with. Nothing can be fairer or more appropriate than that the art which
consists in feigning a representation of real life on the stage should take,
as the butt of its ridicule and the object of its skill, the man whose whole
life and character are engaged in feigning the possession of virtue and
seeming to be that which he is not. The earliest satirists and dramatists
have seized on the topic with avidity; and to go no further out of our way
than Moliere's predecessors in France, we may mention the authors of the
romance of Reynard the Fox, Ruteboeuf; Jean de Meung, the author of the Farce
des Brus, Regnier, Scarron, even Pascal.

Very various, no doubt, are they hypocritical types encountered in the
works of these and other satirists; but all must necessarily have a certain
amount of family likeness, and many a hereditary trait is recognized as common
to at least two, if not to all, of the race. "Moliere gives us the hypocrite
by nature, the man who would be a canting scoundrel even if it did not 'pay';
who cannot help being so; who is a human being, and therefore not perfect; who
is a man, and thus sensually inclined; who employs certain means to subdue his
passions and to become a 'whited sepulchre,' but who gives way all the more to
them when he imagines that he can do so with impunity." Tartuffe, who ought to
be bound to Orgon by the strongest ties of gratitude, allows the son to be
turned out of the house by his father, because the latter will not believe the
accusations brought against the hypocrite - tries to seduce his benefactor's
wife, to marry his daughter by a first marriage; and finally, after having
obtained all his dupe's property, betrays him to the king as a criminal
against the state. The denouement of the play is that Tartuffe himself is led
to prison, and that vice is for the nonce punished on the stage as it deserves
to be.

Tartuffe made many enemies for Moliere, especially among the clergy, who
were not afraid of being twitted with their too ready application to
themselves of the moral of the play. It was prohibited in 1664; and some
zealous clergymen even went so far as to write treatises which they hoped
would counteract the effects of the dramatist's works. For their own sakes we
may hope that they did not succeed. The King was not strong enough to
withstand the influence of the clergy, and did not venture at once to remove
the interdict. The relaxation did not take place until five years later. But
it was at this time that Louis XIV bestowed on Moliere's company the name of
"Comediens du Roi"; and the troop was subsidied by a yearly pension of seven
thousand livres.

Don Juan ou le Festin de Pierre, a piece in which a nobleman - who is a
libertine as well as a sceptic and a hypocrite - is brought upon the stage,
was first acted in February, 1665, and raised such an outcry that it was also
forbidden to be played. In spite of failing health and serious depression of
spirits, Moliere continued to produce play after play; and some of his best
and most admired were the fruits of his most unhappy moments.

Early in 1662 he had married Armande Bejart, the youngest sister of
Madeleine Bejart, who was about twenty years younger than her husband. It was
apparently a marriage of mutual affection, but it can hardly be said to have
been a fortunate one for either. Armande loved admiration from whatever
source, and indulged in pleasures which her husband could not share. The
breach between them gradually widened, and it was not till 1671 that their
friends brought about a better understanding between them. Meanwhile, in
September, 1665, appeared L'Amour Medecin, a comedy in three acts, in which a
lover appears disguised as a physician, to cure the object of his love,
pretends to be dumb, and in which Moliere makes his first serious attack
against the doctors.

It was acted only a few times when the theatre had to be closed on
account of the author's illness; and the death of Anne of Austria, in the
spring of 1666, delayed its reopening until June of that year. It was then
that the Misanthrope was introduced to the public - a play which has been
ranked as high in comedy as Athalie is ranked in French tragedy. The
circumstances under which it was written were such as might almost warrant us
in calling it a tragedy; for the great satirist, who had spent his life in
copying the eccentricities of others, had now employed the season of his
illness to commit to paper a drama in which he was himself the principal
actor. The misanthrope Alceste loves the coquette Celimene, almost against
his will; and we can imagine the feelings with which Moliere himself took the
role of Alceste to his wife's Celimene.

In 1669 the King, growing more independent of his advisers, sanctioned
the production of Tartuffe; but this strengthening of his repertory did not
prevent Moliere producing Monsieur de Pourceaudnac, a farcical comedy in three
acts, in which there is a masterly and not exaggerated sketch of a
consultation of doctors in Moliere's time; and, in 1670, the Bourgeois
Gentilhomme, in which the folly of aping noblemen is delineated, as well as
the Amants Magnifiques, a comedy-ballet for the particular behoof of the
court. In 1671 he combined with Corneille and Quinault in the production of
Psyche, a tragedy-ballet, and wrote, or rather, perhaps, remodelled from among
his earlier efforts, the Fourberies de Scapin and the Comtesse d'Escarbagnas.

His two last works were among the highest and happiest creations of his
genius - the Femmes Savantes, a sort of sequel to the Precieuses Ridicules,
though of a more general application - and the Malade Imaginaire. In the
latter, he insisted on playing the part of Argan upon the first
representation, February 10, 1673; but it was the crowning act of his
energetic mind. He became ill during the fourth representation of the play,
and died that same evening, February 17th, exactly one year after Madeleine
Bejart, with whom, seven-and-twenty years ago, he had set out from Paris with
little more ambition than that of earning a livelihood by the pursuit of a
congenial career.

Moliere placed upon the stage nearly all human passions which lend
themselves to comedy or farce. Sordid avarice, lavish prodigality, shameless
vice, womanly resignation, artless coquetry, greed for money, downright
hypocrisy, would-be gentility, self-sufficient vanity, fashionable swindling,
misanthropy, heartlessness, plain common-sense, knowledge of the world, coarse
jealousy, irresolution, impudence, pride of birth, egotism, self-conceit,
pusillanimity, ingenuity, roguery, affectations, homeliness, thoughtlessness,
pedantry, arrogance, and many more faults and vices, find their
representatives. The language which they employ is always natural to them,
and is neither too gross nor over-refined. His verse has none of the
stiffness of the ordinary French rhyme, and becomes in his hands, as well as
his prose, a delightful medium for sparkling sallies, bitter sarcasms, and
well-sustained and sprightly conversations.

And how remarkable and delicate is the nuance between his different
characters, though they may represent the same profession or an identical
personage. None of his doctors are alike; his male and female scholars are
all dissimilar. Mascarille is not Gros-Rene, Scapin is not Sbrigani, Don Juan
is not Dorante, Alceste is not Philinte, Isabelle is not Agnes, Sganarelle is
not always the same, Ariste is not Beralde nor Chrysalde; while even his
servants, Nicole, Dorine, Martine, Marotte, Toinette, Claudine, and Lisette;
his boobies, such as Alain and Lubin, and his intriguants in petticoats, such
as Nerine, Lucette, Frosine, vary in character, expression, and conduct. They
exemplify the saying, "Like master, like man."

A remarkable characteristic of Moliere is that he does not exaggerate;
his fools are never overwitty, his buffoons too grotesque, his men of wit too
anxious to display their smartness, nor his fine gentlemen too fond of
immodest and ribald talk. His satire is always kept within bounds, his
repartees are never out of place, his plots are but seldom intricate, and the
moral of his plays is not obtruded, but follows as a natural consequence of
the whole. He rarely rises to those lofty realms of poetry where Shakespeare
so often soars, for he wrote not idealistic, but character, comedies; which
is, perhaps, the reason that some of his would-be admirers consider him rather
commonplace. His claim to distinction is based only on strong common-sense,
good manners, sound morality, real wit, true humor, a great, facile, and
accurate command of language, and a photographic delineation of nature.

It cannot be denied that there is little action in his plays, but there
is a great deal of natural conversation; his personages show that he was a
most attentive observer of men, even at court, where a certain varnish of
overrefinement conceals nearly all individual features. He generally makes
vice appear in its most ridiculous aspect, in order to let his audience laugh
and despise it; his aim is to correct the follies of the age by exposing them
to ridicule.
 

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