Molière, French Playwright

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere

In 17th and 18th Century France, there were an extraordinary number of men and women artists that emerged, making a name for themselves. They were poets, fabulists, painters, playwrights, actors, composers and writers. Some of the writers became the foundation for the L’Académie Française, which was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The Académie is the most distinguished learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Freelance History Writer would like to take a look at some of these remarkable artists.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, is considered one of the greatest comedic masters of Western literature. His most well-known works are ‘The Misanthrope’, ‘The School for Wives’, ‘Tartuffe or the Imposter’, ‘The Imaginary Invalid’ and ‘The Bourgeois Gentleman’. He spent thirteen years as a travelling actor which allowed him to refine his comic skills as he began writing. He combined commedia dell’arte elements with the more refined French comedy.

Molière was baptized on January 15, 1622. He was born in Paris into a prosperous family and studied at the Collège de Clermont. When he was twenty-one, he decided to abandon his social class and pursue a career on the stage, founding the Illustre Théâtre. His theater went bankrupt by 1645 and he spent twenty-four hours in prison. It is unknown who paid his debts but once he left prison, he changed his name and went back to the acting circuit. This was to last for twelve years and during this time he was able to gain the patronage of several aristocrats including Philippe I, Duke of Orleans, the brother of King Louis XIV.

By 1658, he had made his reputation in Paris and performed in front of King Louis XIV at the Louvre which was then for rent as a theater. He was named head of the actor’s troupe for the Duke of Orleans. Molière preferred tragedy but became famous for his farces which were presented in one act and were performed after the tragedy. Later in life he focused on writing musical comedies where the drama was interrupted by songs and/or dances. Jean-Baptiste de Lully wrote some of the music for these. Some of his plays made fun of society at the time and produced controversy but Molière was always careful not to attack the institution of the monarchy itself. He was to earn a position as one of King Louis’ favorites and enjoyed the king’s protection from attacks on his work. Eventually, the king became the official sponsor of Molière’s troupe.

In his fourteen years in Paris, Molière wrote thirty-one out of the eighty-five plays his troupe performed. By 1672, he was ill and was writing less and less. He was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis which he may have contracted when he was in prison. While performing ‘The Imaginary Invalid’ on stage on February 17, 1673 he collapsed with a fit of coughing and hemorrhaging. He insisted on finishing the performance.

When the play was over he collapsed again with more hemorrhaging and was taken home where he died a few hours later. Under French law, actors were not allowed to be buried in the sacred ground of the cemetery. Molière’s wife pleaded with the King to have a “normal” funeral at night and the King agreed. Molière was buried in a cemetery in a section reserved for unbaptized infants. In 1792, his remains were brought to the museum of French monuments and in 1817, they were transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, close to those of Jean de La Fontaine. In one of the great omissions of history, Molière was never admitted to the Académie Française.

5 responses

  1. About Molière, a French researcher using statistical and computer based methods has demonstrated (or at least shown in a very probative way) that his plays were written if not completely by Corneille, at least in collaboration with him. Corneille would have written at least the best parts of the plays. Historians, biographers give evidence about this collaboration. The researcher is Dominique Labbé. He wrote two books on this subject.

    Corneille dans l’ombre de Molière – LES IMPRESSIONS NOUVELLS Paris Bruxelles – 2003

    Si deux et deux sont quatre Molière n’a pas écrit Dom Juan, Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope, … – Max Milo 2009.

    I bought recently the two books, interested by the statistical methods and the computer based approach as well as by the historical approach. Contrary to Jean de La Fontaine, Molière was not able to write great poetry. He was above all a man of theater, a very efficient show organizer and leader of actors’ troupe, and before all, a great actor himself. At this epoch, write comedies threw suspicion on the authors. The noble genre was the tragedy, so that Corneille preferred to work in the shade with Molière to not stain his reputation.

    Comedy was considered to be a light, low If not as a vulgar fun, that the great poets were ashamed to write as if it were pornographic works.

    Moliere and his troupe were regularly playing pieces for the Court of Louis XIV. But suddenly the King refused him definitely the entry without giving any explanation to this reversal, as by a royal whim. Some historians supposed, in order to explain this cruel disgrace, that the King was aware of the cornelienne deception, equivalent to a plagiarism on the part of Molière (although this was with the agreement and the active complicity of Corneille himself). But it could be anything else. Something like a royal jealousy about a courtesan enjoying too Molière or someone of his troupe of actors.

    Molière biographers having devoted half of their life to him consider this Dominique Labbé (and other interesting ones) strongly supported hypothesis as a personal attack. The meaning of their work, the sense of their existence, are seriously threatened. The whole of French obviously also shows of resistance against this unbolting of the alleged genius of Molière that they are conditioned to recognize and praise since primary school. Molière was not least a great actor, a great theatre director and possibly a very imaginative scenario author that Corneille formatted with the art of his pen.

    There’s a similar story on the paternity of the works of Shakespeare. The great mathematician Cantor suddenly turned his research on transfinite numbers to demonstrate that it is Francis Bacon who wrote them!

    But the close collaboration of Molière and Corneille is much better documented.

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  2. I am scarred by Moliere, having had to study ‘Tartuffe’ for French A’level. Nothing personal, he was very talented! 🙂 But he was the main reason I had to buy a French dictionary the size of a small continent!

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    • HAHAHA! Yes Jo, I remember that. And I had to read Jean Paul Sartre in the original French too. Existentialism in French. Whew! I still have my French dictionary and it’s old and worn.

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