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.