Molière’s first comedies were composed of elements borrowed from a variety of comic genres, high and low, ancient and modern, foreign and domestic. In each, he revealed considerable skill in development of character, observation of manners, construction of plot, or a combination of all these laced with much amusing physical activity. There was little original invention until The Affected Young Ladies, which was a petite comédie, a short farce designed to be performed after a longer serious work, but a farce containing satire of the excesses of certain manners of the day. Still specializing in the farce, of which he would remain a master, Molière continued his search for originality. The School for Husbands, in three acts, is the first of his plays to add a social thesis, however disguised by humorous treatment, to the observation of manners and character.
The School for Wives
The School for Wives, Molière’s first major play, centers on the vain Arnolphe, who has taken the aristocratic name of M. de la Souche. Hoping to acquire the peace and happiness of a conjugal life in his old age, he wishes to marry his young ward, Agnès, who is being reared in solitude and ignorance. He praises the virtues of this unnatural form of education to his friend, Chrysalde, who protests against his plan in the name of common sense. Meanwhile, Horace, the son of Oronte, a great friend of Arnolphe, has fallen in love with Agnès and has even been successful in communicating with her. He confides in Arnolphe himself, whom he does not know by the name of de la Souche, and of whose role as guardian and jailer he is unaware.
In act 2, Arnolphe, after scolding his servants, Alain and Georgette, for having allowed Horace to enter the house, questions Agnès. She is innocent and docile and willingly gives him the details of her meeting with Horace, who has moved her, she admits ingenuously. Arnolphe decides to marry Agnès without delay and orders her to throw stones at the suitor if he dares to declare himself. In act 3, Arnolphe lectures Agnès further and makes her read the disagreeable “Maxims on Marriage”; later, Horace reports to Arnolphe the vain precautions taken by the jealous old man: Agnès had thrown Horace a stone, but only after attaching a love note to it.
As act 4 reveals, Arnolphe is prepared to fight for Agnès and issues orders to his servants accordingly. Nevertheless, Horace informs him that he has been able to visit Agnès and that he intends to elope with her during the night. Arnolphe calls for the notary to draw up a marriage contract and plans an ambush for Horace. In the fifth and final act, Horace is surprised by Alain and Georgette and severely beaten. Feigning death, he succeeds in abducting Agnès but foolishly entrusts her to Arnolphe, whom he still does not connect with the jealous old man. Arnolphe’s declarations of love do not touch Agnès, however, who now knows what true love is. Agnès’s father, who opportunely returns from America, allows her to marry Horace.
In five acts, this grande comédie exemplifies the formula that Molière had developed for his theater through a series of shorter pieces. As in The School for Husbands, the theme is the proper education of young women. The setting is a real one drawn from contemporary society. Arnolphe and Chrysalde are French bourgeois; Alain and Georgette are French peasants. At the same time, all the characters are highly personalized. Agnès is a remarkable portrait of a young woman who, acting on her instincts, becomes aware of her love for Horace and becomes aware of herself as a person. Arnolphe, the principal character, is both ridiculous, because of his obsession to keep Agnès in ignorance and be master of the house, and tragic, because of his unrequited love for Agnès and his despair at losing her, which ennobles him. In part through Chrysalde, one of his numerous mouthpieces, and in part through a conventional denouement, Molière reveals an important tenet of his philosophy: It is stupid and dangerous to try to suppress natural emotion, for it always wins out in the end.
The Critique of “The School for Wives”
The School for Wives was so successful as to earn for its author additional favors from the king and more polemics from diverse factions. Supported by Louis and the honnêtes gens, Molière responded to his enemies’ attacks in The Critique of “The School for Wives,” a one-act play in prose, by means of a series of caricatures and his definition of art as the portrayal of truth. The setting is Uranie’s salon, where a discussion of Molière’s play is taking place. Célimène, a précieuse, attacks Molière’s immorality and vulgarity, and is in turn attacked by Uranie for her affected prudery. The marquis criticizes the play for having made the common people laugh, whereupon Dorante defends their common sense and good judgment. The pedant Lysidas considers the play an insignificant piece that cannot be compared with serious plays. He casts doubt on the judgment of the court in applauding Molière’s work, for it breaks all the rules of art. Once again, it is Dorante who acts as the author’s spokesman by stating that comedy is as difficult as tragedy to create and more true to life. For him the greatest rule is to please, and he sides with the court in its approbation of The School for Wives. Molière’s enemies were not stilled; they counterattacked with other short plays, accusing him of being too personal, impious, and immoral in his private life.
The Versailles Impromptu
At the insistence of the king this time, Molière wrote another one-act piece in prose, The Versailles Impromptu, performed for Louis in October of 1663. Molière represents himself as director and actor in the midst of a rehearsal for a play to be given before the king. Having mocked the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Molière proceeds to give each of his players advice appropriate to his role and defends his theater, whose goal is to depict manners, not personalities. Whatever his enemies may say of his work does not disturb him, but he forbids them to intrude on his privacy. The piece concludes with an announcement from the king postponing the performance of the play under rehearsal.
Tartuffe, perhaps the most controversial of Molière’s comedies, was first given in its original version, now lost, as a part of Les Plaisirs de l’île enchantée, a week of the most extravagant entertainment offered by Louis XIV at Versailles in 1664 in honor of Louise de la Vallière. Tartuffe (then titled Tartuffe: Ou, L’Hypocrite) not only gave rise to another fierce polemic, but also was finally banned by the king at the insistence of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, a secret society dedicated to reforming manners, who were concerned that Molière had them in mind when he presented his hypocrite as a cleric. Molière modified and expanded the play from three to five acts, and Louis authorized its performance (entitled L’Imposteur) at the Palais-Royal in 1667. Although Molière had made the hypocrite a layperson and softened his satire, the police and the Archbishop of Paris took advantage of the king’s trip to Flanders to shut down the successful play. After more efforts by Molière and Louis, the comedy was again authorized in 1669 and performed triumphantly as Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur.
As the play begins, Mme Pernelle, pleased that her son, Orgon, has welcomed such a pious man into his household, roundly criticizes each member of the family who accuses Tartuffe of hypocrisy, including the outspoken servant Dorine. Returning from the country, Orgon inquires most solicitously about Tartuffe’s health (not his wife’s) and gives his brother-in-law, Cléante, an evasive answer regarding the proposed marriage of his daughter to Valère.
Complications develop in act 2: Despite Mariane’s dislike for Tartuffe, Orgon wants his daughter to marry him rather than the man whom she loves and who loves her. Dorine’s remonstrances are of no avail with Orgon, and she comforts the timid Mariane and settles the lovers’ quarrel that Orgon’s wishes have incited. In act 3, Orgon’s son Damis tries to intervene also, but Dorine makes him promise to leave matters to his stepmother, Elmire. The latter sends for Tartuffe, who finally appears. The young woman begs him to give up Mariane. The hypocrite takes advantage of the situation to try to seduce Elmire, who agrees not to reveal his scandalous behavior if he will favor the marriage of Mariane and Valère, but Damis, who overhears everything from a nearby closet, informs his father. Tartuffe feigns humility and deceives Orgon, who turns against his son and makes Tartuffe his heir.
Tartuffe is evasive when, in act 4, Cléante begs him to reconcile Orgon and Damis. Orgon wishes to hasten his daughter’s wedding to Tartuffe despite the protests of Cléante and Mariane. In order to disabuse her husband, Elmire has him hide under a table, summons Tartuffe, and pretends to respond to his passion. Finally understanding that he has been tricked by an impostor, Orgon comes out of his hiding place and orders Tartuffe to leave the house. The hypocrite abandons his mask and threatens Orgon, for the house belongs to him now.
The concluding act brings about the anticipated reversal. Orgon regrets having turned all his worldly possessions...
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