The School for Wives was probably the most popular success of Molière’s controversial career. When the play was first produced, Molière himself played Arnolphe, the middle-aged theorist of marriage, and Armande, his bride of less than a year, portrayed the ingenue, Agnès. Although the motif of the play is an old one and appears in Italian and Spanish tales, it is a fact that the problem of the ardent middle-aged lover and the bride half his age whom he has trained from girlhood was Molière’s own. Perhaps this is why, in the last act, when Arnolphe pleads with the girl for her love, the comedy seems to drop away, exposing an agonized and aging man speaking desperate and moving words. The play is very funny, but it rings with truth and psychological realism beneath the humor and absurdity.
The School for Wives was Molière’s first five-act comedy in verse, and generally its tone is realistic; the farcical action is confined, for the most part, to the servants. Although influenced by the traditional French farce and the Italian commedia dell’arte, the play is essentially a comedy of character, with an overlay of the comedy of manners. The theme is the old one that love conquers all and that the heart will always understand its own desires and will recognize the heart and soul destined to be joined with it. In an age of arranged marriages and subsequent philandering, Molière’s conviction that marriage should be based on love would have been radical if it had not been integrated into the absurdities of the comedy.
The subsidiary themes of the play are that a young woman has a right to decent education commensurate with her intelligence and curiosity and that any attempt to keep her ignorant is in contempt of her privileges as a human being. At the beginning of the play, Arnolphe sympathetically presents his position: He is so exasperated by feminine coquetry that he feels the only safety is in marrying a fool. His greatest mistake is in carrying his attitude to ridiculous and wrongheaded extremes. With the single-mindedness of a pedant, he constructs a complete scheme for rearing the girl in a convent from the age of four so that she will be entirely untrained in the ways of the world. His pride in his scheme warns the audience of his eventual and inevitable downfall.
The play is witty and amusing, but it contains a surprisingly small amount of action. Mostly, it consists of speeches, many of them long and drawn out, the audience hearing about the action more than witnessing it. To Molière’s contemporaries, however, such a comedy was subject to certain rules of decorum; all violent action was banned from the stage, and the audience’s imagination filled in what was necessary. Although the play is often static, it is never dull; The School for Wives is one of Molière’s most delightful comedies.
Agnès is one of the most fascinating characters in any Molière comedy;...
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