The Affected Young Ladies was first performed only one year after the author’s permanent establishment in Paris; it was an enormous success and secured his reputation as the capital’s foremost dramatist. The play is significant as a curious blend of the particular and the universal, for it not only ridicules a specific group in the Parisian society of Molière’s day but also satirizes human foibles common to every time and place.
In the second quarter of the seventeenth century, there grew up in Paris, in reaction to the prevalent coarseness of manners in French society, a group known as the Précieux. This group centered on the literary salon of Madame de Rambouillet and was devoted to the cultivation of dignified speech and manners and the study, discussion, and patronage of literature. What began as a sort of cultural club, however, evolved in the hands of Madame de Rambouillet’s successors into a fad distinguished only by its absurdity. The later Précieux, who met to gossip and act out scenes from popular romantic novels, spoke in a highly affected style that became for a time the rage in salons all over Paris. It is the craze led by this later circle that Molière lampoons in Les Précieuses ridicules (which is also frequently translated as Two Precious Damsels Ridiculed). Madame de Rambouillet herself, realizing that Molière’s barbs were aimed not at her but at her successors, was one of the play’s ardent admirers and invited Molière to stage three performances at her home.
Given the specificity of the play’s target, it is easy to imagine its success with Molière’s contemporaries. They understood all the references and recognized the follies of the characters. They laughed at Cathos’s and Magdelon’s assumption of romantic pseudonyms (“The names Polixene and Aminte are far more graceful, you must agree”) and their avowal to live their lives as romantic heroines; they sympathized with the down-to-earth Gorgibus and his bewilderment in the face of his daughter’s and niece’s “gibberish” (“No doubt about it; they’re over the edge”). If audiences continue to laugh at this play for more than three centuries, the answer lies in the universality of Molière’s comedy. The impulse toward preciosity is not exclusively a seventeenth century French phenomenon but rather a constitutional weakness common to all people. Every time and place has its précieux because the desire for distinctiveness and novelty of expression seems to be part of human nature. Thus it is that people laugh at Cathos and Magdelon, at Mascarille and Jodelet, even as they recognize some of their folly and affectation as their own.
Molière found the perfect vehicle for making audiences laugh at human folly in plays such as The Affected Young Ladies . In the development of this style, he drew heavily on two sources: traditional French farce and Italian commedia dell’arte. Using and creatively transforming features from each, he molded the kind of dramatic comedy for which he became famous. Masks, for example, which date back to ancient times and which had been revived in Italian drama, were thereupon adopted by French neoclassicists, who used them to characterize types such as scheming valets, jealous husbands, unscrupulous liars, misers, prudes, braggarts, coquettes, libertines, and pedants. Molière developed his own character types on the basis of old stock figures; two of his most famous types were Sganarelle and Mascarille. He became a master of the device of the mask and developed the art of relying on gesture and posture rather than facial expression to convey meaning. After expanding, modifying, and exploring all the theatrical possibilities of masks, however, Molière went on to...
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do what the commedia dell’arte never attempted: He depicted through his characters all the social relationships and class conditions within French society, exposing the vices of high and low alike with his wit.
In an early play such as The Affected Young Ladies, the masks are still of standard farcical types. In the play’s original performances, Molière himself played Mascarille, wearing a mask, while Jodelet, a widely popular slapstick comedian, performed under his own name, wearing the white powder mask for which he was famous. The figures of Mascarille and Jodelet—valets who have a talent for parading about, passing for what they are not—represent the folly of affectation and falseness. They are the agents through which Molière ridicules the representatives of the Précieux, Cathos and Magdelon; they are brought to humiliation through their gullible acceptance of the valets’ deception. The message in The Affected Young Ladies is basically the same as in all of Molière’s plays: Excess, whether of vice or virtue, leads to downfall. Molière, a constant and thorough observer of life, early concluded that people who become dominated by a single passion, idea, or obsession lose their common sense. Because the two young ladies in this play have been carried beyond all bounds of reason by their passion for romances, they are easily duped by the valets.
The plot in The Affected Young Ladies, as in all of Molière’s comedies, is minimal; it is merely a vehicle to allow characters their full comic play, which is the playwright’s primary purpose. Molière was a master of all the verbal laugh-getting devices, including double entendre, echo-dialogues, and malapropisms, but above all he was the supreme farceur. Some fine examples of traditional, rollicking French farce in this play include Mascarille’s entrance with the sedan-chair bearers, the drubbing of the valets by La Grange and Du Croisy, and Jodelet’s stripping of his countless layers of garments. For this reason, a play such as The Affected Young Ladies must be seen performed for full effect. Molière’s greatness lies in his ability to fuse astute criticism of the follies and absurdities of human behavior with unsurpassed comedy. Ironically, perhaps his greatest and most lasting tribute came from one of his contemporaries who, in a malicious attempt to slander him, called Molière “the first jester of France.”