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...
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