Article abstract: By grafting character study and social commentary upon traditional farce, Molière became the creator of modern French comedy and continues to be ranked as France’s finest comic playwright.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in Paris, France, and was baptized on January 15, 1622, the eldest child of Marie Cressé Poquelin and Jean Poquelin, who came from well-to-do families, prominent for two generations as merchant upholsterers. Jean-Baptiste was followed by five other children, only three of whom survived. When he was ten years of age, his mother died, and his father remarried and moved to a house in the cultural and social center of Paris. Meanwhile, Poquelin was assuring his son’s future. He sent Jean-Baptiste to the Jesuit College of Clermont, an excellent school which was attended by students of the most prominent families, and then had him begin the study of law in Orléans. In 1641, Jean-Baptiste became a notary.
In a society whose center was the king, anyone who was ambitious needed court connections. In 1631, Jean Poquelin had purchased from his brother the largely honorary office of valet and upholsterer to the king. Six years later, he had obtained hereditary rights to the position for Jean-Baptiste and had him take the oath of office. Given his family background, his education, his profession, and his future court position, Jean-Baptiste’s pathway to prosperity seemed clearly marked.
Jean-Baptiste, however, had fallen under the influence of the actress Madeleine Béjart, and in 1643 he renounced his court position, abandoned his social status, and even risked damnation, according to the clerics of his time, in order to become an actor. Béjart, her brother Joseph, her sister Geneviève, Jean-Baptiste (now calling himself Molière), and nine other actors formed a theatrical company, rented a theater, and, at the beginning of 1644, began to produce their plays. They were, however, unsuccessful. Their financial condition was so poor that Molière, who had become the manager of the troupe, was twice imprisoned for debt and had to be rescued by his father.
In 1646, Molière and the three Béjarts, along with several other actors, began a tour of the provinces. During the next twelve years, Molière learned his craft as an actor, who before long was regularly cast in leading roles; as a producer and financial manager; and as a writer, who practiced his skill in farcical sketches before proceeding to full-length plays. By 1658, Molière and his troupe of seasoned actors were ready once again to attempt the conquest of Paris. With his self-discipline, his energy, and his dedication to the theater, Molière was to prove a brilliant leader. Although his hatred of hypocrisy, which he expressed in telling satire, would earn for him enemies, his genius would bring him friends to defend him, not the least his king. While he was uncompromising in principle, Molière was tolerant in practice and equipped with consistent good humor. It was fortunate that Molière possessed such qualities, for there would be adversities during the last fifteen years of his life that must have made him yearn for the carefree, vagabond days in the provinces.
On October 24, 1658, Molière and his troupe gave the performance that would determine their future. They appeared at the Louvre before the young King Louis XIV, his brother Philippe, or “Monsieur,” and the court. Although the king was unenthusiastic about their major play, a tragedy by Pierre Corneille, he enjoyed Molière’s farce. As a result, the troupe was granted permission to play at the royal Petit-Bourbon theater, where they shared performance days with the Italian Comedians until the Italians went back to Italy in July, 1659. Because they were under the patronage of Philippe, Molière’s troupe was called the troupe de Monsieur (Monsieur’s troupe).
It is not surprising that the king preferred Molière’s comedies to other plays that the company performed. Although they were based on Italian comedies and farces, Molière’s plays were superior in language, in wit, in the inventiveness of their plots, and, above all, in the realistic depiction of character. Soon the company was reviving Molière’s earlier full-length plays, written when he was in the provinces, L’étourdi: Ou, Les Contretemps (1653; The Blunderer, 1678) and Le Dépit amoureux (1656; The Love-Tiff, 1930). Molière followed them with his first comedy of manners, Les Précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Young Ladies, 1732), which satirizes the affectations of Parisian society. This play was then followed by Sganarelle: Ou, Le Cocu imaginaire (1662; Sganarelle, 1755), a complicated story of love and misunderstanding, which became one of Louis’s favorites.
A contemporary portrait of Molière at breakfast with Louis XIV reveals the strength of character which was one of the playwright’s dominant traits. Molière’s sharp features, hawklike nose, and firm chin reflect his determination; barely resting on the chair, he is all nervous energy, a creative artist temporarily restrained only by the presence of his monarch.
Unfortunately, the approval of the king and the adulation of the public aroused the jealousy of rival troupes, who intrigued against him and in 1660 succeeded in having his theater torn down without...
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