At a Glance
Molière really knew how to tick people off. Born in 1622, he is considered France’s answer to Shakespeare and is arguably the greatest writer of neoclassical comedy. Several of his plays drew the ire of members of the inner circles of French aristocracy. Many were scandalized by his comedy of infidelity, The School for Wives. Not content to accept the rebukes quietly, Molière wrote a short play, The School for Wives Criticized, which defended his writing and poked fun at those who opposed him. The biggest controversy, however, was precipitated by his satire of religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe. Because of the king’s close ties to the church, the play was roundly condemned. After two rewrites, Tartuffe finally debuted in an edited version several years later. It has since become a classic of world literature.
Facts and Trivia
- The playwright was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. He later took Molière as a stage name.
- At one point, Molière came in close contact with an Italian theatrical troupe. The influence of the troupe’s commedia dell’arte is evident throughout his plays.
- Molière was an actor as well as a writer. He and his wife often played the principal roles in his plays.
- Molière collapsed onstage during a performance and died shortly thereafter. Ironically, he was performing the title role in The Imaginary Invalid, which ridiculed doctors and medicine.
- Because of the lowly status of theater people during his time, Molière was denied a Christian burial.
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...
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