Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3926
Molière’s first comedies were composed of elements borrowed from a variety of comic genres, high and low, ancient and modern, foreign and domestic. In each, he revealed considerable skill in development of character, observation of manners, construction of plot, or a combination of all these laced with much amusing physical...
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Molière’s first comedies were composed of elements borrowed from a variety of comic genres, high and low, ancient and modern, foreign and domestic. In each, he revealed considerable skill in development of character, observation of manners, construction of plot, or a combination of all these laced with much amusing physical activity. There was little original invention until The Affected Young Ladies, which was a petite comédie, a short farce designed to be performed after a longer serious work, but a farce containing satire of the excesses of certain manners of the day. Still specializing in the farce, of which he would remain a master, Molière continued his search for originality. The School for Husbands, in three acts, is the first of his plays to add a social thesis, however disguised by humorous treatment, to the observation of manners and character.
The School for Wives
The School for Wives, Molière’s first major play, centers on the vain Arnolphe, who has taken the aristocratic name of M. de la Souche. Hoping to acquire the peace and happiness of a conjugal life in his old age, he wishes to marry his young ward, Agnès, who is being reared in solitude and ignorance. He praises the virtues of this unnatural form of education to his friend, Chrysalde, who protests against his plan in the name of common sense. Meanwhile, Horace, the son of Oronte, a great friend of Arnolphe, has fallen in love with Agnès and has even been successful in communicating with her. He confides in Arnolphe himself, whom he does not know by the name of de la Souche, and of whose role as guardian and jailer he is unaware.
In act 2, Arnolphe, after scolding his servants, Alain and Georgette, for having allowed Horace to enter the house, questions Agnès. She is innocent and docile and willingly gives him the details of her meeting with Horace, who has moved her, she admits ingenuously. Arnolphe decides to marry Agnès without delay and orders her to throw stones at the suitor if he dares to declare himself. In act 3, Arnolphe lectures Agnès further and makes her read the disagreeable “Maxims on Marriage”; later, Horace reports to Arnolphe the vain precautions taken by the jealous old man: Agnès had thrown Horace a stone, but only after attaching a love note to it.
As act 4 reveals, Arnolphe is prepared to fight for Agnès and issues orders to his servants accordingly. Nevertheless, Horace informs him that he has been able to visit Agnès and that he intends to elope with her during the night. Arnolphe calls for the notary to draw up a marriage contract and plans an ambush for Horace. In the fifth and final act, Horace is surprised by Alain and Georgette and severely beaten. Feigning death, he succeeds in abducting Agnès but foolishly entrusts her to Arnolphe, whom he still does not connect with the jealous old man. Arnolphe’s declarations of love do not touch Agnès, however, who now knows what true love is. Agnès’s father, who opportunely returns from America, allows her to marry Horace.
In five acts, this grande comédie exemplifies the formula that Molière had developed for his theater through a series of shorter pieces. As in The School for Husbands, the theme is the proper education of young women. The setting is a real one drawn from contemporary society. Arnolphe and Chrysalde are French bourgeois; Alain and Georgette are French peasants. At the same time, all the characters are highly personalized. Agnès is a remarkable portrait of a young woman who, acting on her instincts, becomes aware of her love for Horace and becomes aware of herself as a person. Arnolphe, the principal character, is both ridiculous, because of his obsession to keep Agnès in ignorance and be master of the house, and tragic, because of his unrequited love for Agnès and his despair at losing her, which ennobles him. In part through Chrysalde, one of his numerous mouthpieces, and in part through a conventional denouement, Molière reveals an important tenet of his philosophy: It is stupid and dangerous to try to suppress natural emotion, for it always wins out in the end.
The Critique of “The School for Wives”
The School for Wives was so successful as to earn for its author additional favors from the king and more polemics from diverse factions. Supported by Louis and the honnêtes gens, Molière responded to his enemies’ attacks in The Critique of “The School for Wives,” a one-act play in prose, by means of a series of caricatures and his definition of art as the portrayal of truth. The setting is Uranie’s salon, where a discussion of Molière’s play is taking place. Célimène, a précieuse, attacks Molière’s immorality and vulgarity, and is in turn attacked by Uranie for her affected prudery. The marquis criticizes the play for having made the common people laugh, whereupon Dorante defends their common sense and good judgment. The pedant Lysidas considers the play an insignificant piece that cannot be compared with serious plays. He casts doubt on the judgment of the court in applauding Molière’s work, for it breaks all the rules of art. Once again, it is Dorante who acts as the author’s spokesman by stating that comedy is as difficult as tragedy to create and more true to life. For him the greatest rule is to please, and he sides with the court in its approbation of The School for Wives. Molière’s enemies were not stilled; they counterattacked with other short plays, accusing him of being too personal, impious, and immoral in his private life.
The Versailles Impromptu
At the insistence of the king this time, Molière wrote another one-act piece in prose, The Versailles Impromptu, performed for Louis in October of 1663. Molière represents himself as director and actor in the midst of a rehearsal for a play to be given before the king. Having mocked the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Molière proceeds to give each of his players advice appropriate to his role and defends his theater, whose goal is to depict manners, not personalities. Whatever his enemies may say of his work does not disturb him, but he forbids them to intrude on his privacy. The piece concludes with an announcement from the king postponing the performance of the play under rehearsal.
Tartuffe, perhaps the most controversial of Molière’s comedies, was first given in its original version, now lost, as a part of Les Plaisirs de l’île enchantée, a week of the most extravagant entertainment offered by Louis XIV at Versailles in 1664 in honor of Louise de la Vallière. Tartuffe (then titled Tartuffe: Ou, L’Hypocrite) not only gave rise to another fierce polemic, but also was finally banned by the king at the insistence of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, a secret society dedicated to reforming manners, who were concerned that Molière had them in mind when he presented his hypocrite as a cleric. Molière modified and expanded the play from three to five acts, and Louis authorized its performance (entitled L’Imposteur) at the Palais-Royal in 1667. Although Molière had made the hypocrite a layperson and softened his satire, the police and the Archbishop of Paris took advantage of the king’s trip to Flanders to shut down the successful play. After more efforts by Molière and Louis, the comedy was again authorized in 1669 and performed triumphantly as Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur.
As the play begins, Mme Pernelle, pleased that her son, Orgon, has welcomed such a pious man into his household, roundly criticizes each member of the family who accuses Tartuffe of hypocrisy, including the outspoken servant Dorine. Returning from the country, Orgon inquires most solicitously about Tartuffe’s health (not his wife’s) and gives his brother-in-law, Cléante, an evasive answer regarding the proposed marriage of his daughter to Valère.
Complications develop in act 2: Despite Mariane’s dislike for Tartuffe, Orgon wants his daughter to marry him rather than the man whom she loves and who loves her. Dorine’s remonstrances are of no avail with Orgon, and she comforts the timid Mariane and settles the lovers’ quarrel that Orgon’s wishes have incited. In act 3, Orgon’s son Damis tries to intervene also, but Dorine makes him promise to leave matters to his stepmother, Elmire. The latter sends for Tartuffe, who finally appears. The young woman begs him to give up Mariane. The hypocrite takes advantage of the situation to try to seduce Elmire, who agrees not to reveal his scandalous behavior if he will favor the marriage of Mariane and Valère, but Damis, who overhears everything from a nearby closet, informs his father. Tartuffe feigns humility and deceives Orgon, who turns against his son and makes Tartuffe his heir.
Tartuffe is evasive when, in act 4, Cléante begs him to reconcile Orgon and Damis. Orgon wishes to hasten his daughter’s wedding to Tartuffe despite the protests of Cléante and Mariane. In order to disabuse her husband, Elmire has him hide under a table, summons Tartuffe, and pretends to respond to his passion. Finally understanding that he has been tricked by an impostor, Orgon comes out of his hiding place and orders Tartuffe to leave the house. The hypocrite abandons his mask and threatens Orgon, for the house belongs to him now.
The concluding act brings about the anticipated reversal. Orgon regrets having turned all his worldly possessions over to Tartuffe, including a strongbox containing the papers entrusted to him by a friend who is in political trouble. Mme Pernelle continues to have faith in Tartuffe when M. Loyal arrives with a court order to evict Orgon. Valère offers to help Orgon escape, for the incriminating strongbox has been turned over to the king’s officers. Tartuffe appears in person with an officer to have Orgon arrested, but it is Tartuffe who is arrested instead; the king had been alerted to the impostor’s fraudulent activities and knew of Orgon’s services to the royal cause during the rebellion of the Fronde. The deus ex machina ending finds the king praised and Valère and Mariane about to be married.
In Tartuffe, Molière claimed to attack hypocrisy only and took pains to have Cléante, his spokesman, distinguish carefully between true and false piety. Despite praise of the former, the only avowed Christians in the work, Orgon and his mother, are depicted as ridiculous, whereas the principal characters shown in a good light, Elmire and Cléante, are not religious persons. The emphasis in Tartuffe is clearly on human rather than divine wisdom, very much in the spirit of the eighteenth century philosophes.
Tartuffe’s is a skillful plot that maintains interest in its theme, the rise and fall of a religious hypocrite, from the lively, realistic exposition to the unlikely denouement. It is the perfect model of a comedy of character as well. Although all the characters are complex, drawn from life, it is Tartuffe who stands out, not only for his hypocrisy, but his keen intelligence, strong will, and great powers of dissimulation. For all his cleverness, however, he has a weakness, his sensuality coupled with greed, and this brutal passion causes his downfall.
Between 1664 and 1669, Molière produced ten comedies in addition to reworking Tartuffe. Among them was Don Juan, whose Spanish subject had become popular in Italy and France. Molière’s version, a five-act play in prose, was very successful, but again, he was opposed by the religious faction. No doubt the libertine’s cynicism, his perverse seduction, his impious “articles of faith,” and his unrepentant sins were shocking to audiences of the time. Still more shocking was his novel recourse to hypocrisy in the last act, although in the end Don Juan remains an unregenerate sinner and is led off to Hell.
As the play begins, Don Juan informs his valet, Sganarelle, that his happiness consists in seducing all women without becoming attached to any. Elvire, whom he has abandoned, attempts in vain to win him back. Shipwrecked on the coast during a storm, Don Juan and Sganarelle are taken in by some peasants. There, Don Juan seduces two young women, whom he deceives with promises of marriage. Pursued by Elvire’s brothers, he hides in the forest with Sganarelle.
In act 3, to the horror of his valet, Don Juan explains his “articles of faith,” which may be summarized as “two and two are four.” He meets a poor man and tries to bribe him with alms to blaspheme. Then he saves the life of one of Elvire’s brothers. In an act of bravado, he invites the statue of a Commander whom he killed in the past to dine; the statue accepts with a gesture.
In the fourth act, Don Juan is insolent to his father, Don Louis, who rebukes him for his scandalous life, and he remains insensitive to the prayers of Elvire, who, before retiring to a convent, would like to bring him to repentance. He sits down to dine, and the statue appears to remind him of his invitation. Sganarelle is terrified, but Don Juan retains his composure.
In the final act, Don Juan, having pretended to repent before his father, explains to Sganarelle that henceforth he intends to wear the mask of a hypocrite; it is in this manner also that he responds to the challenge of Elvire’s brothers. At this point, a ghost appears to tell Don Juan that he has only a moment in which to repent if he wishes divine mercy. Hardhearted, he mocks this warning. The Commander’s statue arrives, takes him by the hand, and Don Juan is engulfed in the invisible flames of Hell.
At first glance, Don Juan does not seem to be related to its author’s earlier works. Molière did wish to try something new. The play requires several changes of scene and machinery to achieve stage effects. It includes the supernatural along with the realistic, phantoms and an animated statue along with peasants drawn from real life. Similarly, the comedy of the almost burlesque scene with M. Dimanche alternates with the tragic qualities of Don Louis’s vehement speech to his son.
Yet this work is related to Molière’s serious concerns. For the first time in the succession of versions of the Don Juan story, the principal character is not only debauched but also a hypocrite. As long as he is a seducer and blasphemer, divine mercy will spare him; when in the last act he pretends to be converted, he goes too far, and divine patience is exhausted. While in Tartuffe it is the king who intervenes to punish the hypocrite, in Don Juan it is Heaven. Molière thus uses another occasion to attack his enemies’ false piety, but again religion, false or sincere, finds itself in a weak position. Atheism is defended by a vicious but intelligent and charming aristocrat, whereas the defender of religion is a sensible yet somewhat obtuse valet.
A five-act comedy in verse, The Misanthrope, on which Molière had been working since 1664, finally appeared in 1666. Although well received by the intellectual elite, the work did not enjoy great favor with the general public, who preferred Molière’s farces, comedies with music and ballet, and satire.
In the salon of a young widow, Célimène, whom he awaits, the misanthropic Alceste rails to his friend, the indulgent Philinte, against the worldly hypocrisy that makes him detest humankind. Nevertheless, he loves the coquettish Célimène. Oronte asks Alceste for his opinion of a love sonnet that he has composed. Reticent at first, Alceste finally blurts out his opinion of the piece, which he finds detestable. Furious, Oronte withdraws, followed by Alceste and Philinte, who leave together.
As act 2 begins, Alceste has brought Célimène home, where he reproaches her for her fickleness and tries to make her declare her love. The arrival of two dandies, Acaste and Clitandre, suitors of Célimène, interrupts the scene between the lovers. Philinte and Eliante, Célimène’s cousin, arrive, and a conversation takes place in which the young widow draws satiric portraits of friends in their absence. Célimène’s clever but biting tongue makes Alceste indignant, and he is not spared her witty attacks. Alceste must leave, for he is being sued by Oronte because of his critical judgment of the sonnet.
In act 3, Acaste and Clitandre make a pact: The one who can first give clear proof of Célimène’s love for him shall be declared the winner. During a visit with Arsinoë, Célimène is provoked by her guest’s innuendos regarding her flirtations into giving the prude her comeuppance. Her vanity wounded, Arsinoë tries in vain to charm Alceste, but she succeeds in troubling him with regard to Célimène’s love, offering to furnish him evidence that she is betraying him.
The fourth act adds further complications. When Philinte tells Eliante how Alceste and Oronte have patched up their differences, she reveals her admiration for the misanthrope’s heroic sincerity; in turn, Philinte declares his love to her. Alceste, however, arrives in a rage, for Arsinoë has produced a note written by Célimène to Oronte. Alceste offers his heart to Eliante, and, when Célimène appears, he heaps reproach on her. Lying artfully, she justifies herself and triumphs over Alceste, who loves her more than ever despite shame for his weakness. Her explanation is interrupted by the arrival of the burlesque valet, Dubois, with the news that Alceste has lost an important lawsuit and risks arrest.
The conclusion plays against comic conventions. Alceste decides to leave society, against Philinte’s advice, and he wants to know if Célimène is ready to accompany him. She arrives with Oronte, and when the two suitors demand that she choose between them, she is embarrassed and asks Eliante, who refuses, to judge. When Acaste and Clitandre appear and read notes that make it clear to all how false Célimène has been with her several suitors, her salon is deserted. Only Alceste remains to offer himself if she will follow him. She accepts him as a husband but refuses to leave Paris. Alceste will not marry her under these conditions, and, as Eliante agrees to marry Philinte, he prepares to go to his retreat alone.
Unlike most of Molière’s plays, which take place in a bourgeois setting, The Misanthrope depicts the aristocracy of the period. The often crude humor of an earlier time has been replaced by refined manners. An elegant elite frequents Célimène’s salon where visiting, conversation, and gallantry are the preferred diversions. The charming young widow’s guests reveal their wit by improvising verbal portraits, engaging in subtle analyses of amorous themes, and judging one another’s latest verses. Molière reveals, however, that beneath this society’s brilliant exterior there lies mediocrity and profound hypocrisy: Polite manners thinly veil coldness; the art of conversation consists of clever but malicious gossip or sarcastic repartee between supposed friends; gallantry is coupled with contempt for women and love.
The Misanthrope is a love story, too, told as it is ending. From the first scene between Alceste and Célimène one knows that they are incompatible, for they disagree on everything, especially love, which for her is only flirtation, for him total commitment. Love has blinded Alceste, and he indulges himself in the hope of reforming Célimène, until he begins to suspect that he has been betrayed. He then scorns Célimène, and he scorns himself for being unable to stifle his passion. When he is certain that Célimène does not love him, he rejects her as being unworthy of him and takes refuge in voluntary exile. Contrary to the traditions of comedy, the lovers separate at the end.
Finally, The Misanthrope is a perfect comedy of character. The characters’ features are less striking than those found in Tartuffe, but they are more delicately modeled. Alceste, whose soul is noble, has a disagreeable temperament. He is the opposite of Philinte, who is a man of the world, outwardly indulgent to his fellows, although he really despises them. In contrast to Célimène, the eternal coquette, young, beautiful, and witty, but heartless, stand the wise Eliante and the prudish Arsinoë. Among the secondary figures at whom Molière points the finger of ridicule, Oronte, the would-be poet whose vanity leads him to commit nasty, cowardly acts, is outstanding.
Each age sees The Misanthrope differently, according to its own preoccupations, and discovers a new wealth of emotions and ideas. Whereas the seventeenth century found Alceste odd and ridiculous, later periods have appreciated his heroic and pathetic side.
Molière’s career changed direction when, in 1669, the ban on Tartuffe was finally lifted. He felt vindicated, and he took care thereafter not to write highly controversial works. Charged with the organization of royal entertainments, he produced the farces and comedies with music and dance that had always won for him general acclaim, as well as a number of novel pieces, often in collaboration with Lully and on one occasion with Corneille. There was, as always, much satire, but of politically powerless types. For example, because of his ill health, Molière found doctors an increasingly favorite object of his attacks.
The Actor and Director
Molière’s worst enemies admitted that he was an extraordinary comedic actor. Despite the efforts of traditionalists to make him fit a classical mold, it is more accurate to say that he followed Gallic and Italian traditions. Not only did Molière know Scaramouche but also he was on familiar terms with the whole Italian troupe and their work; he imitated the costumes and traits of both Scaramouche and Sganarelle. Above all, he learned the art of caricature and mime, long popular in France and so necessary for the Italians in a foreign country, and applied their synthetic approach to re-create life in his theaters. Molière developed a stylized walk, posture, and facial expression by which he became known to his public for many years in whatever role he played. There were important modifications from time to time, depending on the roles and changes in Molière’s physical condition, but his basic philosophy remained the same.
Molière governed his troupe with cordial familiarity and firm authority. He was a most exacting director at a time when directing had not advanced far, and he made fine actors and actresses of mediocre talents. As has been noted, Molière’s first efforts to recruit a repertoire met with small success; he was obliged to create his own, one that served as a model closely followed by his successors for many years. Among Molière’s many duties was that of keeping order among the spectators in his theater, not always an easy task at the time. It seems that Molière was as successful on this count as on the many others required to create the national theater in France that is his glory.