Other Literary Forms

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Molière is known only for his plays.

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Achievements

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Molière possessed a brilliant imagination, constantly creating new characters and easily moving from one type of comedy to another. His imagination was, however, carefully controlled through reason, by which he avoided excess. Reality is the point of departure for his wildest creations, and his comedies owe their depth to his keen observation of humanity. When Molière began writing for the theater there was little comedy, except for Pierre Corneille’s first works, and what there was leaned heavily toward the extravagant. Molière soon realized that, more than any other genre, comedy required a basis in truth. Consequently, he was not particularly concerned with original subjects or careful plots, but rather with the portrayal of manners and the study of character.

Therefore, Molière made free use of any subject or plot that came his way, borrowing in whole or in part from earlier French works of any genre, or from Latin, Italian, and Spanish sources. Although he was capable of devising clever plots, he believed that simple ones were better if the audience was to concentrate on the substance of the play. As for denouements, any or none would do, once he had said what he intended.

Molière was thoroughly familiar with the milieus of his day and represented them all faithfully as settings for his characters and their foibles. What interested Molière more than sociological truth, however, was universal truth. His precious ladies, pedants, and nouveaux riches could be of any era. More important than a wealth of exterior detail was this portrayal of universal types. These were to replace the conventional figures—boastful captains, scheming parasites, sweet ingenues, young lovers, and the like—of traditional comedy. Despite their universality, however, Molière’s characters were not created according to simple formulas. On the contrary, they are complex to an extreme, each possessing the general traits of the type observed and abstracted by Molière from reality, yet endowed with enough of the particulars to make each a real human being. There is no one stock servant in Molière’s work, but a series of individualized servants. His Miser is a lover as well. The Hypocrite is also a lecher. Molière’s dramatic universe is a very real one.

Molière made special use of those of his observations that could make the spectator laugh at humanity. Although the comedy almost always contains a serious meaning, its forms are extremely varied, and its tones range from the most farcical to the most subtle, all arranged with the utmost skill during the course of a single play. Thus, the spectator may remain unaware of how disagreeable a subject is until, the performance over, he reflects on it further. Especially telling is Molière’s device of making certain characters repeat words and gestures that reveal the vice or passion that controls each. By this technique, the characters are reduced almost to the status of machines and thus inspire, not sympathy or pity, but ridicule.

Molière believed that human nature was basically good and sensible, and he opposed any artificial constraints placed on it. Such constraints came not from society, which is a collection of human natures whose discipline reasonable people accept; rather, they had their source in perverse individuals who conformed neither to human nature nor to society. Molière has been criticized for excessive optimism and conformism, but however conservative his solutions to the problems that he posed, there can be no doubt that he was forthright and courageous in posing them.

Discussion Topics

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What do Molière’s plays reveal about his attitude toward society?

Although the word “farce” has acquired pejorative meanings, it is a legitimate theatrical form. What are the characteristics of farce?

Very often comedies end in unions, in marriages, but for Molière, marriage is sometimes the trouble. In such cases, does he have a different formula for concluding a comedy?

Are the troubles in Orgon’s family seventeenth century ones, or are there contemporary equivalents?

Consider the fact that Tartuffe is not only a foolish person but also a dangerous one.

Molière is considered to be the developer of modern comedy. What comic playwrights today most closely reflect a worldview like his?

Bibliography

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Calder, Andrew. Molière: The Theory and Practice of Comedy. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Athlone Press, 1993. An analysis of the comedic dramas of Molière. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Carmody, James Patrick. Rereading Molière: Mise en scène from Antoine to Vitez. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. An examination of the production of Molière’s plays and their stage history. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Finn, Thomas P. Molière’s Spanish Connection: Seventeenth Century Spanish Theatrical Influence on Imaginary Identity in Molière. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. A look at the influence of Spanish drama on identity in the works of Molière. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Kroen, Sheryl. Politics and Theater: The Crisis of Legitimacy in Restoration France, 1815-1830. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. This look at Restoration France examines Molière’s Tartuffe and its influence. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Lalande, Roxanne Decker. Intruders in the Play World: The Dynamics of Gender in Molière’s Comedies. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. A critical analysis of Molière’s plays from the perspective of gender. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Norman, Larry F. The Public Mirror: Molière and the Social Commerce of Depiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Norman examines social issues in the plays of Molière. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Scott, Virginia. Molière: A Theatrical Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A biography of the dramatist that examines his life as a man of the theater. Includes a bibliography and an index.

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Critical Essays