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The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance

Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) 


French actor, playwright, and *manager. Molière changed the face of French theatre and raised *comedy to a status almost equal to that of *tragedy, and he did this in a career in Paris that lasted only fourteen years. He was born into the solid bourgeoisie in the heart of Paris; his father, an interior decorator like both grandfathers, had prospered greatly and secured an appointment at court. At the age of 21 he joined a young company, headed by Madeleine *Béjart and her siblings, that rashly attempted to compete with the *Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Théâtre du *Marais. Bankruptcy followed, and Molière and the Béjarts disappeared into the provinces. Thirteen years later, in 1658, the company, now headed by Molière, returned to Paris. The king's brother secured them an audition before the court; a tragedy by *Corneille was tepidly received, but Molière's *farce afterpiece, now lost, was so successful that Louis XIV allowed the company to share the *Petit-Bourbon theatre with the *commedia dell'arte troupe of Scaramouche.

At this point Molière had written two competent comedies in five acts and verse, the obligatory format for ‘regular’ literary drama (see neoclassicism), and several one-act farces, of which two survive. The troupe supplemented this material with old plays by other authors and with the personal repertory of *Jodelet, who soon joined from the Marais; it subsisted thus for over a year until Molière produced his first new play in Paris, the one-act afterpiece Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Damsels, 1659). This *satire on contemporary affectations was so unlike standard theatrical fare that it quadrupled receipts and made Molière a controversial celebrity; another successful new farce, Sganarelle; or, The Imaginary Cuckold (1660), solidified his position.

The demolition of the Petit-Bourbon forced the troupe to move to the derelict *Palais Royal, which, after repairs, opened in January 1661. Two weeks later Molière offered a project intended to establish him as an actor of serious roles: his ‘heroic’ play Dom Garcie de Navarre; or, The Jealous Prince. The failure was humiliating and complete, but it was followed in the same year by two great successes: The School for Husbands and Les Fâcheux (The Bores), the first of the *comédies-ballets. This hybrid venture, commissioned by Foucquet to entertain the king, alternated a series of caricatures of courtly eccentrics, of whom Molière played four, with *dances by Beauchamps in an outdoor setting by *Torelli, his last project in France. Like most of the comédies-ballets that followed, The Bores was later adapted for public performance at the Palais Royal.

Within three years of his arrival, Molière had learned that in tragic roles his vocal delivery was too choppy, his bearing too ungainly, his approach too conversational to gain favour with *audiences. In comedy he was a revelation: he was admired for the expressiveness of his face (reputedly learned from Scaramouche), the sharp observation of contemporary social behaviour, and what was described rather helplessly as the naturalness of his acting. Still, for an actor and an author, comedy was inferior in prestige to tragedy, and the afterpiece was a minor form. His next work, sixteen months later, was a ‘regular’ five-act verse play standing alone on the bill: The School for Wives (1662). It was a novel treatment of a traditional plot and a tour de force for himself, Mlle de *Brie, and *La Grange, the troupe's three best actors. Some moralists found the play indecent and impious; its popularity enraged the rival Hôtel de Bourgogne; and a flurry of pamphlets and polemical afterpieces ensued that lasted two years and raised attendance at both houses. Armande *Béjart, the 19-year-old sister (or daughter) of Madeleine, had married Molière earlier in the year; now she made her first appearances in the two plays that Molière contributed to the controversy, The Critique of the School for Wives and The Versailles Impromptu. *Montfleury, satirized in these plays, so far forgot himself as to accuse Molière of having married his own daughter; the king, to whom this complaint was addressed, responded by standing godfather to the couple's first child and by commissioning and dancing in Molière's second comédie-ballet, The Forced Marriage.

Molière was no longer a mere entertainer but a literary author to be taken seriously, a favourite of the king, and a man with enemies, who began working to suppress Tartuffe even before it was performed. The preliminary three-act version that was presented as part of a festival at Versailles was banned within days, after pressure from the Archbishop of Paris and perhaps also the queen mother. The ban was not lifted until 1669, after five years of revisions and appeals. Meanwhile, after producing the first play of *Racine, the troupe presented a spectacle-play on a popular subject, Don Juan (1665), in which La Grange played the charming, amoral aristocrat. Denunciations from the pulpit were thunderous, focusing on the performance of Molière in the role of the nattering, moralistic valet. Attendance was excellent, but for reasons we can only guess at, the play abruptly and permanently vanished from the repertory. The king's favour continued, however; in August 1665 he gave the company the title of the Comédiens du Roi and an annual subsidy, and in September commissioned another comédie-ballet. In June 1666, after a lengthy illness which forced the theatre to close, Molière presented the third of his great plays on hypocrisy, The Misanthrope, with himself as Alceste and his wife as Célimène; the play drew puzzled admiration and reasonably good receipts. The Misanthrope was a watershed in Molière's career: after it he wrote only one more ‘regular’ play, The Learned Ladies (1672), and prose, fantasy, and visual spectacle dominated the second half of his career as verse and *realism had the first. Most of Molière's later plays defy traditional classification: even The Doctor in Spite of Himself, the next play after The Misanthrope, is a play-within-a-play, a commedia plot framed by a native French farce, while The Tricks of Scapin (1671), ostensibly a throwback to commedia, seems to ironize that genre's conventions. Amphitryon (1668), his most poetic play, was written in free verse rather than traditional alexandrines; furthermore, it was a ‘machine-play’ like Psyché (1671), a ‘tragedy-ballet’ with settings by Carlo *Vigarani and text by Molière, *Quinault, and Corneille that was transferred at vast expense from the Tuileries to the Palais Royal, where it became the troupe's most reliable producer of income. Many of the comédies-ballets lose their meaning outside the matrix of court production: George Dandin (1668), shorn of its *pastoral interludes, is like an antimasque without the *masque. Two of Molière's most enduringly popular works, The Would-Be Gentleman (1670) and The Hypochondriac (1673), combine the characteristics of the comédie-ballet and character comedy; and each *denouement, instead of restoring the deluded central *character to reality, carries him off in a final *ballet sequence into the realms of permanent fantasy.

During that ballet in the fourth performance of The Hypochondriac, Molière was fatally stricken, finished the show, and died at home a few hours later. Implacable to the end, the church first refused burial, then permitted maimèd rites. At the end of the season, four actors defected to the Hôtel de Bourgogne and *Lully, composer for many of the comédies-ballets, seized the Palais Royal. The remaining members moved to the rue Guénégaud and absorbed the Marais troupe; in 1680 a merger with the Hôtel de Bourgogne created what soon became known as the *Comédie-Française.

Molière's role was always the comic lead, a list that includes heavy fathers, clever or befuddled valets, hapless husbands, rustics, and foolish courtiers. The constant is what contemporaries called the ‘naturalness’ of his acting style. This term implied a contrast with his predecessors, who had achieved success by creating and satisfying audience expectations of a familiar stage persona with a recurrent name, *costume, and bag of tricks; Molière regularly defied expectation, and he individualized the name and costume of each character he played. In *scenography also, the setting, though it might use stock elements, was specific to the play and frequently situated the characters in their private interior environment, a practice then rare.

The Comédie-Française is called the ‘house of Molière’ with some reason, but the boast of a continuous performance tradition is misleading. From the moment of its founding the Comédie jettisoned Molière's scenic reforms in favour of stock sets—it used the same decor for Tartuffe and The Miser as late as 1907—while Molière's own roles were parcelled out among several actors. Thus the personal repertory of Molière became fragmented into various *lines of business which in the following centuries developed their own performance traditions, coloured by the work of later authors.

Molière's modern status in the pantheon of French and world literature reflects a long critical tradition, symbiotic with the practices of the Comédie-Française, that concentrated on the ‘serious’ masterpieces, that saw him as the exponent of a benign, cautious moral philosophy, and that valued the dramatic over the theatrical and the verbal over the visual. The landmark productions of Molière in the twentieth century took place outside the Comédie: *Antoine's Tartuffe at the *Odéon (1907), *Jouvet's School for Wives at the Athénée (1936), *Planchon's Tartuffe at the *Théâtre National Populaire in Lyon (1962), *Vitez's ‘tetralogy’ at *Avignon (1978). Since the mid-1980s the Comédie has belatedly begun to embrace untraditional stagings. Some of these were merely repackaging of the standard reading of the plays as tragic autobiography, but some have achieved genuinely fresh interpretations. One of the Comédie's important actors, the Polish-trained Andrzej Seweryn, staged the relatively unfamiliar Forced Marriage as a mordant, surreal fable of modern despotism (1999), while Jean-Louis Benoit's production of the beloved Would-Be Gentleman (2000), with a stunning design by Alain Chambon, rediscovered a balance between comedy and ballet, farce and fantasy, that honoured the seventeenth century while delighting audiences of the twenty-first.

Roger W. Herzel

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