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            I         INTRODUCTION   
Molière (1622-1673), France’s greatest comic dramatist, who produced, directed, and acted in the plays he wrote. Many of his comedies addressed serious themes and pointed the way to modern drama and experimental theater.

            II      LIFE  
Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, the son of a well-to-do upholsterer who worked at the king’s court, Molière attended the Jesuit Collège de Clermont. He then turned his back on a secure future in the position he could have inherited from his father and became an actor instead. After founding the Illustre Théâtre (Illustrious Theater Company) in Paris with actors Joseph and Madeleine Béjart, he adopted the name Molière. Although the company foundered in 1645, he toured the French provinces in another troupe with the Béjarts from 1645 to 1658. During that time, Molière began writing short plays, influenced by French farce and the popular form of Italian theater known as commedia dell’arte.

In October 1658 the traveling company accepted an offer from the king of France, Louis XIV (known as the “Sun King”), to present plays in the Théâtre du Petit Bourbon, part of the Louvre palace in Paris. There Molière produced his first major comedy, Les précieuses ridicules (1659; translated as The Conceited Ladies, 1732), a satire on the extravagant manners, style, and language of contemporary women who wished to distinguish themselves through excessively refined taste and behavior.

In 1662 Molière married Armande Béjart, the much younger sister of Madeleine and also a member of his troupe. The marriage was not a happy one. This misfortune was reflected in L’école des femmes (1662; School for Wives, 1739). In this play the character Arnolphe’s efforts to shape his much younger prospective bride, Agnès, through education in a convent and his own tyrannical rules are defeated by Agnès’s natural inclination toward Horace, a man her own age.

Les précieuses ridicules and L’école des femmes were highly successful and aroused considerable jealousy among Molière’s rivals. To answer his critics and satirize them in the process, Molière wrote and produced two short discussion plays in 1663: La critique de l’école des femmes (The School for Wives Criticized, 1739) and L’impromptu de Versailles (The Impromptu of Versailles, 1739). The king supported Molière during these battles and in 1664 became godfather to his son. That same year Molière wrote the first version of Tartuffe (translated 1670), a play that satirized religious hypocrisy. It was banned from the stage through the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church. Molière wrote two more versions of the play, in 1667 and 1669, and the third version was finally produced. During these years he also wrote seven of his greatest plays, including the complex Dom Juan (1665; Don Juan, 1739); his masterpiece, Le misanthrope (1666; The Misanthrope, 1739); L’avare (1668; The Miser, 1739); and Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1739), called a comedy-ballet because it included ballet interludes as part of the narrative. In addition to writing these plays (most of which are in rhyming couplets), Molière managed the business of his company, directed all the productions, and played some of the most demanding roles.

Molière’s last great plays were Les femmes savantes (1672; The Learned Ladies, 1739) and Le malade imaginaire (1673; The Hypochondriac, 1739). Ironically, Molière, who had been grievously ill for some time, played the role of the hypochondriac in his last play, fell mortally ill during the fourth performance, and died an hour after being taken home. Because of the disapproval of the Roman Catholic Church, it was only through the intervention of the king that Molière was allowed to be buried in holy ground, and this only in the dead of night.

            III   WORKS  
Molière’s works reveal an evolution from farce to more serious comedies of manners and character. In terms of form, Les précieuses ridicules is important because, although a one-act play written in prose, it is nonetheless a sophisticated comedy of manners. Similarly, L’école des maris (1661; School for Husbands, 1739) is significant because it addresses a more serious subject than earlier works and takes a more sophisticated form, a five-act social comedy written in verse in a meter known as alexandrine. Tartuffe and Le misanthrope, five-act plays in verse, mark the height of Molière’s career in the perfection of their poetry and the subtlety and complexity of their themes. Later plays innovated through their form; Le bourgeois gentilhomme, for example, was a comedy-ballet that paved the way for opera.

The society of Molière’s time, led by King Louis XIV, formed an intelligent and cultivated audience ready to appreciate a new style of comic drama and able to discern serious moral and social issues beneath the laughter and fun. Molière had the good fortune to write and perform during a creative and energetic age, and for a society that was itself theatrical in its interest in spectacle and its keen perception of the difference between reality and illusion. No less important for Molière were members of the audience from the lower classes (called parterre because they stood in front of the stage, the parterre), and he rated their understanding and appreciation of his plays very highly.

Molière was preoccupied with what it meant to be human. He presents characters who—through their hypocrisy, immoderation, vanity, tyranny, and greed—exceed the acceptable limits of being human and must therefore be punished through laughter. The hypocrites Tartuffe and Orgon tyrannize the family. Alceste of Le misanthrope demands absolute sincerity of his merely human associates. Pedantic vanity dominates the learned ladies of Les femmes savantes, and Arnolphe tries to play God in forming Agnès in L’école des femmes. In all these plays, the qualities that win out in the end are authenticity, moderation, and respect for what follows nature’s plan or advances human freedom. Often the plot involves the efforts of old men to marry or marry off young women. Molière, who himself had taken a bride 20 years his junior with disastrous consequences, condemned such efforts to go against the order of nature. He celebrates the triumph of youth and fertility over old age and sterility at the end of such plays as L’école des femmes, Tartuffe, Le médecin malgré lui (1666; The Doctor In Spite of Himself, 1739), and L’avare.

No play better illustrates Molière’s comic art in all its complexity than Le misanthrope. Alceste, a suitor of the coquettish Célimène, has come to Célimène’s home to demand once and for all that she express her feelings and intentions. Alceste demands absolute truthfulness in all social relations, and Molière derives considerable comic effect from the character’s infatuation with the ever-false Célimène. Alceste’s friend Philinte stands for moderation in all things, including truthfulness, and the dialogue between the two men throughout the play analyzes this issue. Other suitors, meanwhile, arrive to plague Alceste. The prudish Arsinöé, in love with Alceste, duels verbally with Célimène in a scene of brilliant repartee. It is difficult to decide which of the many positions represented in the play Molière favors, but many critics feel that Eliante, Célimène’s cousin, who loves Alceste but will perhaps marry Philinte, best represents the author’s views. Eliante’s behavior and words reflect a philosophy of moderation like Philinte’s, but she insists there is something noble about Alceste and his views. Molière seems to suggest that even moderation itself can be excessive. The play ends as Alceste, rejected by Célimène, leaves to live by himself in the “desert” of the provinces.

            IV    ASSESSMENT  
French comedy since Molière is inseparable from his innovations. The Comédie Française, founded in 1680 as the first state-supported theater in France, has long been known as “the house of Molière.” The 18th-century dramatists Pierre Marivaux and Pierre Beaumarchais were deeply indebted to Molière—Marivaux in his use of sophisticated language and Beaumarchais with his biting satires—as were many of the comic writers of the 19th century. Critics in more recent times have detected Molière’s imprint on writers of the theater of the absurd in the 1950s and on other experimental movements.

The clearest evidence of the enduring legacy of Molière can be found in the French language itself. Just as one finds in English, Italian, and Spanish expressions from the works of William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Miguel de Cervantes, respectively, so the French use lines from Molière’s plays in everyday speech, often unaware of their source.


Contributed By:
D. Dale Cosper

"Molière."Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.



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The Life and Times of Jean-Baptiste “Moliere” Poquelin


The 17th century is noted for being a period of extravagance and power for the French Monarchy. King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu transformed France's feudal monarchy to an absolute monarchy. Louis XIV, however, is the French king most associated with this period. Also known as the Sun King, Louis strengthened his own power by keeping all the local princes and lords occupied with the elaborate court life at his palace at Versailles. This period is also known for the genius of the writers, architects and musicians who were promoted by the royal court. Unfortunately, Louis' extravagance, in particular Louis XIV's endless wars, was expensive, and would leave much of France in financial peril by the end of his reign.


1622- January 15, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is born


1623- Galileo publishes L’Assayer


1624- French painter Poussin moves to Rome to study sculpture.


1627- Claude follows Poussin to Rome, where Poussin paints Sleeping Nymph Surprised by Satyrs


1628- Phillipe de Champaigne appointed royal painter to Marie de Medicis


1630- Poussin developes antiquarian interests in Rome.  First microscopic photos of insects published by Francesco Stalluti.


1632- Jean Baptiste’s mother passes away. Galileo publishes his ideas about the universe. First textbook of surgical pathology published by Marco Aurelio Severino.


1633- Claude discovers his distinctive landscape style in Rome.


1636  France enters the Thirty Years' War against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.


1637- Playwright Pierre Corneille presents El Cid, the first in a series of great French tragedies.


1638- Jean-Baptiste studies at the Clermont Jesuit College, followed by a brief career in law


1639  Works by the philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes have entered Dutch universities. Descartes rejects relying on authorities regarding idea


1642- Jean-Baptiste follows his father’s footsteps as a tapestry maker for Louise XIII. King Charles I is in conflict with his Calvinist and Puritan subjects and with Parliament. Civil war has erupted.


1643- King Louis XIII dies, and Jean-Baptiste co-founds L’Illustre Theatre.  Louise XIV is made king.


1644- Jean-Baptiste chooses pen-name of Moliere


1645- Moliere imprisoned twice for debts


1646- First French opera, Akebar roi du Mogol, performed at Carpentras.


1648-  European powers fighting the Thirty Years' War, are exhausted.  The war ends with a realization of the need for more tolerance between Catholics and Protestants.  Laurent Le Hyre is one of twelve founding professors at the French academy of painting and sculpture.


1649- King Charles I and his army have been defeated. Charles is beheaded. England is a republic.


1650-  Descartes dies.  French grammarian Vaugelas, to whom Moliere refers in The Learned Ladies, also dies this year.


1651  Thomas Hobbes publishes The Leviathan.


1653- Jean-Baptiste Lully enters King’s service as dancer and composer of ballets.  He also composed music for several of Moliere’s plays.


1654- Moliere’s first play, L’Etourdi, opens in Lyon


1656- Moliere’s Le Depit Amoureux opens in Beziers


1658- Present Nicomede and Le Docteur Amoureux for King Loiuse XIV, gaining Moliere the patronage of the King’s younger brother


1659- Moliere’s Les Precieuses Ridicules causes both delight and offence.  His younger brother dies and Moliere takes over the family tapestry business, which he keeps til his death.  The same year, he presents Sganarelle ou le Cocu Imaginaire.


1660  England's parliament restores the monarchy to the eldest son of Charles I, Charles II.


1661- Moliere’s L’Ecole Des Maris opens with great success


1662- Moliere follows with the success of L’Ecole des Femmes.  The same year, Moliere marries Armande Bejart and is accepted with his troup into the King’s court.


1664- Moliere’s Tartuffe is performed for the king at Versailles, but public performance is delayed because of opposition from the establishment.  The same year Moliere’s son, Louise, is born, to die before his first birthday.  France establishes companies in East and West India.


1665- Moliere premiers Don Juan as Armande gives birth to a baby girl.  The troupe also presents two of Racine’s plays.  The same year, another war between the English and Dutch has begun. English soldiers seize the town of New Amsterdam and rename it New York after the king's brother, the Duke of York!


1666- Moliere premiers Le Misanthrope and Le Medicine Malgre Lui


1667- The troupe premier Moliere’s L’Impostuer as well as producing Corneille’s Atilla. This year Moliere first experiences deterioration in his health.  Racine opens Andromoque the same year.  The first blood transfusion also takes place in Paris.


1668- Moliere’s L’Avare, based on a play of Plautus, opens, as well as Amphitryon and George Dandin.


1670- Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme opens.


1671- Moliere opens Les Fourberies de Scapin and Psyche


1672- Les Femmes Savantes opens.  Moliere’s second son is born and dies shortly after baptism.  The same year, Charles II joins Louis XIV of France in another war against the Dutch.


1673- February, Moliere suffers a coughing fit during a performance of his final play Le Malade Imaginiare and dies a few hours after the curtain falls of tuberculosis.


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