Note to readers: To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great French playwright Molière, we are republishing this commentary on his work, which first came out in Paris Update on November 18, 2020. A recorded version is available in the audio file at the end of the article.
Those of you who know Paris will be familiar with the sight of the statue and fountain that stand at the junction of Rue Richelieu and Rue Molière in the first arrondissement, just around the corner from the Comédie Française. Built in 1844, it was the first nationally subscribed public monument to commemorate a nonmilitary figure, and it testifies to the high regard in which France’s most famous comic playwright, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673), much better known by his pen name Molière, is held.
Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of having your statue literally placed on a pedestal in the center of your country’s capital city is that your theatrical output will inevitably be regarded with solemn reverence and with the utmost seriousness, leading to productions that try to squeeze every drop of tragic import from each scene. I have seen many a turgid production of Molière’s theater in France, where the audience has maintained a mournful silence, seemingly not even daring to laugh, just in case their laughter might be mistaken for frivolity. Luckily, in recent years, theater directors have begun to recognize both that Molière’s plays are hilarious and that laughter and profundity are not mutually exclusive.
The play that made Molière’s name in 17th-century Paris was his 1662 comedy L’École des Femmes (School for Wives). Not only was it a popular success, but it also enraged critics and rival playwrights because of the way he managed to mingle higher linguistic comedy with much earthier physical comedy, derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition. It was thought that the different forms of comedy should remain separate, but Molière threw that custom on its head by starting the play with a discussion on the nature of satire by Arnolphe and his friend Chrysalde, speaking in elegant 12-syllable rhyming couplets, followed immediately in the next scene by Arnolphe being locked out of his own house by his servants, who (while still maintaining the same verse form) use truncated language that mimics the improvisation of Italian comedy.
School for Wives establishes a pattern that is largely followed in all of Molière’s comedies. A central (usually male) figure of authority, played by Molière himself in the first performances, has an obsession that has a detrimental effect on the lives of those around him. As the play evolves, that principal character’s authority is progressively undermined. In this case, Arnolphe thinks that he can mold the perfect wife, the young and innocent Agnès, by keeping her locked up at home, away from the seemingly pernicious influence of the feminists of his day, the salon habituées known as précieuses who advocated independent thinking for women. Inevitably, Arnolphe’s ambitious plan fails spectacularly, leading Agnès to fall in love with a much more suitable suitor.
The two plays that are perhaps most widely known and performed in the English-speaking world are Tartuffe, or the Impostor (first version, 1664; final version, 1669) and The Misanthrope (1666).
Tartuffe, which initially had the subtitle “or the Hypocrite,” was clearly directed against hypocrisy within the Church, but, after vehement opposition from various religious authorities led to the first version of the play being banned, Molière changed the central character to an outsider posing as a pious man. Tartuffe infiltrates a bourgeois household, the head of which is the gullible Orgon (first played by Molière) who in a fit of religious zeal promises his daughter in marriage to Tartuffe, who is himself far more interested in seducing Orgon’s wife, Elmire. With Orgon and his mother, Mme Pernelle (played by a man in the earliest performances), obsessed with Tartuffe, it is left to the other members of the household, led by Elmire and the straight-talking servant Dorine, to expose Tartuffe’s duplicity.
This play lends itself extremely well to updating, and I have seen a number of very effective versions, with Tartuffe variously portrayed as an evangelical American preacher, a Hindu holy man and an imam.
The Misanthrope is the Molière play that has been given the most anachronistic and darkly tragic readings. Alceste, the central figure, who professes hatred of humankind in general and the society of his day in particular, and yet is in love with seemingly the most superficial socialite, Célimène, appeals particularly to earnest directors who seem to think they are performing Ibsen rather than Molière. Alceste, who proclaims at the end that he is going to live in the desert, far away from any other human, has even been portrayed in one production I saw as shooting himself after he has left the stage. This interpretation completely undermines the final lines of the play, when Alceste’s friend Philinte insists on following Alceste to bring him back into society.
Perhaps also we should remember the words of one of Molière’s favorite actors, Montfleury, who wrote of Molière’s plays: “We laugh when seeing/hearing them, and we weep when reading them.” What might seem darkly serious on the page turns out to be something altogether different and more humorous on the stage.
Final mention must also be made of Molière’s contribution to the comédie-ballet, a hybrid genre combining theater and music, which was particularly appreciated by Louis XIV. Molière’s crowning glories in this domain are Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), a collaboration with the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1670), and the ironically titled Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac, 1673), written with composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, in which Molière explores the relationship between words and music, as the two are first presented as completely separate and then gradually become intertwined, culminating in a magnificent fusion of words, song and dance at the end. Ironically, Molière collapsed while playing the title role in an early performance of the play, dying later the same night.
There are a number of very good interpretations of Molière plays on the Internet in both French and English. Particularly recommended is the glorious production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique, which aims to recreate 17th-century performance styles, staging, costume, makeup and pronunciation, and manages to convey Molière’s sparkling vision and wit with aplomb.Favorite