Last reviewed: June 2018
French playwright, actor, and director
January 15, 1622 (baptized)
February 17, 1673
Not many details of the life of Molière (mawl-yehr) are known, but of his reputation as France’s comic genius there is no doubt. He was a popular and appreciated playwright in his lifetime; since his death his fame has spread, and his plays continue to delight audiences. Molière
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was baptized on January 15, 1622, in the Parisian church of Saint Eustache. In all probability he was born on the same day. His father, Jean, was a prosperous upholsterer who held a royal commission. His mother was Marie Cressé.
At the age of ten Jean-Baptiste was sent to the Collège de Clermont, a school conducted by the Jesuits. Afterward he studied law and perhaps in 1641 took a law degree at Orléans. It is thought that in 1642 he accompanied Louis XIII to Narbonne and Lyons as a substitute for his father. Somehow during these formative years he fell in love with the theater, a love he never lost. According to legend, his maternal grandfather took him often to performances at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. In any event, in 1643 he and three members of the Béjart family formed a theatrical company called L’Illustre Théâtre.
The leading spirit of the Béjarts was Madeleine, a woman five years older than Jean-Baptiste, experienced in acting. The situation must have been somewhat scandalous, for the Poquelin family was solid bourgeois, and acting as a profession was held in low esteem. Until her death Madeleine was Molière’s guide, business helper, and leading actress.
The young company tried out briefly in Rouen and then returned to Paris under the patronage of Gaston, duc d’Orléans. By 1644 the company had failed, Jean-Baptiste had begun signing his name Molière, and as the director of the troupe he had been in prison three times for debt. To escape their troubles, Molière and the Béjarts joined another company under Dufresne and spent the years from 1645 to 1658 in the provinces, chiefly at Lyons. Tradition has it that this provincial apprenticeship was difficult and filled with hardship; in fact, the life of strolling players was anything but easy. Molière, however, soon advanced to the position of director, and the patronage of the duc d’Épernon stood him in good stead even during the civil wars of the Fronde. At Lyons, perhaps in 1653, he produced his first play, The Blunderer. He added a number of actors to his troupe, among them Mademoiselles du Parc and de Brie. According to legend, he enjoyed the favors of both.
In October of 1658 Molière returned to Paris under the sponsorship of the king’s brother. The production of The Affected Young Ladies (also known as The Romantic Ladies) on November 18, 1659, made him the most discussed dramatist of the day. This satire exposed mercilessly the affectations of high society, particularly the fashionable preciosity in speech. In spite of the controversy raised in the elegant world by the play, Molière continued to please most playgoers. He was astute enough also to court the young Louis XIV, and royal patronage helped him maintain his preeminence.
The School for Husbands and The School for Wives both describe the failed efforts of aging men to control their young wives or fiancés. In both comedies, all ends well for the sympathetic characters, and inflexible male characters discover that their power over women is illusory. On February 20, 1662, Molière married the nineteen-year-old Armande Béjart, but the marriage was not happy for a number of reasons.
The next few years were difficult ones. Both Tartuffe and Don Juan were censured by secular and ecclesiastical authorities. In spite of the friendship of Louis XIV, Molière had difficulty in presenting these dramas. (Tartuffe, although written five years before, could not be presented in its entirety until 1669.) In 1665 occurred the famous break with Jean Racine, who took his play Alexandre away from Molière’s company and gave it to a rival troupe. The following year Molière suffered an attack of pleurisy which left both lungs affected. Although The Doctor in Spite of Himself was a great success, he lost heavily on his production of Pierre Corneille’s Attila. About this time Molière was estranged from Armande. They were not reunited until 1671, just before the death of Madeleine. In 1672 a son (their third child) was born.
In 1673 Molière was playing in The Imaginary Invalid. He gave his usual fine performance at the fourth showing of the new play, but afterward he complained of his health. He died that same night. His widow had to appeal to both the archbishop of Paris and the king for permission to have Molière buried in sanctified ground.
Molière’s entire adult life was intimately allied with the theater. In addition to writing plays, he directed and acted, and for many years he was manager of his own company. Molière’s theatrical troupe was especially well paid for the lavish court spectacles and ballet comedies on which Molière worked with court composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully. He was unexcelled as a comic actor in spite of his halting speech. Unlike many in his profession, he became wealthy. He was shrewd in cultivating royal favor and hard-headed in business. More important is the fact that Molière left a canon of comedy unique in Western literature. All his plays are marked by humor and good sense. Many of his scenes are broadly farcical, but underneath the buffoonery is a steady and searching criticism of society. He is never bitter or pompous, and his continued appeal to readers and playgoers alike is testimony to his deep understanding of human behavior.
About a handful of Molière's plays were performed during his lifetime but not published until nearly a decade after his death. Many of his best-known works were later translated into English.