Authors: Molière

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French playwright, actor, and director

January 15, 1622 (baptized)

Paris, France

February 17, 1673

Paris, France

Biography

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. {$I[AN]9810000442} {$I[A]Molière} {$S[A]Poquelin, Jean-Baptiste;Molière} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Molière} {$I[tim]1622;Molière }

Molière

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Drama: L’Étourdi: Ou, Les Contre-temps, pr. 1653 (verse play; The Blunderer, 1678) Le Dépit amoureux, pr. 1656 (adaptation of Niccolò Secchi’s L’Interessé; The Love-Tiff, 1930) Les Précieuses ridicules, pr. 1659 (The Affected Young Ladies, 1732) Sganarelle: Ou, Le Cocu imaginaire, pr., pb. 1660 (All in the Wrong, 1817) Dom Garcie de Navarre: Ou, Le prince jaloux, pr. 1661, pb. 1682 Les Fâcheux, pr. 1661, pb. 1662 (The Sullen lovers: Or, The Impertinents, 1693 L’École des maris, pr., pb. 1661 (verse play; The School for Husbands, 1732) L’École des femmes, pr. 1662 (verse play; The School for Wives, 1732) La Critique de “L’École des femmes,” pr., pb. 1663 (The Critique of “The School for Wives,” 1957) L’Impromptu de Versailles, pr. 1663 (The Versailles Impromptu, 1714) Le Mariage forcé, pr., pb. 1664 (The Irish Widow, 1772) La Princesse d'Élide, pr. 1664 Le Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur, pr. 1664, revised pr. 1667 (verse play; Tartuffe, 1732) Dom Juan: Ou, Le Festin de Pierre, pr. 1665 (Don Juan, 1755) L’Amour médecin, pr. 1665 (Love’s the Best Doctor, 1755) Le Misanthrope, pr. 1666 (verse play; The Misanthrope, 1709) Le Médecin malgré lui, pr., pb. 1666 (The Doctor in Spite of Himself, 1672) Mélicerte, pr. 1666, pb. 1682 Pastorale comique, pr. 1667 Amphitryon, pr., pb. 1668 (verse play; English translation, 1755) Le Sicilien: Ou, L'amour peintre, pr. 1667, pb. 1668 (English translation, 1915) George Dandin: Ou, Le mari confondu, pr., pb. 1668 L’Avare, pr. 1668 (The Miser, 1672) Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, pr. 1670 (The Would-Be Gentleman, 1675; also known as The Bourgeois Gentleman) Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, pr. 1669, pb. 1670 (Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, or, Squire Trelooby, pr. 1704) Les Amans magnifiques, pr. 1670, pb. 1682 (The Lavish Lovers, 2009) Psyché, pr., pb. 1671 La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, pr. 1671, pb. 1682 Les Fourberies de Scapin, pr., pb. 1671 (The Cheats of Scapin, 1701) Les Femmes savantes, pr., pb. 1672 (verse play; The Learned Ladies, pr., pb. 1693) Le Malade imaginaire, pr. 1673 (The Imaginary Invalid, 1732; also known as The Hypochondriac) Les Oeuvres de Monsieur Molière, ca. 1673 (7 volumes) Dramatic Works, pb. 1875-1876 (3 volumes) The Plays of Molière, pb. 1926 (8 volumes) Bibliography 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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