If there’s a playwright every French-speaking student has studied, it’s Molière! It’s impossible to not have read the plays Les Fourberies de Scapin (“The Impostures of Scarpin”) or Le Médecin malgré lui (“The Doctor in Spite of Himself”): They’re on the syllabus at every school! And for good reason: The name Molière is deeply connected to the French language, to the point of being considered its greatest ambassador. But who was he? On the occasion of Molière’s 400th birthday, let’s revisit his life, his works and the heritage he left to posterity.
From Jean-Baptiste Poquelin To Molière: A Short Biography
A playwright’s difficult beginnings
Molière, whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, was born in 1622. His father was the king’s upholsterer, and as the oldest child, Jean-Baptiste was certainly not predestined for the theater! But at the age of 21, he created his first theater company, the Illustre Théâtre, with some friends, which included the Béjart siblings. However, they didn’t see much success, and the debts started to pile up.
The company left the capital in 1646 and went on tour in the countryside. At the time, it wasn’t easy living in a touring company, especially when the clergy wasn’t welcoming of theatrical performances. Molière and the Béjart siblings eventually joined a new company, led by the actor Charles Dufresne. In the summer of 1653, they gained sponsorship from Armand de Bourbon, the Prince of Conti, which opened new doors for them and allowed them to reach a new level of prosperity.
During this period, Molière wrote his first great comedies: comedic farces, inspired by Italian works, using similar devices to those found in the Comedia dell’arte. In 1658, when the troupe lost the sponsorship from the Prince of Conti, they were considered the best troupe de campagne (countryside troupe). Then the actors decided to take their chances again in Paris!
Return to Paris
This time, the Parisian adventure would turn out much better for the already well-known company. Sponsorship from Philippe d’Orléans, the king’s only brother, known as “Monsieur,” allowed them to perform at the Louvre in front of a high-class audience: Mazarin, Anne of Austria and Louis XIV. Not bad! Their success and the king’s validation gave them access to the Théâtre du Petit Bourbon. The “Troupe de Monsieur” played there for two years, where Molière officially took charge in 1659.
His play Les Précieuses Ridicules (“The Affected Young Ladies”) was performed for the first time in November 1659 and definitively cemented Molière’s triumph. It was an enormous success, and Molière was published for the first time.
Did you know?
In April 1660, when his younger brother died, Molière inherited the role of the king’s upholsterer and valet. He honored his duties until his death, including his presence every day when the king woke up, four months out of the year!
From the Théâtre du Petit Bourbon, the company moved to the Palais Royal (Royal Palace)! The first new play they performed, a more heroic piece called Dom Garcie de Navarre ou le Prince jaloux (“Don Garcia of Navarre or the Jealous Prince”), was a bitter failure. Molière’s acting in a tragedy was particularly criticized. This time, it was enough. Molière understood that he was better at comedies: both in his writing and in his acting.
Farces and comedies at the time were looked down on, often seen as mainstream or even vulgar. The trend was toward tragedies, but Molière ended up devoting himself again to comedies, almost against his own wishes.
In 1661, the play L’École des maris (“The School for Husbands”) put Molière back on the track to success. Then in 1662, the company created L’École des femmes (“The School for Wives”). This was when the first controversies surrounding this so-called “amoral” play were floated by various detractors, who also attacked Molière’s private life.
He sent them a message somewhat later with L’Impromptu de Versailles (“The Versailles Impromptu”), where he made fun of the actors by acting out his own company rehearsing. It was his way of asking his enemies to stop going after his private life.
1664 saw the premiere of Tartuffe, performed in front of the king, who applauded! Unfortunately, the king was persuaded by an archbishop to ban the play. Indeed, the play did not appeal to the clergy because of its position on a tricky question of the day: the separation of church and state. The devoutly religious felt ridiculed.
The royal consecration
The definitive version of Tartuffe came out in 1669, after five years of revising and numerous rewrites. It was a real triumph this time! It ended up becoming the play with the longest run of performances.
Until his death in 1673, Molière saw success after success. During the fourteen seasons since his return to Paris, his company performed 95 plays and more than 2,500 shows. Most of the satirical elements might have appeared harmless to his contemporaries. But many subjects were treated in very subtle ways: medicine, religion, the desire for liberty, social constraints, marriage, aging, jealousy, conscience, the place of women…
Because Molière knew how much the king enjoyed ballets, he created a new genre, the comédies-ballets, combining theater, song and dance. The first play in this genre, Les Fâcheux (“The Bores”), was “conceived, finished, learned and performed in fifteen days,” with Jean-Baptiste Lully on board for the music.
Extremely active until the end — actor, author, manager, head of the company and royal upholsterer — Molière died on February 17, 1673, just after the fourth performance of Le Malade imaginaire (“The Hypochondriac”) and one year after the death of Madeleine Béjart. One week later, the performances started again, with new actors in the roles of Alceste and Argan. And the performances haven’t stopped since!
The beginning of the Comédie Française
In 1680, after his death, the two main theater companies in Paris, once rivals, joined together. This was the beginning of the Comédie Française. Since then, the Comédie Française has been the longest-running company that has performed Molière uninterrupted. He’s closely associated with it, but Molière was never part of the prestigious institution.
French, Language Of Molière
It’s undeniable that Molière occupies a special place in the history of French literature, but where did this particular expression come from?
This idea of characterizing a language by one of its famous authors isn’t only used for French. While French became the language of Molière, it’s the language of Goethe for German, the language of Shakespeare for English and the language of Cervantes for Spanish. These references point to a language that’s been preserved, harkening back to one of its great classic authors.
Molière, the national hero
The expression might have started to be used in the 17th century when French became the language of diplomacy in Europe. It was the era of great influence under Louis XIV, and French was adopted as the working language in many European courts. Naturally, they talked about Molière!
But it was especially in the 19th century that the phrase became popular. When faced with other rising powers, each country looks for its own hero. In France, they thought of Molière, in the tradition of a Vercingétorix or of a Rabelais. He became the embodiment of l’esprit français, honoring this irreverent spirit instead of those who denounced it from above.
A contemporary comedic power
What’s particularly remarkable about Molière’s comedy is that it’s extremely anchored in references to current events in a way that can be transposed to any era. His humor, like that of a comedian, as we would call it today, uses devices that can apply to current life. His mockery of snobs, the rich, the self-righteous, is itself quite modern.
His plays cross borders, both in the French-speaking world and beyond. Molière is the most performed and translated playwright in the world, and for good reason! Many cultures have adopted his comedies. Although topics like religion and arranged marriages aren’t as significant in much of the west, his plays still speak to many regions of the world. His humor and skill with words confirm that even today, French remains the language of Molière.
This article was originally published on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.