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The son of a Parisian artisan, Poquelin lost his mother when still a child and entered the prestigious Jesuits' Collège de Clermont, to complete his studies. It is said that his father was very demanding of him, or that in this college he met the prince of Conti, or that he was a pupil of the philosopher Pierre Gassendi, but these statements appear to be no more than rumours.
It is certain, however, that Poquelin was a close friend of the abbé La Mothe Le Vayer, son of François de La Mothe-Le-Vayer, in the years in which the abbé was reordering his father's works, and this leads to the conclusion that Poquelin may have been influenced by them. Among his first works was a translation of De Rerum Natura by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, now lost.
At the age of 18, Poquelin's father left him the title of Tapissier du Roi, and the annexed charge of valet de chambre by which he could be in frequent contact with the king. Poquelin is supposed to have graduated in law at Orleans in 1642, but some doubts remain as to this.
In June 1643, together with his lover Madeleine Béjart and a brother and sister of hers, he founded the theatre company or troupe of L'Illustre Théâtre, which failed in 1645. At this time he assumed the pseudonym of Molière, inspired by the name of a small village in Southern France. The failure of the company caused him to spend some weeks in prison for debt. With the help of his father he was freed, and left with Madeleine for a tour of villages as a travelling comedian. This life lasted for 14 years, during which he played with the companies of Charles Dufresne, and after that he created a company of his own. In the course of his travels he met the prince of Conti, the governor of Languedoc, who granted him his protection, and he named his company after him. But this friendship would end later, when Conti joined Molière's enemies in the party of Devotes.
In Lyon Mme Duparc, famous as la Marquise, joined the company. La Marquise was vainly courted by Pierre Corneille and later became the lover of Jean Racine. Racine offered Molière his tragedy Théagène et Chariclée (one of his first works after he had left his theology studies), but he didn't perform it, though he encouraged Racine to follow his artistic vein. It is said that Molière was soon very angry with him when he was told that Racine had secretly presented his tragedy to the company of Hôtel de Bourgogne too.
Molière reached Paris in 1658 and played at the Louvre (then for rent as a theatre) in Corneille's tragedy Nicomède and the farce Le docteur amoureux (the doctor in love), with a certain success. He was awarded the title of Troupe de Monsieur (the Monsieur was the king's brother) and with the help of Monsieur, his company joined a locally famous Italian company (that played Commedia dell'arte) and steadily established at their theatre Petit-Bourbon, where in November 18, 1659, he gave the prima of Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies), one of his masterpieces.
It was really the first of his many attempts to extract the ridiculous out of certain mannerisms and affectations then common in France. It was Molière, indeed, who used to say in Latin that satire castigat ridendo mores (it criticises customs through humour - the sentence was created by him but it is sometimes mistaken for an ancient expression). The style and the contents of his first success were soon at the centre of a broad literary debate.
Despite his inclination for tragedy, Molière became famous for his farces, generally in one act and played after the tragedy. Some of these farces were only partly written, and were played in the style of Commedia dell'arte with improvisation over a canovaccio. He also wrote two comedies in verse, but with less fortune and generally considered of lesser value.
"Les Précieuses" won Molière the attention and the criticism of many, but his popular success did not. He then asked his Italian partner Tiberio Fiorelli, famous for his Scaramouche, to teach him the techniques of Commedia dell'arte, In 1660 his Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire (the imaginary cuckhold) seems at the same time a tribute to Commedia dell'arte and to his teacher. The theme of marital relationships was here enriched by the insertion of a view of Molière's about the quantity of falseness in the human relationships, that he depicted with a certain pessimism. This was in his later works too, and was a source of inspiration for many later authors, included (on another field and with different effects) Luigi Pirandello.
In 1661, in order to please his maecenas (Monsieur), he wrote and played Dom Garcie de Navarre, ou le Prince jaloux (the jealous prince), a heroic comedy derived from a Cicognini's work. Monsieur was Philippe, Duke of Orléans, who so much loved entertainment and art that he soon was excluded from the state affairs. Two other comedies of the same year were the successful L'École des maris (the school for husbands) and Les Fâcheux, that he subtitled as Comédie faite pour les divertissements du Roi (a comedy for the king's amusements) because played during a series of parties that Nicolas Fouquet gave in honour of the sovereign. These divertissements brought Jean-Baptiste Colbert to require the arrest of Fouquet for waste of public money and his condemnation for life.
In 1662 Molière moved to the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, still with his Italian partners, and married Armande, whom he supposed to be the sister of Madeleine while she was actually her illegitimate daughter (the result of a flirtation with Duc of Modène in 1643, when Molière and Madeleine were starting their adventure). The same year he played L'École des femmes (The School for Wives), another masterpiece. Both this work and his marriage attracted lots of criticism. On the artistic side he responded with two minor yet elegant and interesting works, La Critique de «École des femmes» (in which he imagined the spectators of his previous work having assisted to it) and L'Impromptu de Versailles (about Molière's troupe prepaing an improvisation). It was the so-called la guerre comique, that saw on the opposite side known writers like Donneau de Visé, Boursault, Montfleury.
But, more seriously and with less art, in the French high society a so-called parti des Dévots was soon created against his excessive "realism" and his irreverence, that were creating a certain embarrassment; these people accused him also of having married his daughter; the prince of Conti too, once his friend, joined them. Other enemies Molière could find in Jansenists and in traditional authors. The king expressed his solidarity with the author granting him a pension and agreeing to be the godfather of Molière's first son.
Soon Boileau was going to support him using some of his own statements, that he included in his Art poétique, and the friendship with Jean Baptiste Lully would have influenced Molière for his Le Mariage forcé and La Princesse d'Élide (subtitled as "Comédie galante mêlée de musique et d'entrées de ballet"), written for royal "divertissements" at Versailles.
Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur was performed at Versailles too, in 1664, and created the greatest scandal of his artistic career. The outlined general hypocrisy of the dominant classes was received as an outrage and violently contested. The same king (allegedly) suggested he suspend the performances, and rapidly Molière wrote Dom Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre. It was a strange theme, derived from a work by Tirso de Molina and inspired by the life of Giovanni Tenorio; rendered in a still today modern prose, it describes the story of an atheist that becomes a religious hypocrite and for this is punished by God. This work too was quickly suspended. The king, to demonstrate again his protection, became the new official sponsor of the troupe.
With a great music by Lully, Molière presented L'Amour médecin; subtitles this time reported that the work was given "par ordre du Roi", by the king's order. The acceptance of this work was warmer than the previous ones.
In 1666, Le Misanthrope was produced. It is perhaps Molièère's most refined masterpiece, the one with the highest moral content, and was little appreciated at its time. It caused the "conversion" of Donneau de Vasé, who became fond of his theatre. The commercial flop forced Molière to immediately write the Le Médecin malgré lui (A Doctor Despite Himself), a satire against the official sciences; it was a success despite a moral treatise by the prince of Conti, criticizing theatre (and Molière's in particular).
After the Mélicerte and the Pastorale comique, he tried again to perform the Tartuffe in 1667, this time with the name of Panulphe'\' or L'imposteur''. But as soon as the king left Paris for a tour, Lamoignon and the archibishop banned the play (the king finally imposed respect for this work a few years later, when he had gained a more absolute power on clergy).
Molière now ill, reduced his output. Le Sicilien, ou l'Amour peintre was written for festivities at the castle of Saint-Germain, and was followed in 1668 by a very elegant Amphitryon, obviously inspired by Plautus' one but with evident allusions to the king's love affairs. George Dandin, ou le Mari confondu (The Confounded Husband) was tributed a little appreciation, but the success was to come back with L'Avare (the miser), now very well known.
With Lully he used again music for Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, for Les Amants magnifiques, and finally for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman), one of his masterpieces that is supposed having been particularly directed against Colbert, the minister that had contrasted his old customer Fouquet. The collaboration with Lully ended with a tragedy-ballet, Psyché, written with the help of Thomas Corneille (brother of Pierre).
In 1671 Madeleine Béjart died, and Molière suffered by this loss and by the worsening of his illness. Nevertheless, he gave a successful Les Fourberies de Scapin (Scapin's Schemings), a farce and a comedy in 5 acts; the following La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas was however not at his usual level.
Les Femmes savantes (Learned Ladies) of 1672, was a masterpiece born by the end of possible use of music in theatre, since Lully had somehow patented the opera for France, so Molière had to go back to his traditional works. It was indeed a true success that was going to lead to his last work, a most appreciated one also.
One of the most famous parts of the life of Molière is the last one, which became proverbial: he died on stage, while performing Le Malade imaginaire; he collapsed on stage and died a few hours after at his house, without sacraments because two priests had refused to go visiting him and the third one arrived too late.
As an actor, the laws of the time did not allow him to be buried in an ordinary cemetery, in sacred ground. It was his wife Armande who asked the king Louis XIV to allow a "normal" funeral celebrated at night.
List of major works