Written and Edited by Lindsay Price August, 2013
This month we continue our trek through Theatre History with French 17th century playwright Molière and his writing.
“What Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. While there are differences between them, there are also similarities: both were practical men of the theatre; both were actors as well as playwrights; both had incredible insight into human life; both had a breath-taking mastery over language. As a writer of comedy, however, Molière is more closely akin to Aristophanes, Ben Jonson, and George Bernard Shaw than he is to Shakespeare, for his comedies not only entertain, but they also sparkle with satire and devastating criticism of society.” Jerry L. Crawford, Insights
What fascinates me most about doing these Theatre History newsletters is learning something new about an era of theatre, or about a theatre artist that I didn't know before. I have seen Tartuffe, I have seen The Misanthrope (in French no less!) but knew very little about Molière himself.
The parallels between Shakespeare and Molière are many. Both acted in their own plays, both played a part in running a theatre company, both had royal patronage. It seems though that Molière found himself up against critics and criticism more frequently than Shakespeare. His plays often hit too close to home. Perhaps Shakespeare found it easier to balance writing what he wanted to say while placating church and state. If Shakespeare wanted to criticize the present, he did so through dramatizing the distant past. Molière wrote for the here and now of his world, which is why he caused such an uproar. The only thing that saved Molière in many cases was his favour with King Louis XIV.
The biggest thing that Shakespeare and Molière have in common is that we still read them, talk about them and produce their work today. It says a lot about the universality of Molière and I think that lies squarely with his characters. They do things and say things that, even though they exist in a different century, we can relate to today.
In this newsletter we will cover:
“France in the Seventeenth Century was dominated by its kings; Henry IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Each weakened the power of the magnates and expanded royal absolutism at the expense of the nobility. By the end of the century, France was arguably the major power of Europe and Louis XIV referred to himself as the Sun King.”History Learning Site
17th century France was a time of great change and transformation. It was a time of war, a time of cultural advancements, a time of thinking and science. There was also a growing gulf between the aristocracy and the lower classes, the building blocks for the French Revolution later in the 18th century.
Louis the XIV, the self proclaimed Sun King, ruled for 72 years from 1643-1715. His father died when he was five years old and for a number of years the country was run by Cardinal Mazarin and Louis' mother. But by the time he had reached his early twenties, he was firmly in control. Louis had a strong influence on the artistic culture of France. He was determined to build the culture of France just as he was determined to establish the power position of France. He also wanted power for himself and established an absolute monarchy during his reign. While a strong supporter of the arts he was also known for his extravagance; the palace of Versailles was built during his reign.
What is an absolute monarchy?
A monarch, the king, governs with absolute authority acting as the head of state and head of government. A leader who is in control of everything. Louis XIV is the king who reportedly made the statement L'Etat, c'est moi – I am the state.
France was involved with a number of wars in the 17th century. These wars, along with Louis XIV's extravagance led to a crushing debt for France.
Interesting Facts of the Century
This century produced a number of French Artists and thinkers.
"The society of Molière’s time, led by King Louis XIV, formed an intelligent and cultivated audience ready to appreciate a new style of comic drama and able to discern serious moral and social issues beneath the laughter and fun. Molière had the good fortune to write and perform during a creative and energetic age, and for a society that was itself theatrical in its interest in spectacle and its keen perception of the difference between reality and illusion.” D. Dale Cosper
Theatre in 17th century France was defined by rules. Rules of society, rules of structure, rules of language, character behaviour and story. It seems odd that in a period of such growth and change, there was also a lot of control placed on creativity.
France was not as culturally advanced as other European countries at the beginning of the century because of civil war. Early century influences came from Italy. Italian commedia companies were popular and often toured – Molière himself is heavily influenced by commedia dell'arte. Theatre architecture in France relied on Italian design. Plays were performed two to three times a week and unlike in England, women were allowed on the stage. Though there were many touring theatre companies in the provinces, the first permanent company was not allowed in Paris until 1629.
The defining theatrical aesthetic was neoclassicism.
What is Neoclassicism?
Interesting fact: Soliloquies were not permitted in the neoclassical style. A character who is alone and talks to themselves was considered “unrealistic.”
Verisimilitude is the appearance of truth or that the play must be believable. It must be plausible. To aid in this believability the rules of reality, morality, and generality were applied. Reality is composed of the unity of time, place, and action. To be realistic, the play must take place in a twenty-four hour period, must stay in the same location, and the action must be logical and credible. Morality aids verisimilitude by providing the ethical and philosophical framework within which the play is presented. Meaning, the play must uphold the moral convictions of the French Academies, the nobility, and the church. Generality, on the other hand, supports verisimilitude by creating characters that are identifiable as good and proper French citizens. Source
Cardinal Richelieu, who was Louis XIII’s chief minister from 1624 to 1642, strictly advocated neo-classicism. Playwrights had to submit their plays to the Academie Francaise to determine if they followed the neo-classical ideals. A prime example of a French neo-classical play is Jean Racine's Phaedra.(1677)
Phaedra is a tragedy inspired by the Greek myth of Hippolytus. Phaedra (his stepmother) falls in love with him. The play has all the trademarks of neoclassicism. It takes place in five acts, in one location and in one day. Its hero is upper class - Phaedra is the second wife to Theseus, King of Athens. Phaedra’s actions disobey the rules of decorum and morality. She suffers greatly for her illicit love and is punished for her actions and she dies at the end. The gods, who figure prominently in the Greek original are missing from Racine's version because they would not be considered “real.” The same is true for the original chorus.
A famous incident occurred with Pierre Corneille's play The Cid. (1636)
The play was sent to the Académie française for judgement by Cardinal Richelieu and denounced. First the play combined comedy and tragedy, which was against the rules. The play was not realistic because the action, a war, could never take place within the required twenty-four hours. Nor did it follow the rules of decorum when a character agrees to marry the man who murdered her father. It was after this judgement that the standards and practices of neoclassicism took full force.
At the beginning of the century the only permanent theatre was the Hotel de Bourgogne. The theatre was long and narrow with a stage on a platform at one end. The space in front of the stage was an open pit (the parterre) where only men could stand. Gallery seats lined the sides of the theatre, although the most audience members would sit on the stage. The first permanent proscenium stage theatre was built in 1641, commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu. After the Cardinal's death, this theatre was renamed the Palais Royal and it is where Molière staged his plays.
Theatre was also performed in court theatres - Louis XIV had his own theatre at Versailles, designed by Jean Berain. Berain also designed the sets for Molière's plays.
Until 1660 there were only two major public theatres: the Hotel de Bourgogne and the Theatre de Marais (formally a tennis court). The Salle de Machines was built in 1662 for Louis XIV's wedding and was the largest theatre in Europe: the stage itself measured 52’x226’x136’. It could fit over 4,000 people. La Comédie Française became the first national theatre in 1680 and still exists to this day. The theatre is so connected to Molière that is is commonly referred to as “The House of Molière.”
Exercises and Lesson Plans
He was neither too fat nor too thin, and he had greater than small, the noble harbor, beautiful leg, he walked gravely looked very serious, big nose, large mouth, thick lips, dark complexion, black and strong eyebrows, and the various movements that gave them made him extremely comical appearance. Voltaire, Life of Molière
Molière was born in Paris on January 15, 1662 and died on February 17, 1673. Molière is a stage name, his given name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin and he was the eldest of six children. His father was an upholsterer who bought the title of Royal Upholsterer with the intention to pass on this royal appointment to Molière, who had different ideas. Molière's mother, Mary Cresse, died when he was 12 years old.
At fourteen he went to the College de Claremont and later studied law at the University of Orleans. But his life took a turn in 1643 when he started a theatre company (Illustre Théâtre, Illustrious Theatre Company) with brother and sister Joseph and Madeleine Bejart. The company failed and Molière ended up in debtors’ prison. When he got out, the company spent thirteen years touring the provinces.
On return to Paris in 1658 Molière, who by now had taken the stage name so his family wouldn't be embarrassed, and his company were able to perform for the king. This would be the beginning of Molière's theatre career in Paris and patronage by King Louis XIV. This patronage often saved Molière from harsh criticism of his life and work. It even extended to the King acting as godfather to his children.
In 1652 Molière married Armande Bejart, twenty years his junior. There is a lot of speculation as to who Armande was. She was either the sister or the daughter of his former theatre partner (and mistress) Madeleine. It was quite the unhappy marriage. Molière died of tuberculosis. Mythology says that he fell ill in the middle of a performance of The Imaginary Invalid and died soon after.
Molière's life in the theatre
Molière is appreciated by the theatre artists and audiences around the world, but for the French people it is not an exaggeration to say that he is part of their national soul. Traditionally regarded as the Father of French comedy, he is the author of the nation's most treasured dramatic literature and a proud cultural export. Mechele Leon, Molière, the French Revolution and the Theatrical Afterlife
Molière's love for theatre began early. His grandfather introduced him to theatre, where he first experienced commedia dell'arte. Molière started his theatre career as an actor and director for his company Illustre Théâtre. He began writing plays when when his company went out to tour the country. And for the next thirteen years Molière learned his craft through production and performance.
In 1658 Molière and his company performed in front of the king – this was a significant moment for Molière. Theatre companies could not perform in Paris without permission. The first play they presented was a tragedy that was not well-received. The second was a comedy (The Doctor in Love) that found a much more positive reaction from the King. Molière's company acquired patronage and was allowed to perform. Eventually they secured the Palais Royal as their performance space. In 1665 they were given the title Troupe du Roy (Troupe of the King). It was through writing comedy that Molière finally found success.
Molière's way of writing
Molière's world is full of pictures in which we can easily recognize our own behaviour and the behaviour of our families, friends and colleagues: pictures of bickering couples, tyrant husbands, tetchy fathers, would-be-learned wives, mothers and sisters bullying their families and friends with new ideologies, affected aesthetes, pedants, professional men who are quite sure that, without them, the world will cease to turn upon its axis - and many more. Andrew Calder, Molière: The Theory and Practice of Comedy
Molière's writing was very much influenced by commedia dell'arte but his style grew from that influence. He is often relegated to the role of comic frivolous playwright, perhaps because his plays thrive in their physical action and their snappy dialogue. But this interpretation misses the level of biting social satire he brought to his work.
He wrote about the flaws of humanity, the humanity that he saw all around him, every day. He created characters filled with extremes: misers, hypocrites, hypochondriacs, misanthropes. These characters were so driven by their extremes that they crashed through their stories with blinders on, unable to do anything but exude their fatal flaw. There are always characters who oppose these extremes in Molière's work, expressing the moderate voice. He mocked the upper classes which made him a lot of enemies. He also made a great enemy in the church. At one point the Archbishop threatened that he would excommunicate anyone who saw, performed or even read Tartuffe. Dom Juan was banned after only 15 performances.
Molière also wrote for himself as an actor. He starred in the productions of his plays, playing Arnolphe in The School for Wives, Tartuffe in Tartuffe, Alceste in The Misanthrope, Argan in The Imaginary Invalid. There is a mythology that Molière drew from his own life, putting his own emotions and feelings into characters. In 1662 Molière was 42 and in a marriage with a much younger woman. Arnolphe is the same age in School for Wives and in a similar situation. Later in life Molière was often ill and a known hypochondriac just like Argan in The Imaginary Invalid. But that’s a rather simplistic view of his works. The writing process isn't a matter of plunking life directly into art, there is transformation and elevation.
Whereas the duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them, I felt that, being in that profession, I could do no better than to attack, by ludicrous portrayals, the vices of my age. Molière in his First petition to the King regarding Tartuffe
Form and Verse
The first verse play Molière wrote was The School for Wives. He used the “alexandrine” form of poetry - twelve syllables to a line (as opposed to the 10 syllable iambic pentameter that Shakespeare used). The text was then set in rhyming couplets, giving the dialogue a defined rhythm. Most English translations that keep the play in verse change the meter to iambic pentameter.
This video is an example of Richard Wilber's translation. It is from Act IV, scene five. The actors are Donald Moffat and Tammy Grimes.
This video is an example of the original French performed at the Comedie Francaise. Can you hear any difference in the verse rhythm? The same scene as above starts at the 27 minute mark.
Molière wrote in a time of rules. Neoclassicism was not just encouraged, it was enforced. And although Molière is thought of as a neoclassic playwright, he often went against the rules of the form. For example, the maid Dorine in Tartuffe speaks with wisdom far above her station, which was against the neoclassic principle of decorum. Also, the deus ex machina ending of Tartuffe where a god, or in this play the king, dives in and saves the play at the last minute was not in line with neo-classic rules. The Misanthrope is neither a strict comedy nor a tragedy. In the neo-classical world characters who exhibit extreme behaviour are supposed to atone and return to the fold of moderate behaviour. Though the main character in Tartuffe is arrested for his religious hypocrisy at the end of the play, there is no indication that he has changed his ways.
Discussion Topic: Is Molière a neo-classic playwright? Why or why not?
Lesson Plan and Exercises
“Betrayed and wronged in everything,
I’ll flee this bitter world where vice is king,
And seek some spot unpeopled and apart
Where I’ll be free to have an honest heart. Alceste The Misanthrope
What is a Misanthrope?
Someone who hates mankind and avoids society.
The world of this comedy of manners (and indeed in the upper classes of France at the time) is all about superficiality - false faces, gossip, and frivolity. Molière's Misanthrope examines human relationships, particularly how people can say something nice to someone's face and something less than nice behind their back. The main character Alceste is obsessed with this hypocrisy in society. He demands honesty and truth for all and refuses to forgive any person who behaves against this moral code to the point that he cannot stand to live in a world where people are “fake nice.”
Ah, no! We should condemn with all our force.
Such false and artificial intercourse.
Let men behave like men; let them display
Their inmost hearts in everything they say;
Let the heart speak and let our sentiments
Not mask themselves in silly complements Act I scene i
While Alceste may be correct in his assessment of society, his code is too strict to survive in the real world. He finds himself at the losing end of a lawsuit because he wouldn't complement a poem. He loses his girlfriend because he demanded the honest truth of her. In the end, Alceste announces that he will denounce the world and live in isolation.
What is a Comedy of Manners?
A Comedy of Manners is a play that satires the manners and behaviour of a society through larger-than-life characters. The characters act in a sophisticated manner, but their flaws shine through. Usually those who were being mocked were in the audience, which Molière did not always disguise well. This may be that he didn't just make fun of the fashion of the day, he struck to the heart of human flaws. Molière is more than a frivolous writer, offending no-one and saying nothing. Molière's stab at society is what makes him universal. For as he makes fun of the hypocrisy, materialism and frivolity of his society, could not the same jabs apply to ours?
Is the play neoclassical?
Here are the elements of The Misanthrope that follow the rules of neo-classicism.
The play is neither a strict comedy nor a strict tragedy. Alceste, who is technically the “hero” of the piece, does not learn from his extreme behaviour and change his ways. Though he states he's going to live in isolation, would that really be punishment for a misanthrope? Also, the play does not look back to a story of Ancient Greece or Rome, it takes place in the here and now for Molière's audience.
A picture of a modern adaptation of The Misanthrope, New York Theatre Workshop. Photo by Rahav Segev, New York Times.
And since I know of no heroes about
More to be praised than the truly devout
And nothing at all with greater appeal
Than the holy fervor of saintly zeal,
So too nothing could be more odious
Than the white-washed face of a zeal that's specious,
Or these frank charlatans, seeking places,
Whose false and sacrilegious double faces
Exploit our love of God and make a game
Of our reverence for Christ's holy name. Cleante Act 1, scene v
What does the word Tartuffe mean?
In the English language the definition of the word Tartuffe comes directly from Molière's play – a hypocrite who pretends to be pious. But what about before that? A possible source comes from commedia dell'arte, in which Molière was well versed. There is a stock servant character called Truffa, or Truffaldino. Truffaldino appears in Servant of Two Masters.
What is a hypocrite?
A person who pretends to have virtues they do not actually possess.
Tartuffe is a guest in the house of wealthy Orgon. He professes to be a man of God but is clearly a religious hypocrite. Orgon (and his mother) is fully taken with Tartuffe's pious act but no one else is fooled. But Orgon is the head of the household and he makes many decisions in favour of Tartuffe instead of his family. He revokes his permission for his daughter to marry the man she loves and decides to give her to Tartuffe. He even declares Tartuffe his heir.
The family plans to trap Tartuffe in a seduction of Orgon's wife, Elmire, but the plan backfires. Elmire finally gets Orgon to hide in her room (most often under a table) so he can see for himself Tartuffe's deceit. When Orgon sees Tartuffe's true nature, he tries to throw the deceiver out of the house, but Tartuffe will not go easily. He takes secret documents that would shame Orgon, and is able to gain title to Orgon's estate. It looks like Orgon and his family will be evicted leaving everything to Tartuffe.
The play ends quite like a Greek play with a deus ex machina - a technique where a god descends in a machine and saves the play. In this cause it's not a god, it's an officer from the King who enters to right Tartuffe's wrongs.
Eight days after it had been banned, a play called Scaramouche the Hermit was performed before the court; and the king, on his way out, said to this great prince: "I should really like to know why the persons who make so much noise about Molière's comedy do not say a word about Scaramouche." To which the prince replied, "It is because the comedy of Scaramouche makes fun of Heaven and religion, which these gentlemen do not care about at all, but that of Molière makes fun of them, and that is what they cannot bear." Preface to Tartuffe
What is most interesting about Tartuffe (subtitled The Imposter) is the monumental controversy the play created among the religious and the church. The play was first performed in part in 1664 but banned twice by the church before a third version in 1669 was allowed to be performed. It's important to note that it did not upset the King, but even he had to defer to the fury of the church. Molière tried to petition the King three times to get the play performed.
I await with respect the judgement which your Majesty will deign to pronounce on this matter, but it is very certain, Sire, that I must no longer think of making comedies if the tartuffes have the upper hand; for they will feel authorized thereby to persecute me more than ever and will try to censure the most innocent things that may come from my pen. Molière's Second Petition to the King, 1667
The church felt it was so critical of religion that the Archbishop it threatened to excommunicate anyone who performed, read or even watched the play. Molière tried to argue that the play wasn't critical of religion, but those who misused religion.
It is important to read the play in context of the time it was written. To our twenty first century sensibility, it would seem clear that Tartuffe is a fraud and it is the character who should be condemned and not the play itself. We can make the distinction between religion in general and a character who fakes being religious. There is even a speech by Orgon's brother in law, Cleante, who praises the religiously pious: “I find no kind of hero more To be admired than men of true religion, Nothing more noble or more beautiful than is the holy zeal of true devoutness.” (Act I, scene v)
But at that time, it was seen as disrespectful to the church for a character to declare himself a religious figure and not meet the standard of religious conduct. The fact that he’s not really a religious figure is irrelevant.
Even though Molière argues the opposite, did he know full well that Tartuffe would be seen as disrespectful to the church? And what about Orgon, the epitome of misplaced faith and lack of reason? He puts the “religious” Tartuffe above his family: “My mother, children, brother, and wife could die, And I'd not feel a single moment's pain." (Act I, scene v). Here is an intense character being used to mock single-minded faith. Wouldn't Molière know that would anger the church?
Click here to read Molière preface to Tartuffe, and the petitions he wrote to the King.
Exercises and Lesson Plans