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Moliere Biography

lunedì 26 maggio 2014

Molière (1622-1673), France’s greatest comic dramatist, who produced, directed, and acted in the plays he wrote. Many of his comedies addressed serious themes and pointed the way to modern drama and experimental theater.
Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, the son of a well-to-do upholsterer who worked at the king’s court, Molière attended the Jesuit Collège de Clermont. He then turned his back on a secure future in the position he could have inherited from his father and became an actor instead. After founding the Illustre Théâtre (Illustrious Theater Company) in Paris with actors Joseph and Madeleine Béjart, he adopted the name Molière. Although the company foundered in 1645, he toured the French provinces in another troupe with the Béjarts from 1645 to 1658. During that time, Molière began writing short plays, influenced by French farce and the popular form of Italian theater known as commedia dell’arte.

In October 1658 the traveling company accepted an offer from the king of France, Louis XIV (known as the “Sun King”), to present plays in the Théâtre du Petit Bourbon, part of the Louvre palace in Paris. There Molière produced his first major comedy, Les précieuses ridicules (1659; translated as The Conceited Ladies, 1732), a satire on the extravagant manners, style, and language of contemporary women who wished to distinguish themselves through excessively refined taste and behavior.

In 1662 Molière married Armande Béjart, the much younger sister of Madeleine and also a member of his troupe. The marriage was not a happy one. This misfortune was reflected in L’école des femmes (1662; School for Wives, 1739). In this play the character Arnolphe’s efforts to shape his much younger prospective bride, Agnès, through education in a convent and his own tyrannical rules are defeated by Agnès’s natural inclination toward Horace, a man her own age.

Les précieuses ridicules and L’école des femmes were highly successful and aroused considerable jealousy among Molière’s rivals. To answer his critics and satirize them in the process, Molière wrote and produced two short discussion plays in 1663: La critique de l’école des femmes (The School for Wives Criticized, 1739) and L’impromptu de Versailles (The Impromptu of Versailles, 1739). The king supported Molière during these battles and in 1664 became godfather to his son. That same year Molière wrote the first version of Tartuffe (translated 1670), a play that satirized religious hypocrisy. It was banned from the stage through the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church. Molière wrote two more versions of the play, in 1667 and 1669, and the third version was finally produced. During these years he also wrote seven of his greatest plays, including the complex Dom Juan (1665; Don Juan, 1739); his masterpiece, Le misanthrope (1666; The Misanthrope, 1739); L’avare (1668; The Miser, 1739); and Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1739), called a comedy-ballet because it included ballet interludes as part of the narrative. In addition to writing these plays (most of which are in rhyming couplets), Molière managed the business of his company, directed all the productions, and played some of the most demanding roles.

Molière’s last great plays were Les femmes savantes (1672; The Learned Ladies, 1739) and Le malade imaginaire (1673; The Hypochondriac, 1739). Ironically, Molière, who had been grievously ill for some time, played the role of the hypochondriac in his last play, fell mortally ill during the fourth performance, and died an hour after being taken home. Because of the disapproval of the Roman Catholic Church, it was only through the intervention of the king that Molière was allowed to be buried in holy ground, and this only in the dead of night.

Molière’s works reveal an evolution from farce to more serious comedies of manners and character. In terms of form, Les précieuses ridicules is important because, although a one-act play written in prose, it is nonetheless a sophisticated comedy of manners. Similarly, L’école des maris (1661; School for Husbands, 1739) is significant because it addresses a more serious subject than earlier works and takes a more sophisticated form, a five-act social comedy written in verse in a meter known as alexandrine. Tartuffe and Le misanthrope, five-act plays in verse, mark the height of Molière’s career in the perfection of their poetry and the subtlety and complexity of their themes. Later plays innovated through their form; Le bourgeois gentilhomme, for example, was a comedy-ballet that paved the way for opera.

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. No less important for Molière were members of the audience from the lower classes (called parterre because they stood in front of the stage, the parterre), and he rated their understanding and appreciation of his plays very highly.
Molière was preoccupied with what it meant to be human. He presents characters who—through their hypocrisy, immoderation, vanity, tyranny, and greed—exceed the acceptable limits of being human and must therefore be punished through laughter. The hypocrites Tartuffe and Orgon tyrannize the family. Alceste of Le misanthrope demands absolute sincerity of his merely human associates. Pedantic vanity dominates the learned ladies of Les femmes savantes, and Arnolphe tries to play God in forming Agnès in L’école des femmes. In all these plays, the qualities that win out in the end are authenticity, moderation, and respect for what follows nature’s plan or advances human freedom. Often the plot involves the efforts of old men to marry or marry off young women. Molière, who himself had taken a bride 20 years his junior with disastrous consequences, condemned such efforts to go against the order of nature. He celebrates the triumph of youth and fertility over old age and sterility at the end of such plays as L’école des femmes, Tartuffe, Le médecin malgré lui (1666; The Doctor In Spite of Himself, 1739), and L’avare.
No play better illustrates Molière’s comic art in all its complexity than Le misanthrope. Alceste, a suitor of the coquettish Célimène, has come to Célimène’s home to demand once and for all that she express her feelings and intentions. Alceste demands absolute truthfulness in all social relations, and Molière derives considerable comic effect from the character’s infatuation with the ever-false Célimène. Alceste’s friend Philinte stands for moderation in all things, including truthfulness, and the dialogue between the two men throughout the play analyzes this issue. Other suitors, meanwhile, arrive to plague Alceste. The prudish Arsinöé, in love with Alceste, duels verbally with Célimène in a scene of brilliant repartee. It is difficult to decide which of the many positions represented in the play Molière favors, but many critics feel that Eliante, Célimène’s cousin, who loves Alceste but will perhaps marry Philinte, best represents the author’s views. Eliante’s behavior and words reflect a philosophy of moderation like Philinte’s, but she insists there is something noble about Alceste and his views. Molière seems to suggest that even moderation itself can be excessive. The play ends as Alceste, rejected by Célimène, leaves to live by himself in the “desert” of the provinces.
French comedy since Molière is inseparable from his innovations. The Comédie Française, founded in 1680 as the first state-supported theater in France, has long been known as “the house of Molière.” The 18th-century dramatists Pierre Marivaux and Pierre Beaumarchais were deeply indebted to Molière—Marivaux in his use of sophisticated language and Beaumarchais with his biting satires—as were many of the comic writers of the 19th century. Critics in more recent times have detected Molière’s imprint on writers of the theater of the absurd in the 1950s and on other experimental movements.
The clearest evidence of the enduring legacy of Molière can be found in the French language itself. Just as one finds in English, Italian, and Spanish expressions from the works of William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Miguel de Cervantes, respectively, so the French use lines from Molière’s plays in everyday speech, often unaware of their source.

Contributed By:
D. Dale Cosper

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