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Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière
French comic poet; b. at Paris, 15 Jan., 1622; d. there 17 Feb., 1673. He was the son a Paris furniture dealer who was also a valet-de-chambre to the king, and succeeded his father in the latter of these two capacities. After making his studies with the Jesuits at the Collège de Clermont, he seems to have studied law in some provincial town - perhaps Orléans. It is not known, however, if he ever took his licentiate. The stage very soon attracted him and absorbed him. At twenty-one he entered the theatrical company, organized under the name of "L'Illustre Théâtre", in which were Madeleine Béjart and her brothers. The troupe engaged a band of four musicians at the cost of one livre per day, and a dancer, who was to receive thirty-five sols per day and five sols extra for every day when there was a performance. The business started with a deficit, and Molière, who appears to have been chosen president by his associates, was arrested for debt. He was imprisoned in the Châtelet, but released on his own recognizances.
In the course of the subsequent wanderings through different parts of France, Molière composed some small comic pieces of no importance, of which two have been preserved - "La Jalousie de Barbouill" - and "Le Médecin Volant". Afterwards, about 1653 or 1655, he staged, at Lyons, "L'Etourdi". In this he began to use the language of fine comedy which Corneille had created ten or twelve years before. "Le Dépit Amoureux", produced at Béziers in 1656, should also be mentioned here. Before long the "Illustre Théâtre" regained confidence to face the Parisian public; we find it in Paris in 1658. Next year the troupe, now authorized to call itself "Troupe de Monsieur, Frère du Roi" performed "Les Précieuses Ridicules". In this comedy Molière declared war against the spirit of refined humbuggery (l'esprit précieux), and he never ceased to be its enemy, as witness "Les Femmes Savantes" (1672), one of his last pieces. The last twelve years of his life saw the production of his most famous works. "L'Ecole des Maris" (1661) shows the beauty of a confiding and gentle character in a man; "Les Fâcheux" (also 1661) was written in fifteen days; "L'Ecole des Femmes" (1662) gives another lesson to husbands - which was very creditable to the playwright, for he himself, at the age of forty, had just married a girl of twenty, Madeleine Béjart's sister, the volatile Armande who was to give him so much trouble. The "Critique de L'Ecole des Femmes" and the "Impromptu de Versailles" (1663) are two little prose pieces in which the writer defends his comedy of the preceding year and attacks his critics. "Tartuffe" (1664), the famous comedy, at first in three acts, afterwards in five, deals trenchant blows at hypocrisy, unfortunately, however, often striking true virtue at the same time. After its first production the public performance of this piece was forbidden, and the ban was not removed for five years.
In the interval Molière wrote: "Don Juan" (or "Le Festin de Pierre") (1665), apparently intended as a revenge for the suppression of "Tartufe"; "Le Misanthrope" (1669) a great comedy of character; "Amphitryon" (1668), three acts in verse of various measures, where Jupiter assumes the form of the Theban general, Amphitryon, in order to betray his wife, Alemena; lastly, "L'Avare" (1668). Excepting "Les Femmes Savantes", already mentioned, the comedies of his last four years exhibit a great deal of gaiety, but not so much breadth - "Monsieur de Pourceaugnac" and "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme", in 1669, "Les Fourberies de Scapin", in 1671 and "Le Malade Imaginaire" (1673). While on stage playing in "Le Malade Imaginaire", the author was seized with a violent hæmorrhage; he was carried home, and died.
In him France lost the greatest of the comic writers whom her history has produced. Judging Molière exclusively from a literary point of view, it must be admitted that he does not owe his reputation to the quantity of dramatic entanglement in his plays; he owes it above all to the truth of his portraiture. His friend Boileau called him "the looker-on" (le contemplateur). He knew how to look at the world, to note its vices and its failings, and his genius had the power of combining what he saw, melting all his observations together, adding to them, and thus creating beings who are no longer particular individuals, but are recognizable as men of their whole period - often of all periods of humanity. Moreover, the characters are his chief concern: with him, as with Racine, the characters carry the whole piece, they are its soul. His art may at times fail in other points - as in his dénouements, which are often ill contrived - but in that one respect he is always admirable. His plays, then, present a portrait of the heart of a man, but a profile portrait drawn by a satirist, whose business is to see only the defective side of it, and a dramatic writer, who is obliged by the laws of stage optics to emphasize certain lines. This verisimilitude - or, as his friend La Fontaine expressed it, carefulness "not to go one step away from nature" - is found in all Molière's works. It is particularly visible in his style. Good critics, it is true, have found fault with Molière's style, particularly in his verse; Boileau, Fénelon, and La Bruyère did so in the seventeenth century; Vauvenargues, in the eighteenth; Théophile Gautier and others, in the nineteenth. On the other hand, a whole school has arisen in the last fifty years to extol this writer: for the Molièrists, as they have been called, Molière is above all criticism; they preach a sort of cultus of Molière. To be more judicious, we must be more moderate. Admitting that the language of comedy, which is that of familiar conversation, permits him certain liberties, which he cannot be fairly blamed for using, still, making all due allowance for the nature of his medium, there is no denying that his style suffers from real carelessness - useless repetitions, incoherent metaphors, heavy and entangled phrases. Molière was obliged to write quickly; he was an improviser, but a genius of improvisation. For his style, in spite of its faults, is still, as Boileau said to Louis XIV, a "rare" style. Frank and natural, he excels in making reason and good sense talk. It is the style of a poet, too warm, highly coloured, brilliant. Lastly, one finds in him striking words and striking touches, which come spontaneously, and add to his charm.
As for morality, it owes Molière much less than literature does. Although he gave out, in his prefaces, that it was his wish and duty as a dramatic poet, to be of service to morality, he has been severely censured in this regard, from Bossuet to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While he never put on the stage - as is so often done in these days - a woman guilty of violating her marriage vows, or about to violate them, yet he has been reproached with the presentation of other dangerous pictures. Furthermore, he is always on the side of the young people, who surely need no encouragement in their evil propensities. All his sermons, all his satires, are for parents; all the unpleasant failings depicted by his comedies reside in the fathers and the old people; the laugh is always at their expense, except when their egoism excites horror. It must be confessed that, while the passions of the young king, Louis XIV, had only too much reason to be pleased with the author of "Amphitryon", religion has no cause to approve the author of "Tartufe". Molière's Christianity was not as profound as that of Corneille, Racine, Boileau, and nearly all the illustrious writers of his time. And yet, when there was question of his being given Christian burial, and the curé hesitated, on the ground that the priest had arrived too late to give absolution to the comedian, who, it may almost be said, passed from the stage to the tribunal of God, his widow proved that he had received the sacraments in the last previous paschal season.
See the edition of Molière by DESPOIS AND MESNARD in the Collection des grands écrivains (Paris, 1873-1900), also an English translation of his works with French text by WALLER, 8 vols. (London, 1902-7), and English version with memoir by WALL in Bohn's Library (3 vols., London, 1876-77); LACROIX, Bibliog. molièresque (Paris, 1875); VEUILLOT, Molière et Bourdaloue (Paris, 1877); LONGHAYE, Hist. de la litt. franç. au XVIIe siècle (Paris); CLARETIE, Molière and Shakespeare in Fortnightly Review, LVII (London, 1900), 317; MATTHEWS, Molière (New York, 1910).