Molière: A Theatrical Life
Cambridge University Press, 333 pp., $54.95
I sometimes think it a blessing that we know next to nothing about Shakespeare, the man, and so are forced to concentrate almost entirely on the works, without getting involved in the difficult business of explaining the works by the life, or deducing the life from the works. Of course, biographers will go on speculating endlessly about the Dark Lady, the Onlie Begetter, and the second-best bed, but we know before we read them that they, and we, are indulging in fiction. Molière, a parallel figure to Shakespeare in theatrical history, belonged entirely to the following century, the seventeenth, and being nearer to the modern world, might have been expected to leave tell-tale details about himself in letters or diaries. Surprisingly, this is not the case. There is traditional gossip about Molière, but none of it can be confirmed or denied from any record left by the playwright himself, so again the field is left wide open.
Professor Scott has conscientiously researched all the archives relating to Molière and has scoured all the locations he frequented during his life-time, without arriving at any certainties about his psychological makeup. She freely admits this in her introduction, and indeed makes the general, and valid, claim that all biography, in the last resort, is an imaginative deduction from such evidence as exists. Only, in the case of Molière, since the evidence is so scanty, the imagination has to be brought all the more vigorously into play.
Consider, for instance, a major piece of gossip about Molière’s personal life. It seems to be a fact that, in his early twenties, when he first became an actor, he had an affair with an older woman, a well-known actress called Madeleine Béjart. In 1662, at the age of forty, he married another actress in the same troupe, Armande Béjart, “about twenty years old,” who is described as the “sister” of Madeleine. Armande’s parentage is doubtful: Was she the daughter of Joseph Béjart, an improvident jack-of-all-trades, and his wife, Marie, or was she an illegitimate child of Madeleine’s, and the subject of a cover-up, in which case her father could have been Molière or another of Madeleine’s lovers, a certain Comte de Modène? At the time of the marriage, Molière’s enemies, of whom there were many, since by then he was famous at court and had Louis XIV as his patron, did not hesitate to accuse him of incest. Professor Scott, although not at all prim and quite prepared to accept that Molière may have been a libertin in all senses of that word, plumps for the Comte de Modène as the father:
I believe Armande was the daughter of Madeleine and the comte de Modène, partly because certain other information intersects coherently with that conjecture and creates credible character choices, and partly—I confess—because it stirs my imagination and produces a more interesting narrative. Thus, I reveal that I, too, am of my time and place.
This statement puzzles me …