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Molière Imaginaire

Molière: A Theatrical Life

Virginia Scott
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: What is there in “our time and place” which obliges Professor Scott to have a definite belief? She could have just left the question open. Besides, the narrative surely stirs the imagination more if Molière cannot be ruled out as the father.

Strangely enough, about the time of his marriage, he produced his first fully successful play, L’École des femmes, which is about a man of the same age as himself trying to secure a young girl as his wife. The play is based on the ancient theme of “love laughs at locksmiths,” a theme which was to find its most brilliant expression over a century later in Beaumarchais’s play Le Barbier de Séville, and later still in Rossini’s magical transposition of the play to the operatic stage. Molière’s text is in verse with a formal seventeenth-century rhythm, and part of the fun comes from the fact that he worked indelicate innuendoes into his stately alexandrines. However, a first surprising thing is that the plot directly contradicts what Molière had just achieved in real life. The central character, the middle-aged Arnolphe, has so far avoided marriage through fear of being cuckolded; he has a ward, Agnès, whom he has reared in country seclusion, so that she is ignorant of the ways of the world; when she comes of age, he brings her to his house with the intention of marrying her. But she, of course, spies a handsome young man from the balcony and, after various comic misunderstandings and coups de théâtre, Arnolphe has to allow the young couple to be united.

In her interesting comment on the play, Professor Scott mentions a deeper implication. Arnolphe is genuinely in love with Agnès, and becomes a tragicomic figure when he realizes his scheme has gone wrong. But there is also a still deeper implication: until it is revealed in the very last scene that Agnès is the daughter of one of Arnolphe’s old friends, and was given into his care at the age of four, after the death of her mother, the spectator is free to suppose that Agnès is Arnolphe’s own illegitimate daughter, whom he has carefully fashioned for his selfish purposes. It is as if Molière had deliberately planted the suggestion in the text. Did he have mixed feelings about Armande, his wife, and was he unsure of his relationship to her? If Madeleine was her mother, her paternity may have remained a mystery; a woman with two or more lovers cannot always be sure which was the propagator.

There is a still further mystery. Why should a middle-aged man who has just married a young wife write a play proclaiming that youthful vitality will always win out, and that by middle age sexual appeal has faded? Wry, but courageous, admission of a mistake? Forecasting the worst, in the hope that it won’t happen? According to rumor, Armande didn’t remain a faithful wife, although after Molière’s death, she fought the ecclesiastical authorities in order to have his body buried in holy ground, against the rule which excluded actors.

Molière’s motives are impossible to fathom at all stages of his career. It is not known why Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the son of a respectable bourgeois tapissier, with the title of valet de chambre du roi, instead of continuing in his father’s footsteps as he might have done, chose the hazardous calling of actor which, in seventeenth-century France, was strongly disapproved of by the Church, and only marginally superior to the life of a gypsy. But choose it he did, and, not finding success in Paris, his troupe toured the provinces for fifteen years, amid the confusions of civil war and the sometimes hostile reactions of the local authorities. If they had exciting adventures, nothing is known about them. Professor Scott’s account of this period is inevitably a rather dry list of places visited, contracts signed, plays performed, and monies received.

The troupe had no great triumphs, partly because Molière was not gifted for the writing or performing of tragic roles, which were then the fashionable part of “serious” theater. He was a comic, nearer to the commedia dell’arte and broad farce than to high-flown rhetoric. He wrote some farces himself, but the troupe continued to perform a mixture of comedies and tragedies by other playwrights. Occasionally, they found temporary patrons among the aristocracy, who hired them for private performances. It was thus that they came to the attention of Louis XIV’s brother, Monsieur, and came back to Paris as la troupe de Monsieur.

Molière was soon under the direct patronage of the King himself and, during the ten years left to him, produced the series of plays which ensure his fame in France and the world over. It is perhaps significant that, during this period, he was suffering from the tuberculosis which eventually killed him. There is a folk belief that tuberculosis of the lungs can prompt a flowering of creativity (cf. Keats, Chopin, and D.H. Lawrence). If there is some truth in it, this may explain why Molière’s contribution to literature was concentrated in these last years, and why, behind all the laughter, there is more than a hint of lacrimae rerum. Alceste, the misanthrope, is not so far removed from Hamlet, and the punishment of the god-defying Don Juan by his noisy collapse into Hell at the end of the play of that name is a flagrant scenic joke, indicating that Molière, although respectful of the outward forms of Christianity, was no simple believer, if a believer at all.

In the modern world, we are so used to despotism stifling freedom of speech and artistic endeavor that, at first sight, it seems odd that the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV should have coincided with the golden age of French “neoclassical” literature. How could Molière be at once a courtier devising elaborate spectacles to celebrate the person of the monarch and a satirist ridiculing with impunity so many aspects of Louis XIV’s France—the snobbishness of the French, their sexual obsessions, linguistic manias, and religious hypocrisy? The explanation may be that the King, then in his unregenerate younger days, when he quietly disregarded the Church’s reproaches about his marital infidelities and the promotion of his bastards, was a jouisseur intent on savoring life to the full and therefore well disposed toward anyone who could provide him with entertainment. As Professor Scott puts it, at that stage he preferred poets to priests. Molière, in his turn, may have felt there was no shame in accepting a pension from a monarch who was a libertin at heart, and so sure of his authority that he could allow a wide margin of free speech, provided it didn’t impinge on his own position. Perhaps the King was even secretly pleased that Molière should cock a snook at the pious in Tartuffe and Don Juan.

It has often been assumed that Molière had the perfect end for an actor dying on the stage while simulating illness in Le Malade imaginaire. Professor Scott, in conclusion, reminds us that the reality was not quite so poetic; he had a seizure, and was carried home to die in his bed. The only surviving material relic of his life is the chair he sat in during that final scene. It is preserved, says Professor Scott, in a glass case in the upper lobby of the Comédie Française—an empty chair, so symbolic of his absence as a definable personality.

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