Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Ce Nceud Subtil": Moliere's Invention of Comedy from 'L'Etourdi' to 'Les Fourberies De Scapin.'

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Ce Nceud Subtil": Moliere's Invention of Comedy from 'L'Etourdi' to 'Les Fourberies De Scapin.'

Article excerpt

Moliere is rarely taken seriously as a writer. His plays are most appreciated

as social, moral, or philosophical documents. They are literature,

to be sure, but are they literary? Are they writerly? Moliere seems, more

often than not, to mock the pretensions of the writer and the written

word--witness the mawkish fawning of his pricieuses ridicules and his femmes

savantes or Arnolphe's grotesque marriage code in L'Ecole des femmes and

Oronte's miserable sonnet in Le Misanthrope. A recent book has revived the

centuries-old rumor that Moliere signed other people's work-specifically

that of Corneille--but that he himself did not write.(1) But Moliere did write

and there is ample evidence in his works to suggest a true literary

consciousness. The present study is part of a larger project to resurrect the

commonly neglected idea of Moliere as artist, author, and poet. I seek in this

project to give some of the attention to stylistic, prosodic, and rhetorical

dimensions of Moliere's work that is needed in order to complete the familiar

extra-literary portrait of Moliere as social commentator, psychologist, and


In order to begin to understand him as a writer, I have chosen to examine

Moliere's work from the perspective of invention, a central element of the

writer's art in pre-romantic French literature. 'Me faculty of invention is

roughly equivalent to what we call creativity but should not be confused

with the Romantic idea of originality or pure creation. In fact, the invention

practiced by classical litterateurs is decidedly impure. Invention, it needs to

be said, is a fundamentally discursive process. This point may not be

immediately apparent, especially given the mixture of mystical and mechanical or

technological meanings of the term that are dominant in modem English. Within

our study of two characteristic Molieresque inventors--Mascarille in L'Etourdi

and Scapin from Les Fourberies de Scapin--we will see that this modem

invention is derived from essentially discursive mechanisms and technologies.

Specifically, we will explore the crossing of invention's figural

representation as labyrinth with the letter of its search as heuresis.

It might seem odd, in a study on the writer's art, to choose two farces as our

focus. Farce generally passes for the lowest art, if it is accepted as art at

all. There is, however, no tendency more fundamental to Moliere's theater than

the tradition of the farceurs. Still, except for occasional glimpses, farce

seems far removed from the high manner of the grandes comedies from Le Tartuffe

to Le Misanthrope. Moliere's late career return to farce has been well

documented by leading critics, from Lanson to Defaux, but it has not been fully

explained. In plays like Le Medecin malgre lui and George Dandin, Moliere

borrowed from his own theatrical past, going as far back as Le Medecin volant

and La Jalousie du Barbouille. These two one-act sketches generally

attributed to Moliere are the earliest texts in the oeuvre but they can hardly

be considered an origin. As I have already said, the notion of originality is

essentially meaningless when discussing written farce, whether in the French

tradition of Tabarin and Turlupin or in the Italian tradition of the commedia


Farce, as a genre, represents something of a cultural paradox in that it is

based fundamentally in linguistic reality but remains resistant to any

definitive linguistic formulation, especially as a fixed text. For an

illustration of this point, it may be useful to take briefly as examples two of

the oldest surviving and best known instances of the genre, the

fifteenth-century Farce du cuvier and Farce de Maitre Pathelin. …

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