Molière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Molière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin

Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière (zhäN bätēst´ pôklăN´ môlyĕr´), 1622–73, French playwright and actor, b. Paris; son of a merchant who was upholsterer to the king. His name was originally Jean Baptiste Poquelin. Molière was the creator of French high comedy; his genius lay in exposing the hypocrisies and follies of his society through satire.

Life

In his youth Moliére joined the Béjart troupe of professional actors. Madeleine Béjart was for years his mistress, but in 1662 he scandalized many by marrying Armande Béjart, who was either Madeleine's younger sister or her daughter. The little company, headed by Molière and called the Illustre Théâtre, settled (1643) in Paris, but their venture failed (1645), and they spent the next 13 years touring the provinces. They returned in triumph with a performance of Molière's Le Docteur amoureux for Louis XIV. Under royal patronage this troupe, performing at the Palais Royal, enjoyed continuous success; it is known as the ancestor of the Comédie Française. Molière had, nevertheless, to contend with rivalry from the Hôtel de Bourgogne and with cries of impiety and slander from critics and other authors.

The Plays

The great variety in Molière's work stems from his being at once actor, director, stage manager, and writer. Influenced by the commedia dell'arte, he wrote farces, comedies, masks, and ballets on short notice for the entertainment of the court. He is best known for the great comedies of character in which he ridicules a vice or a type of excess by caricaturing a person who is its incarnation: Le Tartuffe (1664), on the religious hypocrite; Le Misanthrope (1666), on the antisocial man; L'Avare (1668, tr. The Miser); and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670, tr. The Would-Be Gentleman), on the parvenu.

Other plays in which vices are personified are Les Femmes savantes (1672, tr. The Learned Women), on the fashionable, affected intellectuals whom he had already lampooned in Les Précieuses ridicules (1659), often called the first comedy of manners and Le Malade imaginaire (1673), on the hypochondriac. Molière was acting the title role of the latter when he was fatally stricken. Also comedies of character, but depending more on absurdities, are L'École des maris (1661, tr. The School for Husbands) and L'École des femmes (1662, tr. The School for Wives), which was followed by a skit against the critics, La Critique de l'École des femmes (1663); and Don Juan (1665), an adaptation of the old story of the libertine.

The playwright's farces are uproarious—Sganarelle (1660), Le Médecin malgré lui (1666, tr. The Doctor in Spite of Himself), George Dandin (1668), Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671, tr. Scapin, the Trickster), and La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas (1671). Among Molière's other works are the poetic Amphitryon (1668), after Plautus; L'Étourdi (1653?, tr. The Blunderer); Le Dépit amoureux (1656, tr. The Amorous Quarrel); and Le Mariage forcé (1664, tr. The Forced Marriage).

Bibliography

A primary source on Molière's career is the careful Registre or daybook of programs, expenditures, and receipts of the Paris company from 1658. It was kept by the actor Charles Varlet de la Grange (1639?—1692).

See also biographies by H. M. Trollope (1905), D. B. W. Lewis (1959), J. Palmer (2d ed. 1965), and V. Scott (2001); studies by P. A. Chapman (1941, repr. 1965), L. Gossman (1969), R. Fernandez (1929, repr. 1980), N. Gross (1982), and H. C. Knutson (1987).

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