The Aesthetics of Farce: La Jalousie Du Barbouille
Maskell, David, The Modern Language Review
The anonymous La Jalousie du Barbouille brought to light in the eighteenth century is now commonly accepted as an early farce by Moliere and printed with his works. (1) Whilst this secures for it a degree of attention it might otherwise not command, the play suffers from being a small star in the bright Moliere constellation. For Calder 'we are barely aware of the plot's existence. [...] It does not explore the issues of love and marriage. Nor does it offer any sustained character interest' (p. 28). Even a sympathetic editor notes that 'l'intrigue de La Jalousie, decousue et rudimentaire, temoigne du caractere incomplet de la piece'. (2) Negative judgements such as these, which do not go beyond plot and character, fail to do justice to the play. A summary of the text shows that these judgements are correct as far as they go, but that they address the wrong issues: a husband deliberating how to punish his flirtatious and disobedient wife consults a Doctor, who rudely dismisses him (Scenes 1-2). The husband accuses his wife of consorting with another man and generates noisy family recriminations. The Doctor offers to mediate, but instead of listening to the parties, he gives lessons in correct speech until he is dragged off by the enraged husband (3-6). Locked out of the house at night after a ball, the wife tricks her husband into letting her in by feigning suicide, thereby making her husband appear at fault, not herself. Her father enforces peace and the Doctor offers a lecture on harmony (7-13). (3) The purpose of this article is to explore the aesthetics of farce through a combination of three interconnected readings (generic, carnival, and theatrical) that, in the case of La Jalousie, produce more positive results than consideration of plot, character, or issues. The conclusions reached do not depend on Moliere being the author of the text but reinforce the hypothesis that he is.
To what genre does La Jalousie belong? Bernadette Rey-Flaud's analysis of farce between 1450 and 1550 concludes that the essence of farce is deception, trickery, or ruse: 'Farcer signifie tromper [...] toute farce est la mise en oeuvre d'une tromperie.' (4) Her syntax of farce posits three elements: (a) initial situation (b) deception (c) final situation. The deception acts like a verb in changing the situation usually from victory to defeat or vice versa. The basic structure may be repeated with variations to generate more complex farces. In the seventeenth century the mechanism of tromperie is popular in tragedy as well as in farce. (5) This definition has therefore to be qualified by specifying that farce employs a low or vulgar stylistic register, though on occasion it may parody the elevated register of tragedy. In a subsequent study, Rey-Flaud applies her definition to Moliere and finds the classic farce formula in Scene 11 of La Jalousie. (6) The wife arrives home late. Her husband refuses to let her in and occupies the moral high ground. After the wife's feigned suicide the positions are reversed. His wife hurls abuse at her husband in the street and he is humiliated. His victory has turned to defeat.
However, identifying the farcical mechanism of Scene 11 raises a problem of unity. Although the ruse is prepared for in Scenes 3-4 and 7-10, it is the Doctor, a commedia dell'arte character, who has the dominant role for more than half the play, yet he plays no part in the tromperie that constitutes the essence of the farce, a duplicity of action noted by critics: 'Ce theme du mari confondu [...] est double d'un second motif auquel il se rattache de facon assez lache: les interventions repetees d'un philosophe' (Grimm, p. 55). A generic reading of La Jalousie therefore poses problems that are apparently exacerbated by inconsistencies in the Doctor's role. For whilst he is aggressively authoritarian in Scenes 2 and 6, he is mild and peaceful in the final scene. To say only that the scenes are there to 'provide one or two lively farcical interludes' (Calder, p. …