Alceste at the Print Shop: Publication and Authorship in Moliere's le Misanthrope

By Call, Michael | The Romanic Review, January-March 2013 | Go to article overview

Alceste at the Print Shop: Publication and Authorship in Moliere's le Misanthrope


Call, Michael, The Romanic Review


In the stormy first scene of Le Misanthrope, Alceste announces in comically grandiose fashion his intention to "rompre en visiere a tout le Genre Humain" (1: 651). (1) The play must indeed lend itself to themes of rupture, since prominent critics have cited it as a crucial turning point in Moliere's dramaturgy, the crossing oOf a comedic Rubicon. In his classic study, Jacques Guicharnaud made it the final play of a central trilogy that, having explored the possibilities and limits of comedy, ends with an empty stage, a comedic nec plus ultra signifying the end of an aesthetic. Guicharnaud concluded, "Apres Le Misanthrope, [Moliere] aurait pu cesser d'ecrire" (527). Likewise, for Gerard Defaux, Alceste's farewell to the world is also Moliere's authorial farewell to an erudite tradition of humanist (and moralist) satire (184,290-91). However, if Guicharnaud and Defaux had paid attention to the publication history of Moliere's theater, they might have added a further rupture to the list: in 1666, the year of Le Misanthrope's premiere, Moliere fell out with the initial group of libraires that had published his work since Les Precieuses ridicules, his first printed play. This split, brought to critical attention most prominently by C.E.J. Caldicott's work on Moliere's publishers, did not fail to leave its mark on the themes of Moliere's theater. While Le Misanthrope is not an occasional piece on the order of La Critique de L'Ecole des femmes, its creation--as well as its treatment of authorship, reception, and publication--nevertheless plays out against the turbulent backdrop of Moliere's struggles with the printing industry.

The Crisis of the 1666 OEuvres

In 1666, the Parisian bookseller Gabriel Quinet obtained a new royal privilege, valid for six years, authorizing the printing of a collected edition of nine of Moliere's plays to date. (2) This privilege was then shared with the seven other libraires that had collaborated on the publication of L'Ecole des femmes and La Critique de l'Ecole des femmes, several of whom had also participated in publishing various Moliere plays since Les Precieuses ridicules, the playwright's first printed work. The participation of all eight publishers (as well as that of Robert Ballard, the publisher of La Princesse d'Elide) was a necessity for the 1666 collected works to be legal--most of the individual privileges for the plays included in the two-volume set had not yet expired, and printing them without their owners' consent would have violated those privileges' monopoly clauses. It would appear, though, that while all of Moliere's previous publishers (with the understandable exception of Jean Ribou, publisher of a stolen version of Sganarelle) participated in this project, the libraires did exclude someone else: the author. In the text of a 1671 privilege, Moliere complains that Quinet obtained his 1666 royal permission to print the collected works "par surprise" and "sans en avoir son consentement" (2: 418). This statement leads Caldicott to conclude that the publishers of the 1666 edition (which he dubs the "cartel des huit") were unethically seeking to extend their control over Moliere's printed theater at the author's expense (123-30). (3)

While such practices may run counter to our own notion of authors' rights, there is little doubt that Moliere's publishers were acting within acceptable seventeenth-century norms. If Moliere could have made a convincing case to challenge the legitimacy of the 1666 edition, it would have been to his advantage to do so immediately upon its publication, allowing him to seize the edition and profit from it, but no legal documents exist to suggest that he did. On the other hand, it is more likely that while Moliere may have personally disapproved of the edition, there was no case for challenging its legality--the publishers that had previously purchased the manuscripts had applied for and received a valid privilege. Moliere's successful suit against Jean Ribou in the 1660 Sganarelle affair demonstrates that the French judicial system did recognize an author's right to choose the time and manner of publication (or at least the choice of publisher), but nothing suggests that an author retained any control over the text after the cession of his or her rights to a libraire. …

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