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At 400, Molière Still Matters

· 11 min read
At 400, Molière Still Matters
The Fontaine Molière in Paris, at the junction of rue Molière and rue de Richelieu. 

Over the years, Le Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur has been one my favorite Molière plays to study and direct with my undergraduate students at Princeton University. I find it to be the best point of origin from which to discover his body of work.

As often with Molière, the plot revolves around a family representing society at large, and one character’s obsession takes center stage. Here, the patriarch Orgon is going through a midlife spiritual crisis. He has recently brought home Tartuffe, a devout-seeming individual found on the streets, who imposes strictly pious views on the family, but who soon reveals his hypocrisy by declaring his love for Elmire, Orgon’s second wife.

The action accelerates when Orgon decides to marry his daughter Mariane with Tartuffe, infuriating his servant Dorine, who seeks Elmire’s help since she’s the only one Tartuffe pays attention to. Elmire intervenes, dissuading Tartuffe from marrying the young Mariane, reminding him of his lofty religious pursuits. Tartuffe replies that love for the Creator isn’t incompatible with lust, since God reflects himself in earthly beauties, such as Elmire herself.

Frontispiece and title page of Tartuffe or The Imposter from a 1739 collected edition.

His declaration is made in the presence of Damis, Orgon’s son, who was hiding during the conversation and heard everything. In a subsequent encounter (Act IV, Scene 5), following much confusion within the family (Orgon cannot believe a word of what Damis has revealed, vehemently going so far as to disinherit his son and offer Tartuffe the rights to his entire estate), Elmire tricks the hypocrite by hiding her incredulous husband under a table so he can hear Tartuffe make advances on her, which the cad hurries to do as shown in the second of the two excerpts reproduced immediately below (featuring the translation for the ages by the late American poet Richard Wilbur). A deus ex machina resolves the play, when Tartuffe (whose true identity as a con man is revealed) is arrested, freeing the family from the threat of bankruptcy.

Two excerpts from 'Le Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur.'

In this play, Molière has applied his full range of craftmanship, creating one of his virtuoso trademark comedies in five acts and French verse. With its two central characters, Orgon and Tartuffe, it occupies the highest place in his works, mixing his favorite themes, including the denunciation of all forms of duplicity, bigotry, and obsessive self-deception. One finds a series of memorable supporting characters, as with many of his other plays: the young ingénue, Mariane, the unfortunate lover Valère, the quick-tempered brother Damis, and the shrewd servant Dorine. The table scene, when Tartuffe is exposed, is perhaps the most scandalous in all of French theatre—almost the French version of the Mousetrap scene in Hamlet. No wonder my American students delight at discovering the play, which I’ve used consistently as a means to introduce Molière’s vast oeuvre of more than 30 plays.

This year marked the 400th birthday of Molière, born on January 15th, 1622 to the name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. In France, and much of the rest of the world, celebrations are taking place to celebrate the French language’s most celebrated and translated playwright. In Paris, La Comédie-Française, also known as The House of Molière due to its descent from Molière’s own theatrical troupe, inaugurated its Saison Molière with the presentation of Tartuffe ou l’Hypocrite, a version of the landmark play forgotten in time, and never performed there before. An acclaimed theatre historian, George Forestier, brought it back to the stage using a technique known as theatrical genetics. Directed by Ivo van Hove from Belgium, it brings an incredible spotlight on to the contemporaneity of le Patron—the boss—as members of the historic troupe like to call Molière.

At 400, Molière is still widely taught in France; schoolchildren and middle schoolers read Les Fourberies de Scapin, L’Avare, or Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, and attend matinées scolaires of the beloved plays. High schoolers spend long hours studying and reciting passages of Le Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope. For aspiring thespians, Molière is often the first playwright ever encountered and performed in academic-setting workshops and local conservatories. Beyond the Comédie-Française, where several of his comedies are regularly put on in a single season as part of its heritage mission, nationally subsidized theaters as well as commercial outlets produce and present his plays. What explains this enduring success?

Molière touches upon the universal, through the gallery of unforgettable characters he created. We resemble them, to the point that one can say about someone else that he or she is a high-minded Alceste, a clever and flirtatious Célimène, a miserly Harpagon, a hypocritical Tartuffe, a gullible Orgon, a preening Monsieur Jourdain, or a hypochondriac such as Argan. He was an astute portraitist who, like Charles Dickens, could instantly bring a character to life.

As a reader of our souls and a brilliant satirist, he showed, with acute precision, the ridiculousness of some of our behaviors; engaging with fellow freethinkers from his day who also despised bigots and imposters. We can compare Molière with today’s stand-up comedians, who excel at caricaturing their contemporaries.

And yet, Molière was more than that. He was a master performer, a shrewd producer, and a gifted writer. He also knew not to cross certain boundaries and remain respectable in his criticism of society amidst the royal absolutism of Louis XIV’s ancien régime.

One can easily compare him with Shakespeare, not just due to the breadth and quality of his works, and the place occupied in the literary history of his country and language, but also for the theatrical genius they share in common: Both wrote directly from the stage and served multiple roles in the theatre-making process.

Much of Molière’s skill lay in his choice of words, repetitions, memorable lines and speeches. Among the most famous are “Le poumon! Le poumon, vous dis-je! in Le Malade imaginaire; “Qu’allait-il faire dans cette galère!in Les Fourberies de Scapin, and Au voleur! au voleur! à l’assassin!from L’Avare. His lines are incredibly efficient stage-wise; the rhythm in which they follow one another is formidable. They put actors in motion immediately and were obviously written with the stage in mind. Though, at times, certain words and phrases bring us back to the 17th-century, challenging our modern-day relation to the material, his language remains accessible overall. Actors describe how concrete it feels once they master his prose and verse form, and directors are able to transpose the plots into the present, making them resonate with our modern concerns.

Molière’s long-term success also has to do with the fact that his plays deal mainly with people exercising power over others, an inexhaustible theme we can all easily relate to. Fathers demand that their daughters marry husbands of their own choosing; they tyrannize their sons, who are sometimes seen as competitors, and neglect their wives. Masters quarrel with their servants, and torment them. Crazy doctors, pseudo-intellectuals, con artists and hypocrites manipulate unsuspecting victims. Thematically, Molière’s theatre is atemporal and universal because he deals with the venal personalities who still surround us.

It’s also easy to marvel at the sheer variety of Molière’s great works. He wrote farces, plays we could nowadays call family-oriented, one acts, comédies de caractère, comédies-ballets, pièces à machines (featuring what we would now call special effects), and even captivating self-reflexive plays written in response to criticism, in which he reflected on his craft and the art of theatre more generally. As with Shakespeare, one wonders how one man alone could craft that many works and pursue so many other activities. In addition to writing and performing, Molière managed his theatre and programmed its season. He produced plays by other playwrights, participated in the burgeoning Parisian salon intellectual life of his time, meticulously performed his royal duties as Tapissier du roi (a King’s valet, nominally tasked with maintaining the royal carpets and upholstery), all the while serving as the official organizer of several multiday outdoor festivals at Versailles during the early years of Louis XIV’s reign.

His language is diverse: Molière develops multiple voices in his plays. He makes us hear the language of the Court, the city, the countryside, and France’s regions. As with Dickens in Great Expectations, he excelled at capturing the high and low voices of society. In Le Misanthrope, Célimène exquisitely mocks other members of the Court in La scène des portraits. To trick Géronte, Scapin speaks Gascon from south-western France in the famous scène du sac in Act III of Les Fourberies de Scapin. In Dom Juan, Pierrot expresses himself in a local dialect and moves us terribly when his fiancée, Charlotte, ditches him for Don Juan.

Like Shakespeare, Molière didn’t invent all of his plots, but borrowed extensively from other European theatrical traditions and playwrights before him. He mixed French medieval farce with early Italian commedia dell’arte. (One can easily trace the influence of medieval farce in Act IV, Scene 5 of Tartuffe, for instance, which is reminiscent of the classical scene type featuring cuckolds surprising their cunning wives’ lovers.) He invented new dramaturgical forms such as comédie-ballet, ancestor of our modern-day musical, and elevated comedy to new heights by exploiting all the genre had to offer, and creating, for posterity, la grande comédie classique in five acts. It’s easy to see his influence in subsequent French comic writers: The great 18th-century playwright Marivaux had obviously read all of Molière; then Beaumarchais (whom we know from Le Barbier de Séville and Le Mariage de Figaro) read all of Marivaux; and later, during the Belle Époque, Feydeau all of Beaumarchais. Molière’s legacy is simply incomparable.

As with Shakespeare, legends surround Molière. Since he left few documents behind, nor published his plays during his lifetime, many have speculated about his authorship, and certain aspects of his personal life.

He came from a bourgeois family, and grew up in the center of Paris. His father, too, was a Tapissier du Roi. From these details, Molière’s youth often has been romanticized. One is tempted to imagine a rebellious young man, fighting with his father to embrace a non-traditional career such as acting; while, in fact, Molière’s father actually helped sponsor his son’s first attempts in the profession.

Starting in 1645, Molière spent 13 years on the road, touring the regions of France, especially the southeast and south-west. Legend has it that a bohemian Molière performed with his troupe in remote villages of the land, where he forged his talents. In reality, Molière was backed by rich and influential aristocrats, and travelled from châteaux to châteaux, where he stayed for extended periods of time, refining his craft and growing in reputation before his triumphant return to Paris in 1658.

Another example concerns his death. Only recently have we come to understand that Molière didn’t die of a long pulmonary disease, but rather suddenly of a bad epidemic striking Paris in the winter of 1673. Molière, who was playing the lead role of Argan in Le Malade imaginaire, finished the fourth performance of the play and died at home a few hours later. As Molière expert Georges Forestier reminds us, this fact alone changes entirely the interpretation of his last play, which was wrongly considered for too long as a story written by a sick man who knew he would soon die.

Do today’s young actors and directors still dream of performing Molière? The answer is uncertain. National drama schools in France favor contemporary works, and often seek the involvement of living playwrights for the final showcases of their graduating classes. Molière can be considered a bit old-fashioned for younger theatre makers who are interested in collaborative works and innovative dramaturgies.

The Nouveau Théâtre Populaire (NTP) successfully staged three Molière plays at the last Avignon Festival in July 2021: Le Tartuffe, Dom Juan, and Psyché, offering a refreshing, inventive and electrifying night of theater with the three plays running from 7pm until 2am. At the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique de Paris, where Louis Jouvet, one of the most important stage directors of the 20th century, once trained actors, Molière is still taught wonderfully well by the acting faculty, and staged somewhat regularly.

Molière also remains a strong ambassador for the French language and culture in other countries. In diplomatic circles, the Comédie-Française still carries cachet when it goes on tour with a comedy by Molière. French embassies get involved, as do local expatriates, in welcoming the troupe, typically producing a grande affaire. Recent productions of L’Avare, Les Femmes savantes, and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, directed by prominent French directors, have toured in China with the support of Institut français, the cultural branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A recent article in Le Monde on Molière recalls that despite the prestige surrounding his name, he has had mixed fortunes abroad. When Molière was first introduced in the Middle East, two centuries ago, audience members discovered Western theatre. But now they prefer plays by Samuel Beckett or Bernard-Marie Koltès. Though Le Tartuffe and L’Avare are extremely popular in China, there too, spectators tend to prefer contemporary works. In Africa, on the other hand, directors keep on staging Molière enthusiastically, marvelling at the relevance of his theatre to modern social issues.

US college theater departments and residency theaters alike also continue to stage Molière’s works from time to time. In Kansas City (a city established by French businessman François Chouteau), festivities are underway to celebrate Molière’s 400th birthday throughout 2022. “KC Molière” will feature 400 events that span not only the world of literature and theatre, but also “dance, music, film, puppetry, visual, [and] culinary” themes. There will even be a production staged in French, performed by a member of the Comédie-Française, with each scene introduced beforehand in English.

Every year on January 15th—Molière’s birthday, as documented by the date of his baptism at Église Saint-Eustache—one of his plays is performed by La Comédie-Française. After curtain call, a bust of Molière is placed on the forestage, and the entire troupe convenes to pay homage to their beloved Patron. By hierarchical order of entrance in the troupe, starting with the most recent new Pensionnaires, they each recite one line from his wonderful repertoire.

This year’s homage to Molière concluded a memorable night of theatre, since it was the opening of Ivo van Hove’s Tartuffe ou l’Hypocrite. The French studio Pathé Live captured the play and homage, and screened them in hundreds of cinemas across France. An eclectic audience joined officials, donors, and patrons, with the Comédie-Française doing its best to showcase a diverse audience. The House of Molière, France’s first national theatre, has gone through many turbulent times in its history, including the French revolution, the Nazi occupation, and, much more recently, a long shutdown due to the COVID pandemic. Every time, it survived, bounced back, and continued to produce fresh performances. The same could be said for Molière himself, who has remained one of our true literary heroes and French national icons.

Will Molière now enter the Panthéon, the “temple of the French nation,” along with Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, and Voltaire? The Panthéon only came into being during the French Revolution, more than a century after Molière’s death. But his 400th birthday has rekindled the debate over whether he should gain entry, and a few cultural figures are pushing for it. Some candidates for the French presidential elections even took stands on the question, going as far as mentioning Molière in their rallies and op-eds. (In response, the Elysée Palace has reminded them that the Panthéon is meant to honor the great men and women who lived during and after the French Revolution, and the Enlightenment period that preceded it. By this standard, Molière arguably left the stage too early to qualify.)  

More important than such symbolic gestures is the question of whether Molière, as a classic writer, can continue to engage younger generations by showing them answers to the pressing issues they face in their own lives. In this regard, I am reminded of Abdelatif Kechich’s acclaimed 2003 film L’Esquive—released in English under a name similar to that of the Marivaux play that Kechich adapted, Games of Love and Chance—in which adolescents from French housing projects appropriate Marivaux’ language exquisitely, despite all types of preconceived notions about their limitations.

It is essential that Molière’s works become adapted in a similar way, and thereby become more accessible to audiences outside of the traditionally privileged theatre-going market. The current socio-political context in France certainly demands such a transformation, and the country’s artists possess the will and talent to rejuvenate him with this kind of diverse audience and project in mind. In this way, we can ensure that Molière will still matter, and still take center stage in the political and cultural life of my country.

For those interested in further reading on Molière, I recommend Moliere: The Complete Richard Wilbur Translations, The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays by Maya Slater, as well as Molière (French Edition) by Georges Forestier, and L’Atlas Molière (in French) by Clara Dealberto, Jules Grandin, and Christopher Schuwey.

Florent Masse

Florent Masse is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton University, and the Director of L’Avant-Scène, a French Theater Workshop.

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