Love is always young and happy

David Coward

  • Molière: A Theatrical Life by Virginia Scott
    Cambridge, 333 pp, £35.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 521 78281 3

One day in about 1820, so the story goes, a peasant appeared at the Bibliothèque Nationale with a cart drawn by a mule. In the cart, he said, were ‘tous les papiers de Molière’ and they were for sale. But the Library was closed and the concierge told him to come back another day. He never did and ‘Molière’s papers’ were doubtless offloaded as wrapping for fish and onions for the grocers of Paris.

The legend of the vanished archive still makes good Moliéristes grind their teeth, for the only physical traces left by France’s greatest comic playwright are the signatures which appear on fifty or so receipts and legal documents, and even there he usually appears not as himself but under his stage-name, Molière. There are no manuscripts of the plays, no journal or letters, and the combative prefaces to his published plays speak with the voice of the author, not the man. There are portraits and engravings, but more often than not they, too, bury the man by showing the actor: here he is noble Pompée, Corneille’s tragic hero, there Sganarelle or Arnolphe or the Would-Be Gentleman, his face hidden behind the looped moustachios and chin-tuft which he borrowed from Scaramouche, the Italian farceur, Fiorilli.

Though there are enough portraits to indicate that, as a young man, he was handsome, other evidence suggests that he was physically unprepossessing. According to Montfleury, star of the rival company based at the Hôtel de Bourgogne and therefore no friend, he was round-shouldered, bow-legged and, when speaking his lines, he rolled his eyes and ‘separated each word’ – the effect of a vocal tic or possibly a minor speech impediment, a defect also noticed by others. In old age, Mlle Poisson, who had acted with him in her teens, recalled on the contrary that he had ‘good legs’ and carried himself ‘nobly’. He was neither too fat nor too thin, she said, tall rather than short, and sober in manner. ‘He had a large nose, a wide mouth, thick lips, a dark complexion, and bushy black eyebrows which he could move in ways that gave his face the most comical expressions.’ Others noted that he behaved with dignity at court, enjoyed the trappings of success and was a generous employer: members of his company remained exceptionally loyal. Offstage he spoke little, listened well and was a keen people-watcher. But he was uneasy with strangers, inclined to melancholy, tetchy with servants and his marital troubles were an open secret. But no one disagreed with the proposition that, physically, nature had intended him for comic not tragic roles.

While more is known about Molière than about Shakespeare, the record is patchy and often contradictory. The most solid evidence is provided by a member of Molière’s company, La Grange, whose register of performances and receipts documents the fortunes of the plays and the company which performed them. The rest is mostly hearsay, slander and gossip. In the absence of unambiguous sightings, Molière’s biographers are doomed to be stage-setters for a star who never makes an entry.

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