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.

His public life is easier to reconstruct than his personality, for which the best evidence remains the plays. However invisible writers strive to be, their audience inevitably acquires a sense of the person behind the words. But such inferences are invariably impressionistic, and Molière has, accordingly, been given many different personas. To his contemporaries, he was a performer and entertainer rather than an author. Voltaire, himself eternally at odds with officialdom, made him the Artist fettered by censorship. The Romantics, who doted on wounded sensibilities, detected tragic notes beneath his clowning. The academic Moliéristes of the 19th century turned him into a pillar of bourgeois values and, in their wake, intellectuals have come up with an intellectual Molière, rebels with a subversive one and theatre historians with a man of the theatre. Virginia Scott’s biography, the first in English for seventy years, belongs with the latter tendency; its purpose is to provide an accessible portrait of a playwright who, after Shakespeare, ‘represents classical theatre to American audiences’.

She confesses to having a personal agenda, which is ‘to express the intersections between myself and the past that I experience imaginatively’. The result, she hopes, is ‘a consistent fiction’, ‘an arrangement of facts, opinions, conjectures, rumours and lies’. In the event, this is less alarming than it sounds, for Scott, despite a taste for imaginative speculation, is an engaging guide to the life and times of a writer who was essentially ‘a chronicler of obsessions’.

Born in 1622, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was the first of the six children of a Paris tapissier, a purveyor of soft furnishings and bedding to the gentry and, soon, to the royal household. In 1631, Poquelin père became one of the numerous tapissiers ordinaires du roi, whose duties included caring for the royal furniture and making the foot of the royal bed while a valet de chambre ordinaire made it at the head. Jean-Baptiste was sent to the prestigious Jesuit Collège de Clermont (later Louis-le-Grand) and then briefly studied law, perhaps at Orléans. Meanwhile, he had caught stage-fever, possibly through his grandfather, who is said to have taken him to the playhouses of Paris, where Corneille was making his name. In 1642, he scandalised his father by declaring his intention of becoming an actor, a decision formalised in June 1643 when, with nine others, he signed an agreement setting up a new company, the Illustre Théâtre.

Among his co-signatories were four of the nine children of Joseph Béjart, who fraudulently described himself as a court usher, and Marie Hervé, whom Scott calls ‘the most supportive stage mother in history’ for her continuing financial backing. The Béjarts, and not least Madeleine, who was already attracting attention as a tragic actress, formed the core of the company, which found a home in a tennis court, where they played tragedy with more enthusiasm than art. They lasted eighteen months before their creditors called them to account. In August 1645, Jean-Baptiste (known as ‘le sieur de Molière’ for at least a year) was briefly jailed for debt but, bailed out by his father, he joined the rest of the group in the provinces.

They were hired by Charles Dufresne, leader of a company attached to the household of the Duc d’Epernon at Agen. There were then a dozen or so such companies touring the provinces, many living from hand to mouth, and for the next 13 years, they played at venues mainly in the Languedoc, occasionally on fairground trestles but increasingly to bourgeois and noble audiences. They performed farce, comedy and tragedy and in 1653 put on Corneille’s ‘machine-play’, Andromède, which called for elaborate staging and spectacular effects and was an ambitious venture for such a small company. The same year, they acquired a new patron, the dissolute Prince de Conti who, however, disowned them in 1656 when he became excessively pious. By then, Molière had staged two farces of his own and the company, which he now led, was acquiring a reputation as the best of the provincial players. In 1658, they decided they were ready to make an assault on the capital.

They found Paris audiences, accustomed to the high standard set by the Hôtel de Bourgogne, home of tragedy, harder to please. They had Madeleine but no tragic lead to match her, and business was slow. In October, they gave a lacklustre performance of Corneille’s Nicomède for the young Louis XIV but followed it with a farce which so delighted the King that he authorised them to share the Petit-Bourbon theatre with the Italian actors, who drew the crowds with comedy in the improvised mode of the commedia dell’arte. But though they had found a royal patron in Monsieur, the King’s brother, success continued to elude them until November 1659 when, as an afterpiece to Corneille’s Cinna, they performed the one-act Précieuses ridicules, the first play Molière wrote after his return from his provincial exile. It made Paris laugh and Molière famous as both author and actor.

Success placed a heavy pressure on his round shoulders. He oversaw productions, juggled with money and contracts, performed regularly, and ran his company along democratic lines. Between 1659 and 1673, he staged 65 plays by other hands, but the best business was done by the thirty which he wrote himself. He was obliged to cater for the taste of his Paris public but had also to please the court, which regularly commanded his participation in royal occasions, sometimes at the shortest notice: Les Fâcheux (1661) was written and staged in two weeks and L’Amour médecin (1665) in five days. He stole plots and borrowed old routines, but from the start was not merely an entertainer. He believed that the purpose of comedy was to ‘chastise manners’ by mocking private follies and public vices. Moral earnestness was not part of his armoury, though he could be deadly serious, as his struggle to stage Tartuffe and expose the religious hypocrites makes clear. But his jokes were excellent, his good humour seemingly unsinkable and, single-handedly, he rejuvenated French comedy, retaining a framework of farce and weaving traditional plots, satire and spectacle into a fully integrated form of comic theatre.

All this suggests a confident Molière, well equipped to handle the controversy he appears to have courted. Purists were offended by the way he bent the rules of theatre and he antagonised the ‘Precious’ party: influential courtiers, women, doctors, churchmen and rival actors who resented his success. But reading between the lines, Scott finds a more embattled Molière, who was at once vulnerable in his emotional life and fearless in defence of his work.

Reaching out for the private Molière, she is struck by the fact that the plays return constantly ‘to sexual jealousy and sexual need, to doubts about being loved, and to fraudulent marriages’. She ventures hesitantly onto thin ice when she detects in his possessive attitude to the 12-year-old acting prodigy, Baron, a whiff of something which was more than a fatherly or professional interest but did not quite amount to homosexuality ‘in the modern sense’, and her Molière remains ‘substantively heterosexual’. Firmer and better supported is the link she establishes between his far from happy marriage to Armande Béjart, then ‘about twenty’ and half his age, and the Sganarelles and Arnolphes who fail to acquire young wives, Alceste’s pursuit of the unfeeling Célimène in Le Misanthrope, and his portraits of women who betray men and men who catch the roving eye of women in later plays like Amphitryon, George Dandin and Les Femmes savantes. Her conclusion, that Molière was less than comfortable in his private life, seems well founded. Molière, she concludes, was no detached observer but a writer who mined ‘his own life, his own values and ideas, and his own feelings’.

Such extrapolations, already made during his lifetime, are far from conclusive, however. If Scott rightly argues that the doctor plays cannot be taken to represent Molière’s attitude to medicine, only to charlatans, she minimises the possibility that his sexual anxieties might also appear deeper than they were for purely theatrical reasons. Though he refashioned comedy, he still worked within a tradition. Cuckolds, the malices des femmes and outwitted greybeards were part of the stock-in-trade of farce, and the basic rule of comedy was that love was always young and happy. Moreover, Molière’s wives mock husbands who are patently foolish and though he lampooned many affected, imperious women, others, like Elmire in Tartuffe or Henriette in Les Femmes savantes, are eminently sane and admirable.

More speculative still is the suggestion that, after the first Tartuffe was banned in 1664, Molière struck a ‘bargain’ with Louis XIV. In return for his financial and public support, the King would have uninterrupted service from his preferred playwright. It’s true that Molière’s failure to stage a single new play of his own for three months after the second Tartuffe was forbidden in 1667 has been construed as a silent reproach to the King. But the suggestion that for three years after Tartuffe was finally authorised in 1669, he was still angry enough to produce only ‘minor’ works, unleashing his ‘full genius’ only after losing his royal patron in 1672, hardly fits the facts. Leaving aside the objection that no one did deals with Louis XIV, the ‘minor’ plays (comedy-ballets and spectacle plays now rarely performed) were in fact major events, popular both at court and in Paris. Boileau, who criticised Molière for diluting his talent with vulgar farce, spoke for later generations not his own, which preferred the less than subtle Sganarelle, Les Fâcheux and L’École des maris to the ‘great’ comedies of monomania which we now so admire. It seems very unlikely that Molière, an actor-manager with a theatre to fill, was holding anything back.

Scott’s account of the Tartuffe affaire also sidelines a more interesting question. Why did Molière go out of his way to provoke the bigots at a time when the penalty for heresy was death? They were still baying for his blood when he staged Dom Juan, which has an atheist for a hero and leaves the defence of religion to a poltroon. In one sense he was being consistent, for Dom Juan is an even bigger hypocrite than Tartuffe. Yet by allowing him to face the statue of the Commander with such courage, Molière seemed to exceed his self-imposed brief to attack the singers, not the song. What conviction drove him to fight a cause which endangered himself and imperilled his actors?

Scott, concerned primarily with the emotional truth about Molière, shows much less curiosity about his beliefs and ideas. He wasn’t a great reader, but it seems likely that he had translated Lucretius and certainly counted free-thinkers among his friends. The plays show a familiarity with the new philosophical materialism and the medical controversies surrounding the circulation of the blood and the use of antimony as an emetic. Innumerable inkwells have been emptied in efforts to define his beliefs (he is generally thought to have been mildly sceptical), but it is disconcerting to find no systematic discussion of the ideas of an author who, though no philosopher, was at least a consistent moralist.

This is by no means a hasty or ill-considered Life, however. For the most part, Scott moves around the monument circumspectly, picking her way through the hints and half-sightings, as wary of friendly reports as of the sneerers, and assembles the ‘consistent fiction’ she set out to achieve. There are no surprises, no new findings, and a few hobby-horses. But she is a refreshing guide. She has an excellent eye for period detail and fills the empty corners of Molière’s existence with neat pen-portraits of his women and friends and unfussy accounts of his dealings as an actor-manager. Her Molière is a good and loyal man, undone by marriage, disillusioned by court life and determined to show up public hypocrisy and its counterpart in private life, the personal obsessions which threaten to destroy the lives of the innocent. Few would disagree with this estimate.

In 1673, Molière played Argan, the Malade imaginaire. Towards the end of the fourth performance, he coughed blood and within hours was dead of a pulmonary congestion. At first, as an unconfessed actor, he was denied a Christian burial but Louis prevailed on the Archbishop of Paris to change his mind. Three days later, his company performed Le Misanthrope. The show he had begun went on, and it is still running.