Reader's Encyclopedia

Molière (pen name of Jean Baptiste Poquelin, 1622 - 1673)

French comic dramatist. Born in Paris, son of an upholsterer who served the royal household of Louis XIV, Molière received his education under the Jesuits at the College de Clermont. In 1643 he became an actor and cofounder of the Illustre Theatre, for which he wrote his first plays, notable among them L'etourdi (The Scatterbrain, 1665) and Le Depit amoureux (The Amorous Vexation, 1659). Initially unsuccessful in Paris, the company toured the provinces from 1645 to 1658, returning to the capital when the king granted it a theatre in the Louvre, the Theatre du Petit - Bourbon.

The playwright's first success in Paris was also his first comedy of manners, Les Precieuses ridicules, a one - act prose satire on the absurd affectations and pretensions displayed by members of such refined salons as the Hotel de Rambouillet. Enormously popular, the play was followed by Sganarelle, a one - act comedy in verse. The company moved to the Palais Royal the following year. Dom Garcie de Navarre (1661), its first production in its new home, was a failure. In the same year, Molière completed L ' ecole des maris (The School for Husbands; see Sganarelle) and the first of his many comedie - ballets, Les Facheux (The Bores, 1661); presented to the king during a sumptuous entertainment at his country mansion, the latter met with a delighted reception, won Molière a pension, and marked the beginning of the playwright's years as a royal favorite. A marriage to Armande Bejart, in 1662, proved unhappy and probably provided the embittering experience that led to the writing of one of Molière's masterpieces, Le Misanthrope. L ' e cole des femmes revealed a psychological penetration unprecedented in the comic theatre of the period, but the author's unsparing power of ridicule attracted the attention of disgruntled clergymen, courtiers, physicians, and rival dramatists -- all victims of Molière 's merciless wit -- and Boileau and the king himself were forced to defend Molière against attacks. The Critique de l'ecole des femmes (Criticism of the School for Wives) and the Impromptu de Versailles (both 1663) constituted Molière's own reply to his critics and enemies, followed in 1664 by Le Mariage force (The Forced Marriage; see Sganarelle) and La Princesse d'elide. A three - act version of Le Tartuffe produced the same year aroused clerical opposition and the play was forbidden until 1667, when, presented as L ' Imposteur (The Impostor), it received a second interdiction. The ban was finally lifted in 1669, and Le Tartuffe enjoyed its deserved popularity and established itself as one of Molière 's greatest comic achievements. Because of continuing attacks, Dom Juan ou le festin de pierre had to be taken out of the repertory, and, with L ' Amour medecin (1665), Le Medecin malgre lui, and Melicerte, Pastorale comique, and Le Sicilien (all written in the winter of 1666 - 67), the company passed through a period of financial hardship. Amphitryon (1668) was a success, and the company enjoyed a degree of good fortune for five years with L'Avare, Georges Dandin (1668), Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Les Amants magnifiques (The Magnificent Lovers, 1670), Psyche (1671), on which Molière collaborated, Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Rogueries of Scapin, 1671), La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas (1671), and Les Femmes savantes. After taking the part of Argan in the fourth performance of his last comedy, Le Malade imaginaire, Molière collapsed from a sudden and severe hemorrhage and died the same day. At the insistence of the clergy, he was denied holy burial.

Sometimes called the father of modern French comedy, Molière rejected the Italianate farces and comedies of intrigue dear to his predecessors, for his was a theatre relying on sound observation of the foibles and complexities of human nature and on an incomparable skill in humorous presentation. Actor and director, as well as author, Molière could boast a total command of his art; few playwrights can equal his understanding of dramatic construction and effect, his sparkling verse or comic strength. His virtuosity ranged from the most buffoonish farce, full of gaiety and absurdity, to the highest comedy, where the subtlety of his observation rivals that of many tragedians. Molière's masterpieces are those plays in which, attacking hypocrisy and vice, he created characters that have become immortal types. His gallery of peasants, noblemen, servants, and bourgeois offers not only an astonishingly wide view of 17th-century French society but also a telling moral: the wise man observes moderation and remains within the bounds that good sense imposes on nature. Though many of the episodes and plots of his plays are borrowed, though -- unlike Shakespeare -- he dealt mainly in types rather than in individuals, and despite his occasionally arbitrary denouements and the faults of style inevitable in hasty writing, Molière's work triumphs over its weaknesses; a laughing yet compelling advocate of all that is natural and reasonable in man and an enemy of all that is false and pretentious, Molière remains to this day without rival in the comic exposition of human character.

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