The history of comedy, from Larivey to Molière, is one of arrested development, followed by hasty and ill-regulated growth. During the first twenty-five years of the seventeenth century, comedy can hardly be said to have existed; whatever tended to beauty or elevation, took the form of tragi-comedy or pastoral; what was rude and popular became a farce. From the farce Molière's early work takes its origin, but of the repertory of his predecessors little survives. Much, indeed, in these performances was left to the improvisation of the burlesque actors. Gros-Guillaume, Gaultier-Garguille, Turlupin, Tabarin, rejoiced the heart of the populace; but the farces tabariniques can hardly be dignified with the name of literature.
In 1632 the comedy of intrigue was advanced by Mairet in his Galanteries du Duc d'Ossone. The genius of Rotrou, follower though he was of Plautus, tended towards the tragic; if he is really gay, it is in La Soeur (1645), a bright tangle of extravagant incidents. For Rotrou the drama of Italy supplied material; the way to the Spanish drama was opened by d'Ouville, the only writer of the time devoted specially to comedy, in L'Esprit Follet (1641); once opened, it became a common highway. Scarron added to his Spanish originals in Jodelet and Don Japhet d'Arménie his own burlesque humour. The comedy of contemporary manners appears with grace and charm in Corneille's early plays; the comedy of character, in his admirable Le Menteur. Saint-Évremond satirised literary affectations in La Comédie des Académistes; these and other follies of the time are presented with spirit in Desmaret's remarkable comedy, Les Visionnaires. If we add, for sake of its study of the peasant in the character of Mathieu Gareau, the farcical Pédant Joué of Cyrano, we have named the most notable comedies of the years which preceded Les Précieuses Ridicules.
Their general character is extravagance of resources in the plot, extravagance of conception in the characters. Yet in both intrigue and characters there is a certain monotony. The same incidents, romantic and humorous, are variously mingled to produce the imbroglio; the same typical characters—the braggart, the parasite, the pedant, the extravagant poet, the amorous old man, the designing woman, the knavish valet, the garrulous nurse—play their mirthful parts. If the types are studied from real life rather than adopted from Italian or Spanish models, they are exaggerated to absurdity. Corneille alone is distinguished by delicacy of imagination and the finer touch of a dexterous artist.
JEAN-BAPTISTE POQUELIN, who, when connected with the stage, named himself MOLIÈRE, was born in January 1622, in Paris, the son of a prosperous upholsterer, Jean Poquelin, and Marie Cressé, his wife. Educated at the Collège de Clermont, he had among his fellow-pupils the Prince de Conti, Chapelle, the future poet Hesnault, the future traveller Bernier. There seems to be no sufficient reason to doubt that he and some of his friends afterwards received lessons in philosophy from Gassendi, whose influence must have tended to loosen him from the traditional doctrines, and to encourage independence of thought. A translation by Molière of the great poem of Lucretius has been lost, but a possible citation from it appears in the second act of the Misanthrope. Legal studies followed those of philosophy. But Molière had other ends in view than either those of an advocate or of the hereditary office of upholsterer to the King. In 1643, at the age of twenty-one, he decided to throw in his lot with the theatrical company in which Madeleine Béjart and her brothers were leading members. The Illustre Théâtre was constituted, but Paris looked askance at the illustrious actors; debt, imprisonment, and release through friendly aid, formed the net result of Molière's first experiment.
The troupe decided at the close of 1645 or in the early days of the following year to try their fortune in the provinces. It is needless to follow in detail their movements during twelve years—twelve years fruitful in experience for one who observed life with keenest eyes, years of toil, in which the foundations of his art were laid. At Lyons, probably in 1655, possibly in 1653, a comedy, founded on the Italian of Nicolo Barbieri, L'Étourdi, saw the light, and Molière revealed himself as a poet. Young Lélie, the Étourdi, is enamoured of the beautiful Célie, whom the merchant Trufaldin, old and rich, has purchased from corsairs. Lélie's valet Mascarille, who is the life of the play, invents stratagem on stratagem to aid the lover, and is for ever foiled by his master's indiscretions, until the inevitable happy dénouement arrives. The romantic intrigue is conventional; the charm is in the vivacity and colour of the style. In 1656 Le Dépit Amoureux was given with applause at Béziers; much is derived from the Italian of Secchi, something perhaps from Terence; the tender scenes of lovers' quarrels and lovers' reconciliation, contrasting with the franker comedy of the loves of waiting-maid and valet, still live, if the rest of the play be little remembered.
The years of apprenticeship were over when, in 1658, Molière and his company once more in Paris presented, by command, before the King, Corneille's Nicomède, and, leave being granted, gave his farce in the Italian style, the Docteur Amoureux, before pleased spectators. The company was now the troupe of Monsieur, the King's brother, with the Petit-Bourbon as theatre, and there, in November 1659, was enacted Molière's first satiric play on contemporary manners, Les Précieuses Ridicules. We do not need the legendary old man crying from the pit "Courage, Molière! voilà la bonne comédie" to assure us that the comic stage possessed at length a masterpiece. The dramatist had himself known the précieuses of the provinces; through them he might with less danger exhibit the follies of the Hôtel de Rambouillet and the ruelles of the capital. The good bourgeois Gorgibus is induced by his niece and daughter, two précieuses, to establish himself in Paris. Their aspirant lovers, unversed in the affectations of the salon, are slighted and repelled; in revenge they employ their valets, Mascarille and Jodelet, to play the parts of men of fashion and of taste. The exposure and confusion of the ladies, with an indignant rebuke from Gorgibus, close the piece. It was a farce raised to the dignity of comedy. Molière's triumph was the triumph of good sense.
After a success in Sganarelle (1660), a broad comedy of vulgar jealousy, and a decided check—the only one in his dramatic career—in the somewhat colourless tragi-comedy Don Garcie de Navarre (1661), Molière found a theme, suggested by the Adelphi of Terence, which was happily suited to his genius. L'École des Maris (1661) contrasts two methods of education—one suspicious and severe, the other wisely indulgent. Two brothers, Ariste and Sganarelle, seek the hands of their wards, the orphan sisters Isabelle and Léonor; the amiable Ariste, aided by the good sense of a gay soubrette, is rewarded with happiness; the vexatious Sganarelle is put to confusion. The drama is a plea, expressing the writer's personal thoughts, for nature and for freedom. The comedy of manners is here replaced by the comedy of character. Its success suggested to Fouquet that Molière might contribute to the amusement of the King at the fêtes of the Château de Vaux; in fifteen days the dramatist had his bright improvisation Les Fâcheux ready, a series of character sketches in scenes rather than a comedy. The King smiled approval, and, it was whispered, hinted to Molière that another bore might with advantage be added to the collection—the sportsman whose talk shall be of sport. At Fontainebleau he duly appeared before his Majesty, and unkind spectators recognised a portrait of the Marquis de Soyecourt.
Next February (1662) Molière, aged forty, was married to the actress Armande Béjart, whose age was half his own—a disastrous union, which caused him inexpressible anxiety and unhappiness. In L'École des Femmes of the same year he is wiser than he had shown himself in actual life. Arnolphe would train a model wife from childhood by the method of jealous seclusion and in infantile ignorance; but love, in the person of young Horace, finds out a way. There is pathos in the anguish of Arnolphe; yet it is not the order of nature that middle-aged folks should practise perverting arts upon innocent affections. The charming Agnès belongs of right to Horace, and the over-wise, and therefore foolish, Arnolphe must quit the scene with his despairing cry. Some matter of offence was found by the devout in Molière's play; it was the opening of a long campaign; the précieuses, the dainty gentle-folk, the critical disciples of Aristotle, the rival comedians, were up in arms. Molière for the occasion ignored the devout; upon the others he made brilliant reprisals in La Critique de l'École des Femmes (1663) and L'Impromptu de Versailles (1663).
Among those who war against nature and human happiness, not the least dangerous foe is the religious hypocrite. On May 12, 1664, Molière presented before the King the first three acts of his great character-comedy Tartufe. Instantly Anne of Austria and the King's confessor, now Archbishop of Paris, set to work; the public performance of "The Hypocrite" was inhibited; a savage pamphlet was directed against its author by the curé of Saint-Barthélemy. Private representations, however, were given; Tartufe, in five acts, was played in November in presence of the great Condé. In 1665 Molière's company was named the servants of the King; two years later a verbal permission was granted for the public performance of the play. It appeared under the title of L'Imposteur; the victory seemed won, when again, and without delay, the blow fell; by order of the President, M. de Lamoignon, the theatre was closed. Molière bore up courageously. The King was besieging Lille; Molière despatched two of his comrades to the camp, declaring that if the Tartufes of France should carry all before them he must cease to write. The King was friendly, but the Archbishop fulminated threats of excommunication against any one who should even read the play. At length in 1669, when circumstances were more favourable, Louis XIV. granted the desired permission; in its proper name Molière's play obtained complete freedom. Bourdaloue might still pronounce condemnation; Bossuet might draw terrible morals from the author's sudden death; an actor, armed with the sword of the comic spirit, had proved victorious. And yet the theologians were not wholly wrong; the tendency of Molière's teaching, like that of Rabelais and like that of Montaigne, is to detach morals from religion, to vindicate whatever is natural, to regard good sense and good feeling as sufficient guides of conduct.
There is an accent of indignation in the play; the follies of men and women may be subjects of sport; base egoism assuming the garb of religion deserves a lash that draws the blood. Is it no act of natural piety to defend the household against the designs of greedy and sensual imposture; no service to society to quicken the penetration of those who may be made the dupes of selfish craft? While Organ and his mother are besotted by the gross pretensions of the hypocrite, while the young people contend for the honest joy of life, the voice of philosophic wisdom is heard through the sagacious Cléante, and that of frank good sense through the waiting-maid, Dorine. Suddenly a providence, not divine but human, intervenes in the representative of the monarch and the law, and the criminal at the moment of triumph is captured in his own snare.
When the affair of Tartufe was in its first tangle, Molière produced a kind of dramatic counterpart—Don Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre (1665). In Don Juan—whose valet Sganarelle is the faithful critic of his master—the dramatist presented one whose cynical incredulity and scorn of all religion are united with the most complete moral licence; but hypocrisy is the fashion of the day, and Don Juan in sheer effrontery will invest himself for an hour in the robe of a penitent. Atheist and libertine as he is, there is a certain glamour of reckless courage about the figure of his hero, recreated by Molière from a favourite model of Spanish origin. His comedy, while a vigorous study of character, is touched with the light of romance.
These are masterpieces; but neither Tartufe nor Don Juan expresses so much of the mind of Molière as does Le Misanthrope (1666). His private griefs, his public warfare, had doubtless a little hardened and a little embittered his spirit. In many respects it is a sorry world; and yet we must keep on terms with it. The misanthropist Alceste is nobly fanatical on behalf of sincerity and rectitude. How does his sincerity serve the world or serve himself? And he, too, has his dose of human folly, for is he not enamoured of a heartless coquette? Philinte is accommodating, and accepts the world for what it is; and yet, we might ask, is there not a more settled misanthropy in such cynical acquiescence than there is in the intractable virtue of Alceste? Alone of Molière's plays, Le Misanthrope has that Shakespearean obscurity which leaves it open to various interpretations. It is idle to try to discover actual originals for the characters. But we may remember that when Alceste cried to Célimène, "C'est pour mes péchés que je vous aime," the actors who stood face to face were Molière and the wife whom he now met only on the stage.
Molière's genius could achieve nothing higher than Tartufe and the Misanthrope. His powers suffered no decline, but he did not again put them to such strenuous uses. In 1668 the brilliant fantasy of Amphitryon, freely derived from Plautus, was succeeded by an admirable comedy in prose, Georges Dandin, in which the folly of unequal marriage between the substantial farmer and the fine lady is mocked with bitter gaiety. Before the year closed Molière, continuing to write in prose, returned to Plautus, and surpassed him in L'Avare. To be rich and miserly is in itself a form of fatuity; but Harpagon is not only miserly but amorous, as far as a ruling passion will admit one of subordinate influence. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670), a lesson of good sense to those who suffer from the social ambition to rise above their proper rank, is wholly original; it mounts in the close from comedy to the extravagance of farce, and perhaps in the uproarious laughter of the play we may discover a touch of effort or even of spasm. The operatic Psyché (1671) is memorable as having combined the talents of Molière, Corneille, and Quinault, with the added musical gifts of Lulli.
In Les Femmes Savantes (1672) Molière returned to an early theme, with variations suited to the times. The Hôtel de Rambouillet was closed; the new tribe of précieuses had learnt the Cartesian philosophy, affected the sciences, were patronesses of physics, astronomy, anatomy. Something of the old romantic follies survived, and mingled strangely with the pretensions to science and the pedantries of erudition. Trissotin (doubtless a portrait in caricature from the Abbé Cotin) is the Tartufe of spurious culture; Vadius (a possible satire of Ménage) is a pedant, arrogant and brutal. Shall the charming Henriette be sacrificed to gratify her mother's domineering temper and the base designs of an impostor? The forces are arrayed on either side; the varieties of learned and elegant folly in woman are finely distinguished; of the opposite party are Chrysale, the bourgeois father with his rude common-sense; the sage Ariste; the faithful servant, Martine, whose grammar may be faulty, but whose wit is sound and clear; and Henriette herself, the adorable, whom to know is more of a liberal education than to have explored all the Greek and Latin masters of Vadius and Trissotin. The final issue of the encounter between good sense, good nature, reason and folly, pedantry and pride, cannot be uncertain.
Le Malade Imaginaire was written when Molière was suffering from illness; but his energy remained indomitable. The comedy continued that long polemic against the medical faculty which he had sustained in L'Amour Médecin, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, and other plays. Molière had little faith in any art which professes to mend nature; the physicians were the impostors of a learned hygiene. It was the dramatist's last jest at the profession. While playing the part of Argan on February 17, 1673, the "Malade Imaginaire" fell dying on the stage; he forced a laugh, but could not continue his part; at ten o'clock he was no more. Through the exertions of his widow a religious funeral was permitted to an actor who had died unfortified by the rites of the Church.
Many admirable though slighter pieces served as the relief of his mind between the effort of his chief works. In all, gaiety and good sense interpenetrate each other. Kindly natured and generous, Molière, a great observer, who looked through the deeds of men, was often taciturn—le contemplateur of Boileau—and seemingly self-absorbed. Like many persons of artistic temperament, he loved splendour of life; but he was liberal in his largess to those who claimed his help. He brought comedy to nature, and made it a study of human life. His warfare was against all that is unreal and unnatural. He preached the worth of human happiness, good sense, moderation, humorous tolerance. He does not indulge in heroics, and yet there is heroism in his courageous outlook upon things. The disciple of Molière cannot idealise the world into a scene of fairyland; he will conceive man as far from perfect, perhaps as far from perfectible; but the world is our habitation; let us make it a cheerful one with the aid of a sane temper and an energetic will. As a writer, Molière is not free from faults; but his defects of style are like the accidents that happen within the bounds of a wide empire. His stature is not diminished when he is placed among the greatest European figures. "I read some pieces of Molière's every year," said Goethe, "just as from time to time I contemplate the engravings after the great Italian masters. For we little men are not able to retain the greatness of such things within ourselves."
To study the contemporaries and immediate successors of Molière in comedy—Thomas Corneille, Quinault, Montfleury, Boursault, Baron—would be to show how his genius dominates that of all his fellows. The reader may well take this fact for granted.1
1 An excellent guide will be found in Victor Fournel's Le Théâtre au xvii. Siècle, La Comédie.