A look at the life of French playwright Molière

  • 14, Nov 2018
  • Parisian theatre
  • Rupert Comer

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his pseudonym ‘Molière’, is considered by many to have been France’s greatest playwright, and his influence is so significant that the French language is often affectionately nicknamed “the language of Molière”. A master of the comedy genre, Molière spent most of his adult life writing, performing and stirring controversy within the court of Louis XVI. His plays use humour masterfully in order to pick apart both French society and human psychology.  But who was the man behind the famous theatrica scripts, and how did he rise to become one of the most famous French playwrights in history? Let's take a look at the life of Molière

moliere
moliere fountain

Background

It all began in 1622, when Molière was born into a prosperous bourgeois family. On seeing the new-born baby for the first time and remarking his abnormally large nose, the family maid exclaimed “Le nez!”, and this became his enduring nickname. Can you think of any other characters from French plays with a remarkable nose (hint: he comes from Bergerac)? As a young adult, Molière studied law and had a short stint taking up his father’s profession as upholsterer to the king, before abandoning all his family prestige in 1643 to launch a career on the stage.

 

Bankruptcy

Molière’s newly formed ‘Illustre Théâtre’ struggled to compete with other troupes in the capital, going bankrupt in 1645 just a few years after starting. The young playwright spent some time in prison due to his huge debts, which were paid off by a mysterious benefactor. It was around this time that he took up his pseudonym, mainly to spare his father the shame brought to their family name as a result of his career choice. Remember, at this time the acting and theatrical profession was not equivalent to the international stardom it is today, and actors were often poorly paid and held low social status. His troupe then embarked on a decade long tour of the provinces of France, allowing Molière the chance to perfect his skills as a writer and actor, before returning to Paris to make a name for himself.

palais royal paris moliere

La Premièr Salle du Palais-Royal, where Molière and his troupe would perform in front of the King.

Royal approval

Once back in Paris, Molière’s troupe secured the patronage of the King’s brother and later the King himself. Influenced by the Italian Commedia dell’arte theatre style, Molière revolutionised the comedy genre, which was previously disregarded in France and seen as inferior to tragedy. The Miser (known in French as L’Avare) was extremely popular, telling the tale of a penny-pincher anxious about losing his hoard while trying to marry off his children to expand his wealth. Revolting against his bougois family ties, Molière's works often poke fun at the upper class ad their relationship with wealth, The Miser is no exception! The play also pokes fun at theatrical conventions. For instance, when Harpagon, the main character, addresses the audience, the other characters demand to know who is being spoken to.

 

Molière stirs the pot

While he may have had royal support, Molière still faced serious opposition from devout religious factions in French high society, who saw his plays as irreverent and scandalous. The playwright’s seedy private life didn’t help either. He married Armande Béjart, the daughter of his lover and fellow performer, and his relationship with the mother is said to have continued even after the marriage. His famous Tartuffe was the play causing the most controversy and was quickly banned after the first performance in Versailles in 1664. The play satirises hypocrites who boast about their piety and virtue, but in reality are deceitful and manipulative. When the play was finally allowed to return to the stage in 1669, it became extremely popular owing in part to the allure around its censorship, who can resist the chance to se the forbidden fruit?

moliere tomb paris

Molière’s current resting place in the Père Lachaise Cemetery

Death of Molière

Molière’s life ended where he had spent most of it, on the stage. Ironically, he collapsed in a fit of coughing caused by his tuberculosis while performing a play about a hypochondriac. Refusing to give up, he returned to the stage and finished the show, collapsing once again before dying several hours later. At that time actors were almost considered second class citizens in France and so were legally not allowed to be buried in the sacred ground of a cemetery. However, King Louis XIV made a slight exception for Molière by ensuring his body was inhumed in the section reserved for unbaptized babies.

 

Molière's Legacy

After Molière’s death, his troupe merged with that of Hôtel Bourgogne to create the famous Comédie-Française. Continuing to perform today, the Comédie-Française is the most prestigious company in France and considered the oldest still-active theatre in the world. Even today, Molière’s plays are performed at the Comédie-Française more often than those of any other playwright. Traces of the celebrated French playwright can be found throughout Paris and in all corners of France. Care to explore a few? Visit Paris through Molière's shoes! But his influence doesn't stop there, Molière's works have been adapted and performed on stages all over the world, inspiring generations of drama troupes and theatre goers to come.

the miser paris play

Modern adaptation of Molière’s The Miser at Paris’ Théâtre Ranelagh

Did you know that English-speaking audiences can enjoy classic plays by Molière in beautiful Parisian venues, such as Théâtre Ranelagh? Performed in the original French, the plays are accompanied by English surtitles provided by Theatre in Paris. Currently an incredible adaptation of the Miser is playing until May 2019, grab your tickets here.

 

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