How did Molière's The Bourgeois Gentleman (Le bourgeois gentilhomme) see the light of day?

  • March 26, 2020
  • All things Paris
  • Manon Bertrand

King Louis XIV was unquestionably the greatest art patron of the French monarchy. He would gather at court the best artists of the time. We are all familiar with Molière's masterpieces, including the extremely successful The Bourgeois Gentleman, written in 1670. But how was this play created and when? The answer is to be found miles away from Paris, in the Loire Valley.

The Royalty away from Paris

Paris has not always been the political and artistic centre of France. Indeed, for more than a century and a half, the hub was the Loire Valley, in the centre of the country, where the kings and noblemen built their countless beautiful châteaux. That period corresponds to the beginning of the French Renaissance (c. 1498) until the beginning of the Classical era (beginning of the 17th c.). The kings moved to the Loire Valley because the area was safer and cleaner than Paris, repeatedly threatened by foreign powers. The major city of the region, Tours, even became the capital of the French kingdom under Louis XI, for about 80 years. 

Chambord as a break from the city’s life

Even if Louis XIV decided to establish Versailles as his main residence, he particularly enjoyed staying at his château of Chambord, located in a gigantic forest in the Loire Valley. He was used to coming to this 5440-hectare estate as a child to visit his uncle Gaston of Orléans, the owner of the time, and always loved it. When his uncle passed away, Chambord went back to the king’s property. Among other things, Louis XIV would come to go hunting but also for entertainment: he would always travel with the Royal theatre troupe. 

Performing arts for the king’s delight

Louis XIV was a great art lover, especially ballets and theatre. Under his reign (1643-1715), artists were held in high regard, for he himself would act on stage on a regular basis. One of His Majesty’s favourite playwrights was the famous Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, whom he placed under his protection. He was entrusted with the tough responsibility of entertaining the king and his court. And when Louis XIV travelled through his kingdom, Molière would travel along with him. It was during one of these royal trips that he wrote one of his most successful plays, The Bourgeois Gentleman.

A comedy-ballet as a response to a diplomatic offence

1670. The court stopped at Chambord for a few weeks. Louis XIV asked Molière to write a play in order to mock the Ottoman ambassador Suleiman Aga, who showed disrespect to his hosts in November 1669, when he was received at the French court in Versailles. Besides being contemptuous and not properly dressed to attend court, the ambassador did not seem to be impressed at all by the Sun King’s magnificent welcome. The incident was a very sensitive matter, the Ottoman Empire being the traditional enemy of the Christian world. 

Working together with the Knight Laurent of Arvieux, a French diplomat who spoke Turkish, Molièrewrote the comedy-ballet The Bourgeois Gentleman, to the king’s greatest pleasure. This kind of work is also called in French a “turquerie”, meaning something that imitates aspects of Turkish culture, which fascinated Europeans back in the 17th century. Louis XIV’s wish was to hold the Turkish up to ridicule: the French loved exotic characters, and these were quite easy to mock.

A wooden theatre was built especially for the occasion in one of the 400 rooms of the Château of Chambord, and the king would use the impressive double helix staircase as a balcony. The play, primarily composed of three acts then five in prose, was performed four times: on 14, 16, 20 and 21 October. Then it was held in Saint-Germain on 9, 11 and 13 November, before being held in the Palais-Royal in Paris from the 23 November. The Bourgeois Gentleman, considered as the ultimate comedy-ballet, gathered the best artists of the time: Molière himself and the equally well-known Italian composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. 

What is The Bourgeois Gentleman about?

Monsieur Jourdain is a middle-age bourgeois willing to rise above his status and accede to nobility. In order to do so, he hires many teachers to polish his education: a dance master, a music master, a philosophy professor, a combat instructor, etc. All of them will end up making fun and taking advantage of his naivety and borrowing money from him. Monsieur Jourdain will even be made “mamamouchi” by a fake Turkish prince, thinking it is a high function in the Ottoman Empire, whereas that fake title only aims at mocking people of the high society. The fake Turkish prince is, in fact, Monsieur Jourdain’s daughter Lucile’s lover, Cléonte, who came in disguise to make his proposal. The Bourgeois Gentleman goes from a social satire to a burlesque show, intermingling music, singing and dancing, prose and verse.

What about Molière nowadays in theatres?

Molière gave a new impetus to performing arts. Before him, comedy was considered a lower genre and actors had a very poor social status. He was a complete performing man: actor, head of a troupe, author, director… His plays, where he criticises the vices of the society, are true masterpieces. Today, they are played again and again, throughout France. In Paris, at the theatre Le Ranelagh, a great part of their program offers Molière: Le misanthrope, The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire), Dom JuanThe Miser (L’avare) and The Bourgeois Gentleman (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme).

Like Monsieur Jourdain, do not wait any longer and come to learn how to speak in prose!