Bust of Molière by Jean Antoine Houdon
La Comédie-Française on why the playwright and actor is considered the creator of modern French comedy
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière (1622–1673), was a French playwright, actor, and poet. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the French language and literature.
The playwright was born into a family of wealthy Parisian upholsterers. He was taken to shows by his grandfather Louis Cressé at Hôtel de Bourgogne, where the first authorized theatre troupe in Paris performed. There, Molière witnessed the antics of some of the greatest performers of that time including Gros-Guillaume, Gaultier-Garguille, and Turlupin.
When he was 13 years old, Molière was sent to the prestigious school Jesuits College of Clermont (now Lycée Louis-le-Grand) until 1641. It was a strict academic environment, but with its emphasis on theatre and performing, it was here where he got his first taste for life on the stage.
After leaving school, Molière took up the post of “valet de chambre ordinaire et tapissier du Roi" ("valet of the King's chamber and keeper of carpets and upholstery"), just like his father had previously done. The title required three months’ work, paid 300 livres a year, and provided several lucrative contracts in the King’s court. At the same time, Molière studied as a provincial lawyer at Orléans but it’s not known whether he ever qualified.
Bust of Molière by Jean Antoine Houdon ©A. Dequier, collection Comédie Française
With the connections he made during school and his ability to mingle comfortably among nobility, it seemed like Molière was on the path to a career in office. However in 1643, when he was just 21, Molière decided to abandon his social climbing and pursue a career on the stage. Leaving his father, he joined fellow actor Madeleine Béjart and founded the Illustre Théâtre troupe. They were later joined by Madeleine’s brother and sister.
Two years later the troupe dissolved due to bankruptcy, mostly from the cost of renting the theatre. This resulted in Molière being imprisoned for 24 hours for the outstanding debts, but other than that there’s no record of whether these debts were ever cleared. After being released from prison, Molière fled Paris with Madeleine and traveled around the provinces.
This new life on the road lasted around 13 years, with Molière initially joining the company of French actor Charles Dufresne and then subsequently creating his own company. Compared to his peers, Molière enjoyed a fairly privileged standard of living for an actor, in part because he obtained the patronage of the king’s brother Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. From 1645 to 1658, the troupe crisscrossed France. In Lyon, in 1655 Molière wrote and produced his first theatrical comedy, L’Étourdi ou les Contretemps (The Bungler).
Engraving of Madeleine Béjart by Hillemacher
Engraving of Madeleine Béjart by Hillemacher © collection Comédie-Française
When Molière returned to Paris in 1658, he was keen to make a major mark on the theater of the city. The playwright performed in front of the King at the Louvre (which was available for rent as a theatre at that time) in his peer Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Nicomède and in the farce Le Docteur Amoureux. Critics were favorable and Molière was awarded the title of Troupe de Monsieur (Monsieur being the honorific for his patron Philippe I). With the help of Monsieur, Molière’s company was allowed to share the theater in the large hall of the Petit-Bourbon with the famous Italian Commedia dell’arte company of Tiberio Fiorillo. The two companies performed in the theater on different nights.
Les Précieuses Ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies) remains one of Molière’s most famous plays after it premiered on November 18th, 1659 at the Petit-Bourbon. The play was the first of his many attempts to satirize certain societal mannerisms and affectations which were then common in France.
While he had a penchant for tragedy, it was his comedies and farces that Molière became known and celebrated for. Les Précieuses Ridicules won Molière the attention and criticism of many, but it was not a huge success. To combat this, he asked Fiorillo to teach him the techniques of Commedia dell'arte. His 1660 play Sganarelle, ou Le Cocu imaginaire (The Imaginary Cuckold), is thought to be a tribute both to Commedia dell'arte and to his teacher.
Molière at the table of Louis XIV (I 169) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Molière at the table of Louis XIV by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1857 ©A. Dequier, collection Comédie-Française
In 1660 the Petit-Bourbon was demolished to make way for the eastern expansion of the Louvre, but Molière's company was allowed to move into the abandoned theatre in the east wing of the Palais-Royal where he continued writing and performing comedies for French theatergoers.
In the years following, Molière made his mark on the Paris theatre scene with various productions that pushed the limitations of what was thought possible. In 1661 for instance, he introduced the comédies-ballets in conjunction with his play Les Fâcheux (The Bores). These ballets were a mix between dance and performance and were developed accidentally when Molière was enlisted to work on a play and a ballet in honor of Louis XIV, but didn’t have a big enough cast to create separate productions. It’s important to note that his art was not always assessed as positively as it is today. For instance Tartuffe (The Imposter or The Hypocrite) in 1664 caused an immediate scandal among the clergy, who objected to the sarcasm that Molière directed against their hypocrisy. They succeeded in banning its performance for five years, and continued to harass the author for much of the rest of his life.
While he didn’t mind ruffling the feathers of the clergy, Molière was always careful not to attack the institution of monarchy in order to continue writing and performing. He earned a position as one of the King's favorites and enjoyed his protection from the attacks he was receiving from the church.
Portrait de Molière en César dans la Mort de Pompée de Pierre Corneille (1658) by Nicolas Mignard
Portrait of Molière in the role of César dans La Mort de Pompée by Pierre Corneille Nicolas Mignard, 1658 (I 260) - ©P. Lorette, collection Comédie-Française
In the last few years of his life, Molière went on to write and perform some of his most refined works, including Le Misanthrope debuting in 1666 (though it went unappreciated at the time), Le médecin malgré lui (The Doctor Despite Himself) that same year, and Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies) in 1672. However, it was his last play and last performance that is most memorable.
Molière suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and in 1673 he collapsed on stage in a fit of coughing and hemorrhaging while performing in the last play he had written (ironically) called Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). Molière insisted on completing his performance. Afterwards he collapsed again with another larger hemorrhage before being taken home, where he died a few hours later. He died without receiving the last rites because two priests refused to visit him while a third arrived too late.
Under French law at the time, actors were not allowed to be buried in the sacred ground of a cemetery. However, Molière's widow, Armande, asked the King if he could be granted a normal funeral at night. The King agreed and Molière's body was buried in the part of the cemetery reserved for unbaptized infants.
The seat from Molière's last performance
Chair from Molière's last performance in Le Malade imaginaire ©C. Angelini, coll. Comédie-Française
Despite the fact that Molière's physical presence from the world of theatre was gone, his legend lives on in the form of the la Comédie-Française, which came into being in 1680 when King Louis XIV ordered the creation of an official troupe of the King called the la Comédie-Française, by merging the former troupe of Molière performing at the Hôtel Guénégaud, with the rival troupe performing in the Hôtel de Bourgogne. In 1681, the actors of this new troupe signed an Act of Association and in 1682, the King began to give them an annual subsidy. As well as this royal patronage, they also settled on a spiritual and artistic patron: Molière.
For the la Comédie-Française, Molière embodied theater and was a key figure in the arts and society of the time. Today, the la Comédie-Française can be found at 1 Place Colette in Paris, where you’ll find the Comédiens-Français still interpreting his theater. Every year, the troupe pays tribute to Molière on January 15, the day of his baptism.
Molière is considered the creator of modern French comedy and the fact his writings and performances are still studied, interpreted, and celebrated today demonstrates the enduring power of his works in changing the face of French theater forever.
Engraving of Molière by Frédéric-Désiré Hillemacher
Engraving of Molière by Frédéric-Désiré Hillemacher ©Collection Comédie-Française
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