Musings on Molière

The Father of Modern Comedy, Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673) was baptized of a January 15, though probably born a day or more earlier. His professional name is likely derived from one of the small provincial towns he visited while touring with his theatre troupe, adopted to avoid embarrassing his father, a courtier who held the posts of “valet of the King’s chamber and keeper of carpets and upholstery”. Molière himself also briefly held the posts but could not resist the Call of the Wild. Well educated and well situated, he threw it all away to live the precarious, disreputable life of a strolling player.

I call him the Father of Modern Comedy, to differentiate him from the ancients (Aristophanes/Menander/Terence/Plautus) and to suggest that he picks up where they left off. He sort of does. He strikes me as the first who is in their class, and his work seems to hearken back to theirs, reviving it for a new classical age. Naturally he literally does that in his adaptations of their works like Amphitryon and The Miser. I claim the mantle for Molière instead of the earlier Elizabethans who also revived classical comedy, because his Latinate spirit is closer to that of the ancients. Shakespeare is very much consumed with depth of character and manner of expression. Though he too aspired to tragedy, and sometimes acted in it, Molière drew from the living, breathing clowning of the commedia dell’arte for his swift-moving, pure comedies. Character is conveyed to us in shorthand, if at all. With some key exceptions (e.g. the title character in The Misanthrope) in Molière it’s all situation and action. This is why he is so easily translatable into other languages, and is as influential around the world as he is in his home country. His spirit animates his descendents. He is IN us. In Chain of Fools, I wrote about how the French boulevard farces of the late 19th century fed into the silent movie comedies of Max Linder and Mack Sennett. That connects all the way back to Molière and forward all the way to TV situation comedy. Comic beatings, misunderstandings, eavesdropping, hook-ups, near escapes: orchestrated human interactions organized aesthetically, just as one organizes musical composition, syllogisms, or the dance. Yet he often transcends farce into satire, which I consider to be the noblest if not the highest comic form. Most playwrights don’t dare call the audience on their own foolishness. Molière did it all the time.

Thanks to an enlightened teacher, I’ve known and revered Molière’s plays since high school, got to play Scapino in the adaptation of Les Fourberies de Scapin which had originally starred Jim Dale, and performed in scenes of The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and in young adulthood read all of his plays, and worked on adaptations of Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, which I still hope may see the light of day. The latter strikes me as the most philosophical and profound of his plays, posing the most important question any artist ever confronts: please myself? Or please THEM? It clearly consumed Molière, a thinking man, a man of many parts, trapped in the role of popular comedian. We see his dilemma self-consciously re-enacted in more recent times by Charlie Chaplin, who communicated this in some of his later films.

I speculate that, had he lived longer, like Chaplin, Molière might have had an angry late period. TB took him in his prime at the age of 51. Ironically, at the time, he was acting in The Imaginary Invalid.