A LIFE OF MOLIÉRE
JEAN BAPTISTE POQUELIN, whom the world knows as Molière, was, like Regnard and Beaumarchais and Scribe, the son of a well-to-do Parisian bourgeois. He was the eldest child of Jean Poquelin, a tapissier or upholsterer, who lived in a house at the corner of the Rue SaintHonoré and the Rue des Vieilles-Étuves (now the Rue Sauval).
It was near the Halles and the Pont-Neuf, and it was known as the Maison des Singes from the figures of monkeys which were carved on a wooden pillar at the corner of the first and second storeys. Moliere was baptised in the church of Saint-Eustache on January 15, 1622, and we may assume that he was born on the same day, for otherwise, in accordance with the usual practice, the date of his birth would have been inserted in the certificate. In 1631 Jean Poquelin the elder purchased from his brother the post of tapissier et valet de chambre du roi. The stipend was 300 livres a year, and the duties consisted in making the royal bed when on service, which was for three months in the year, and in providing and taking charge of the tapestries, bed-hangings, and other furniture, when the Court travelled.
In 1632, when his eldest son was ten years old, Jean Poquelin lost his wife, Marie Cressé, and in the following year he married again. The inventory made after his first wife’s death shows that he was at this time a prosperous man. The family plate was valued at 866 livres, and Marie Cressé’s jewellery at 165o livres. It also appears from this inventory that he did a little business in money-lending, but there is no reason for supposing, as has been rashly conjectured, that he was the original either of Harpagon or of other close-fisted old gentlemen who appear in his son’s comedies. Nor need we regard it as an example of the great dramatist’s love of first-hand observation that there are few mothers in his plays, and that there are two notable stepmothers, Elmire and Béline. This is rather to be accounted for by the difficulty in getting actresses to take the part of an elderly woman. In Molière’s time such parts were usually played by men, as, for instance, that of Mme Pernelle by Louis Béjart and those of Mme Jourdain and Philaminte by Hubert.
In October 1636—this at least is the probable date—Molière was sent to the Jesuit College of Clermont, afterwards Louis-le-Grand, at that time the most fashionable and probably the best school in Paris. Two years later it numbered 2000 externes or out-students, and 300 internes or boarders. Molière, who was an externe, probably remained there for the full five years prescribed for the humanities, and he became a good Latin scholar. Then for a short time he shared the lessons in philosophy which the distinguished physicist, Pierre Gassendi, was giving to Claude-Emmanuel Chapelle, the natural son of his friend Pierre Lhuilier. The class was also joined by François Bernier, who seems to have acted as Gassendi’s secretary, and according to some, but the evidence is doubtful, by Cyrano de Bergerac, the fantastic author of L'histoire comique de l' Empire de la Lune and Le Pédant joué Bernier became later a distinguished traveller, and spent several years in India, partly as physician to the Emperor Aurangzib, for the early part of whose reign he is the most important contemporary European authority. Besides his writings on the Mogul empire he published an abridgement of Gassendi’s philosophy. On his return to France he became a well-known figure in Parisian society and made numerous friends, who nicknamed him the Mogul and Le joli philosophe.
Gassendi had given many years to the study of Epicurus’s philosophy and had carried on a notable controversy with Descartes. The two men represented diametrically opposite standpoints. Descartes was a metaphysician and an idealist, Gassendi was a man of science—a follower of Bacon and a friend of Galileo—and in philosophy at any rate a materialist. Among his intimates at Paris were Gabriel Naudé, the librarian of the Bibliothèque Mazarine, who was a decided free-thinker, the physician Guy Patin, who, though he hated an atheist worse than a Jesuit, was at least a frondeur in religion, and the English philosopher Hobbes. Gassendi, however, combined his materialistic philosophy with the regular and devout performance of his duties as a priest.
From Gassendi Molière learnt at any rate to appreciate the poetry, if not the philosophy, of Lucretius, and he amused himself by translating into verse such passages of his poem as especially charmed him, and the rest into prose. But this translation has completely vanished, and all that remains to testify to Moliere’s interest in the great Roman poet is the free imitation of twenty lines from the Fourth Book which he has put in the mouth of Éliante in the Second Act of Le Misanthrope.
Molière was now in his twenty-first year and it was time to decide on his profession. In 1637 his father had obtained for him the succession to his post of tapissier du roi, but this was merely a formal proceeding and did not necessarily imply that the lad was intended for a tapissier. La Grange and Vivot say that he studied law, and according to other early biographers of less authority he took his licence at Orleans and was received as an advocate at Paris.
After he had finished his studies, he was called upon, says Grimarest, to act as deputy for his father “on account of his great age”, and in that capacity accompanied Louis XIII to Narbonne, 1642. As Jean Poquelin was then only forty-seven, the statement does not carry conviction. But there is documentary evidence to show that he was at Paris on July 3, which he could not have been, seeing that the Court was at Lyons on July 1, if he had fulfilled his duties in person for the second quarter of the year, when he was normally on service. If this is the case, his son would naturally have acted as his deputy, and if so he was on duty at the time of Cinq Mars’s arrest—June 13, 1642.
RICHELIEU did not live to witness the conclusion of the great war in which France had engaged under his auspices. The treaties of Westphalia and the Pyrenees, especially the latter, might have been concluded earlier if his life had been prolonged, but in spite of the delay he is as much their author as he had signed the actual documents. In fact, all the substantial advantages which France gained by these treaties had been practically secured by 1640. The military events of the next two years did little but render more certain the ultimate triumph of France. In 1641 the flowing tide of French successes seemed for a moment to be arrested. In Italy and in Artois the French troops had enough to do to hold their own. Charles of Lorraine was restored, only to prove once more a traitor to his promises, and his duchy had to be re-occupied before the year was over. In Germany Guebriant defeated the Imperialists at Wolfenbuttel, but the death of Baner and other causes prevented the allies from gaining any important results by their success. In 1642, however, the French cause made rapid and decisive strides. In Italy the princes Thomas and Maurice deserted the Spaniards to join their sister-in-law, and their adhesion turned the balance decisively in favour of the French. A great effort was planned by Richelieu on the side of the Pyrenees, and the capture of Perpignan and Salces completed the second and final union of Roussillon to France. In Germany Guebriant opened the year with a decisive victory at Kempten, and this was followed by a campaign in which Torstenson, Baner's successor, emulated the most brilliant achievements of Gustavus Adolphus. By a series of rapid and masterly movements this general, though imprisoned in his litter by gout, overran Silesia and Moravia, and caused a panic in Vienna. Compelled to retreat by superior forces, he threw himself into Saxony and laid siege to Leipzig. When the Imperialists advanced to relieve the city, he crushed them on the plain of Breitenfeld (Nov. 2, 1642), where Gustavus Adolphus, eleven years before, had won the first great victory which established his own reputation and marked a decisive turning-point in the history of the war. The surrender of Leipzig was the reward of Torstenson's success, and the news of this brilliant triumph must have brought some consolation to Richelieu as he lay on his death-bed.
The enemies of France did not require the lessons of 1642 to teach them that little hope remained for them in arms. They had already realised that their only chance of recovering from their reverses lay in the overthrow by domestic treason of the minister whom they regarded as the author of all their misfortunes. In spite of the glory which his administration had brought to France, Kichelieu had still many enemies who longed for his overthrow, and few adherents who would make strenuous efforts for his defence. Probably his best friend, though few suspected it, and perhaps the cardinal himself as little as the general public, was the king. The private letters of Louis XIII, in these two years, prove that he was not devoid of gratitude and even affection towards the man who had made his reign illustrious, though the coldness of his manner and a certain peevish resentment of anything like dictation misled even those in his most immediate confidence into a belief that it was no impossible task to alienate the king from the minister. Richelieu had ever to be on his guard against secret foes at court, who were far more dangerous than his avowed opponents. Among the latter the most prominent was the count of Soissons, who had never forgiven his defeat of 1636. He had been living ever since in the border fortress of Sedan, whence he carried on incessant intrigues with foreign states, with malcontents at home, and with the nobles who had followed the queen-mother into exile. In 1641 the young duke of Guise arrived in Sedan, and discussed with Soissons and Bouillon, the governor of the fortress, the organisation of an armed rebellion for Richelieu's overthrow. The cardinal, informed of their projects, sent orders to Bouillon to withdraw his hospitality from Soissons, and to the latter to depart for Venice. This message was the signal for civil war. The conspirators threw off all disguise and applied for aid to Spain and Austria, who were only too glad to encourage a movement which could not fail to serve their ends. The king on his side declared Soissons, Guise, and Bouillon enemies of the state, and despatched the marshal de Châtillon to combine with the restored duke of Lorraine in an attack on Sedan. But Charles of Lorraine had already decided to break his recent treaty with France, and Châtillon was forced to stand on the defensive against the rebels, who received the aid of an Imperialist detachment under Lamboy. Their forces had already quitted Sedan and crossed the Meuse when they were attacked by the royal troops at La Marfée. It was generally anticipated that the first conflict would have decisive results, and that a victory of the insurgents would be followed by a movement on the part of Richelieu's opponents at the court and in Paris. But good fortune was on the cardinal's side, and the forecast, shrewd as it was, proved fallacious. No victory could have been more decisive. The royalist cavalry had been tampered with, and the infantry, left to itself, fled in panic-stricken confusion. But in the turmoil Soissons was killed by a chance bullet, and the death of the rebel leader, whose rank as a prince of the blood made him indispensable, deprived his confederates of all the fruits of their success. The whole scheme of rebellion was at an end. Guise fled to Brussels, Bouillon submitted and was pardoned, and their secret sympathisers at court had to wait for a more favourable opportunity, only too pleased that they had not betrayed themselves by a premature movement.
Gratitude, as Richelieu had good reason to know, is rarely a permanent force in politics, and the most active and resolute of his opponents at court was a young man who owed his advancement entirely to the cardinal. Henri d'Effiat, marquis de Cinq-Mars, was the son of the marquis d'Effiat, who had been for four years super-intendent of finance, but had won more renown as a military leader. Richelieu had brought Cinq-Mars to the notice of Louis XIII at a moment when he wished to divert the king's interest from the society of Mademoiselle d'Hautefort, to whom Louis's platonic affections had returned after the retirement of Louise de la Fayette. The move was successful in gaining its immediate end. Good looks and an attractive manner gained for Cinq-Mars the favour of the king, and he was speedily advanced to the office of grand equerry. But this rapid promotion turned his head. The pleasures and magnificence of the court failed to satisfy him, and he aspired to the rank of duke and peer, to military distinction, and to political ascendency. Richelieu saw clearly that he must resign all hope of using Cinq-Mars as a submissive tool, and he consoled himself for his disappointment by ruthlessly snubbing his youthful ambitions. His pretensions to the hand of Marie de Gonzaga, afterwards queen of Poland, were treated as a piece of ridiculous presumption. His endeavour to remain in attendance on Louis at meetings of the council, and even at personal conferences between the king and minister, was resented as a gross impertinence. Like most young men, Cinq-Mars could endure anything better than contempt, and he became the bitter enemy of his former patron. Confident in his secure hold of the king's affection, he resolved to play the part of a Luynes, vainly hoping that Richelieu would be as easily got rid of as Concini had been.
Cinq-Mars had been an accomplice in the conspiracy of Soissons, and had been terribly frightened by its sudden collapse. But his courage returned when he found that his complicity was undiscovered, and he resumed the schemes which had been for a moment interrupted. His chief confidant was François de Thou, a son of the famous historian, who had enjoyed and then forfeited the favour of Richelieu. He seems to have been genuinely convinced that his inconstant employer was the oppressor of France and the wanton disturber of the peace of Europe. Cinq-Mars had for a time entertained the idea of assassination as the best method of removing his enemy, but de Thou, more upright if less thoroughgoing, persuaded him to abstain from crime and to adhere to the well-worn methods of conspiracy. In order to gain a refuge and a rallying point, in case armed rebellion became imperative, de Thou was sent to gain over the veteran intriguer, Bouillon, who was still in possession of the invaluable stronghold of Sedan. As a prince of the blood was deemed indispensable to serve as a figure-head for the rebels, overtures were made to Gaston of Orleans, who had been living in tranquil obscurity since the birth of a dauphin had reduced him to comparative insignificance. Bouillon, distrusting the strength of purely native effort, insisted on the necessity of foreign assistance. In spite of the opposition of de Thou, who had unusual scruples about embarking in obvious treason, Fontrailles, another friend of Cinq-Mars, was despatched to procure the support of Spain, on condition that when peace should be made after the accomplishment of the coup d'état all French conquests in the war should be surrendered. In the meantime no efforts were to be spared by the favourite to detach Louis from Richelieu's influence, and to convince the king that his own comfort, the prosperity of France, and the peace of Europe required the cardinal's dismissal as an indispensable condition.
On his side Richelieu, of all statesmen the best served by his spies, was by no means blind to the dangers which threatened him. He had made a last effort to disarm Cinq-Mars and to remove him from the court by offering him the government of Touraine. The offer was refused, and from that moment there was open war between the two men. But there was as yet no evidence sufficient to convince Louis XIII of the treasonable designs of his favourite, and until that could be obtained the struggle resolved itself into a duel for the dominant influence over the king; and for this the two rivals seemed to outside observers not unequally matched.
But if they appeared equally matched in one respect, in others the contrast was complete and striking. Cinq-Mars was in the prime of youthful strength and beauty, confident in his magnetic charm of manner, eager to prove his yet untried and possibly overestimated abilities, and proudly anticipating the brilliant future that seemed to await him. Richelieu, on the other hand, had little to hope from the future. He had never enjoyed real health since his boyhood, and he was now a prematurely old man, broken down by sixteen years of incessant anxiety and uninterrupted labours. Louis XIII, though a much younger man, was also in feeble heath. During the winter his death had seemed more than possible, and the conspirators had busied themselves with schemes for the exclusion of the cardinal from all share in the government during the anticipated minority. The king had recovered, but he was never more than an invalid again, and he was not destined to survive the cardinal by many months. In spite of their weakness, both king and minister set out early in 1642 to superintend in person the military operations in Roussillon. Travelling separately and by easy stages, they both reached Narbonne in March. There Richelieu, prostrated with fever and tortured by an abscess in his right arm, found that farther progress was impossible. The doctors advised him to seek a more healthy air in Provence, and Louis XIII, after a delay of more than a month, set out without him to Perpignan (April 21). Richelieu's physical sufferings were thus reinforced by the moral agony which it caused him to part from the king at this critical moment, and thus to leave the field clear for the intrigues of his youthful rival. For another month he remained at Narbonne, detained partly by anxiety and partly by weakness. On May 3, conscious that death was not far distant, he dictated his will to a notary of the town. The bulk of his property he left to his relatives, with the exception of his library, which he bequeathed to the nation, and his residence in Paris, the Palais-Cardinal, which he left to the king, together with the sum of 1,500,000 livres belonging to the public funds, but which he kept in his own hands for use as occasion might arise. Four days later he set out on his painful journey to Provence.
Richelieu had reached Arles when the long-expected weapon was placed in his hands, in the shape of a copy of the treaty concluded by the conspirators with Spain. How the secret was originally betrayed has never been known. This proof of treason he at once despatched to Louis, who could no longer hesitate to take action. Probably the danger on this side had never been as great as the cardinal, in his weakness and mistrust, had dreaded. Louis had not for a moment dreamed of seriously balancing the claims of the favourite and the minister to his confidence. He had listened to the suggestions and accusations of Cinq-Mars because he had always found it easier to endure than to check the outbursts of those around him, but on more than one occasion he had been sufficiently outspoken to betray his real intention to any one whose perceptions were not blinded by conceit and self-confidence. The arrival of Richelieu's communication only hastened a decision that had been already formed. On June 10 he left Perpignan and returned to Narbonne. Cinq-Mars might still have escaped by a prompt flight to Sedan, but he recklessly rushed on his fate, and determined to follow the king. On June 12 the order was issued for the imprisonment of Cinq-Mars and de Thou, and messengers were sent to arrest Bouillon in the midst of the army in Italy, of which he had lately received the command. The king now set out to join Richelieu at Tarascon, and on June 28 the interview took place in the cardinal's chamber. There the king and minister, both in bed, agreed upon the steps to be taken for the maintenance of order and the punishment of the guilty. Two days later Louis appointed Richelieu lieutenant-governor of the kingdom with the full powers of royalty and set out on bis return to Paris, having neither the strength nor the inclination to revisit Roussillon.
The collection of evidence against the three prisoners was not a matter of difficulty. Gaston of Orleans was ready, as usual, to purchase his own safety by betraying his associates. He made a full confession of his relations with Cinq-Mars and of the treaty with Spain, pleading only that he was innocent of any plot for the cardinal's assassination. To inflict an adequate punishment on the king's brother was impossible, but Richelieu seized the opportunity to humiliate his ancient adversary. Gaston was compelled to sign a full deposition for use against his accomplices, and to renounce for the future all claims to "any office, employment, or administration in the kingdom". On these terms he was allowed to reside at Blois as a private individual. Nor did Richelieu spare the king for the encouragement which, consciously or unconsciously, he had given to the mal-contents. Louis XIII was compelled to turn informer against his quondam favourite, and to confess in a formal document that he had encouraged Cinq-Mars in his freedom of speech and action in order the better to ascertain his real designs, and he asserted that the result of this policy, more worthy of a spy than of a king, was to convince him that his grand equerry was an enemy of the state.
Armed with these depositions, Richelieu set out on August 17 for Lyons by the Rhone, towing his prisoners in another boat behind him. Bouillon had already been sent to Lyons, and there the trial was held before twelve commissioners, including the notorious and indispensable Laubardemont. The guilt of Cinq-Mars was flagrant, and he made no attempt to deny it; but the extent of de Thou's complicity was by no means equally patent. But any hesitation on the part of the judges was removed by the discovery of an ordinance of Louis XI, vhich declared that the concealment of a plot against the state was an equal offence with actual partnership. The two friends were both condemned to death on September 12, and the sentence was carried out on the same day. Their youth, their rigorous treatment, and the heroism with which they met their fate, have earned for Cinq-Mars and de Thou the sympathy both of contemporaries and posterity. This feeling was intensified by the escape of Bouillon, who was at least equally guilty; but he was the nephew of the prince of Orange, an ally whom France had every reason to conciliate, and he had a valuable hostage for his own life in the fortress of Sedan. On condition that Sedan should be surrendered for the crown, Bouillon obtained a full pardon for his numerous past offences.
The conspiracy of Cinq-Mars was the last episode of importance in the life of Richelieu.
But Molière’s heart was neither in humanistic studies nor in upholstering; it was wholly given to the stage. According to Grimarest this passion was implanted in him by his maternal grandfather, who often took him to the neighboring Hotel de Bourgogne. However this may be, we know that from about the year 1635 the drama in France received a great impetus and entered on a long period of flourishing success. Molière in his boyhood and early youth may well have paid frequent visits both to the Hotel de Bourgogne and to the Theatre du Marais, but of this part of his education more will be said in the next chapter.
Molière’s love of the stage brought him into close relations with some young people of his own age who lived in his neighborhood and shared his tastes. They were the three elder children of Joseph Béjart, a huissier in the department of the Eaux et Forets, and Marie Hervé, who, not altogether unjustly, has been likened to Halévy’s Mme Cardinal. The leading spirit seems to have been the elder sister, Madeleine, who was five years older than Molière, and who as early as 1636, when she was just eighteen, had embarked on a theatrical career. She was good-looking, attractive, and intelligent, and she had a remarkable business capacity. Of the other two, her brother Joseph was her senior by one or two years, while her sister Geneviève was six and a half years younger.
As a result of this friendship Molière and the three Béjarts determined to form a theatrical company, and accordingly on January 6, 1643 he formally renounced in favour of his next brother, also called Jean, the succession to his father’s office, and at the same time persuaded his father to advance him the sum of 63o livres out of the share in his mother’s estate which would fall due to him at the age of twenty-five. We do not need the anecdote related by Charles Perrault and repeated by Grimarest to assure us of the grief which Molière’s choice of a profession caused his family. Actors at this time were regarded in France almost as social and religious pariahs. “I have learnt with sorrow”, writes Sister Agnes of Port-Royal to her nephew Racine, “that you associate more than ever with persons whose name is an abomination to all who have the smallest grain of piety”." “The qualities of a writer of romances and plays”, says Nicole in answer to Desmarets de SaintSorlin, “are not regarded as very honorable by the world, but they are horrible from the point of view of the Christian religion and the precepts of the Gospel”.
In his treatise, De l'Éducation Chrestienne des Enfans, published in 1669, Varet, a PortRoyalist and a historian of the Jansenist movement, inveighs in no measured terms against stage-plays. “You must then, my sister, inspire your children with a horror of the theatre, for it is a dangerous pastime, and unworthy of a Christian”. These quotations all come from Jansenist writers, but they only represent in a more austere form the general opinion of the Church. We may therefore look with suspicion on the story that it was for the beaux yeux of Madeleine Mart that Molière became an actor. Nothing short of an inborn passion for the stage could have given him courage to defy the opposition of his family and his friends.
So on June 3o, 1643 Molière signed an agreement which made him, together with the three Béjarts and six others, a member of a theatrical company called the Illustre Theâtre. They hired a tripot or tennis-court—the ordinary substitute for a theatre in those days—near the Porte de Nesle, and after a few performances at Rouen, pending the necessary alterations, they opened their theatre in the following December. From the first the venture was a failure. The patronage of the young king’s uncle, Gaston, Duke of Orleans, who gave them a small subvention, did not save them from financial difficulties, and Molière —so for the first time he signed his name to an agreement of June 28, 1644—who had come to be recognized as the leader of the troop, was three times imprisoned for debt. With his release in August 1645, followed by a bond given by the whole company to the friend who had guaranteed payment of his debt' the career of the Illustre Theâtre, the numbers of which had dwindled to seven, came to an end. Nothing daunted, Molière and the Béjarts determined to try their luck in the provinces.
In spite of the patient investigations of devoted researchers the history of this provincial Odyssey, which lasted for thirteen years, is but imperfectly known. There is good reason for believing that before the close of the year 1645 what was left of the Illustre Theâtre amalgamated with another strolling company, which had for its chief one Charles Dufresne and for its patron the Governor of Guyenne, the Duc d'Èpernon. But it is not till April 23, 1648 that we come upon a definite trace of Molière himself. On that day the register of the Hotel de Ville at Nantes records that the Sieur Morlierre [sic], one of the comedians of the troop of the Sieur Dufresne, humbly petitioned the municipal officials to allow them to give representations in the theatre. There were various delays and it was not till May 17 that the representations began. They met with little success. In the course of the year 1649 we hear of the company at Toulouse (May 16) and Narbonne (December 26 or 27), and in February 1650 they visited Agen by order of the Duc d’Èpernon. From October 24, 165o to January 14, 1651 they were at Pézenas in the service of the Estates of Languedoc, and Molière received on their behalf the sum of 4000 livres for their performances. There is also evidence to show that they played at Carcassonne, where the Estates were in session from July 31, 1651 to January 1o, 1652.
We can form some idea of the life led by Molière and his troop from Scarron's entertaining Roman comique, the First Part of which was published in 1651. The actors of the strolling company whose fortunes he relates were no doubt inferior in social status to Molière and his friends, but, allowing for a certain amount of comic exaggeration, the picture may be regarded as on the whole a faithful one. It corresponds very closely to that drawn by Cervantes some forty years earlier of strolling players in Spain. “In the sweat of their brows they gain their bread by insupportable toil, learning constantly by heart, leading a perpetual gipsy life from place to place and from inn to tavern, and staying awake to please others, for in other men's pleasure lies their profit”
The ordinary difficulties and hardships that provincial companies had to encounter were increased in the case of Molière’s company by the state of disorder and misery to which the Fronde had reduced the greater part of France. Marauding soldiers, famine prices, inundations, and plague had brought the provinces of Guyenne, Languedoc, and Provence, which were the scenes of Molière’s chief activity, to the utmost pitch of desolation. In November 1649 a request by Molière to the town council of Poitiers to allow his company to spend two months in that city was refused 3attendu la misère du temps et cherté des blés”. Yet, in spite of these adverse circumstances, the patronage of the Estates of Languedoc during their session of 1650-1651 marks the turning-point in the fortunes of the company. At the end of 1652 we find them at Lyons, and they seem to have made this city their headquarters for the next five years. There in 1653 they presented Corneille’s new and highly popular spectacular play of Andromède (1650), which from the part played in it by machinery must have been expensive to produce. Here too—but not before 1655, if we accept the date definitely given by La Grange in his Registre—Molière presented L'Etourdi, his first regular plays. In September 1653 the company entered the service of Armand, Prince de Conti, who, having submitted to Mazarin at Bordeaux in the previous July had retired to his château of La Grange-des-Prés near Pézenas, pending his marriage with the minister’s niece. An interesting passage in the memoirs of Daniel de Cosnac, Archbishop of Aix, describes how in his young days, as the prince’s treasurer for his menus plaisirs, he engaged “the troop of Molière and la Béjart” to play before him, and how after a second representation the prince took them into his service. During the next four winters they again played before the Estates, twice at Montpellier, then at Pézenas, and lastly at Beziers, where Le Dépit amoureux was presented in November or December 1656. We also encounter the company at Narbonne (February and May 1656), Dijon (June 1657), and Avignon (November or December 1657), where Moliere met the celebrated painter Pierre Mignard, and struck up with him a durable friendship. “In 1658”, say La Grange and Vivot, “Molière’s friends advised him to come into the neighborhood of Paris”, with a view to getting into touch with persons of consideration, who might procure for him the patronage of the Court. Accordingly, after spending the carnival at Grenoble, he established his company at Rouen for the summer, and from that city made several preliminary trips to the capital. Then in October the whole company, having obtained permission to assume the title of “Troupe de Monsieur, frère unique du Roi”, moved to Paris.
So Moliere, after his long absence of thirteen years, returned to the city of his birth. He had “seen the towns and learnt the minds of many men”, and he had, we may be sure, “suffered many woes”. The hardships and annoyances incidental to his profession, the petty tyranny of local magistrates, the caprices of patrons, the coarsely expressed displeasures of the parterre, all this must have struck deep into the heart of an educated and sensitive man. And upon his shoulders the chief burden must have fallen. As the acknowledged leader of the troop it must have been his task to interview the authorities, to placate persons of importance, to charm a noisy audience into good humour, and, not least, to compose the differences of his comrades. How often must he have exclaimed :
Ah! les étranges animaux à conduire que les comédiens.
But to an observer of the comedy of life all this must have been a first-rate experience, and to an actor an invaluable training. According to Samuel Chappuzeau, whose Theâtre français was printed in the year following Molière’s death, it was in such strolling companies that actors as a rule served their apprenticeship, and it was from these companies that the Paris theatres drew their recruits.
Molière’s career at Paris as a theatrical manager began on October 28, 1658, when his company played Corneille’s Nicomède and a farce called Le Docteur amoureux in the Louvre before the king. His Majesty, who was then a lad of seventeen, expressed his pleasure at the performance, especially at that of the farce, and he assigned to the new arrivals the Salle du Petit-Bourbon, which stood between Saint-Germainl'Auxerrois and the Louvre, and was connected with the latter by long galleries. They had, however, to share this improvised theatre with an Italian company, to whom Molière paid 1500 livres for its use on the “extraordinary” days of the week, that is to say Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The troop now consisted of eleven persons, namely, Molière, Joseph Béjart and his younger brother Louis, who had joined it since the migration to the provinces, Dufresne, Rend Berthelot, called Du Parc, Edme Villequin de Brie, Madeleine Béjart and her sister Geneviève, who acted under her mother’s name of Hervé, Mlle Du Parc, Mlle de Brie, and a gagiste named Croisac, who did not share in the profits but was paid at the rate of two livres a day. Du Parc was possibly a member of Dufresne’s company at the time of the amalgamation. His acting name of Gros-René was suggested by his rotund figure, to which there is an evident allusion in Le Dépit amoureux, when the valet, played by Gros-René and bearing his name, says
Je suis homme fort rond de toutes les manières.
In February 1653 this popular actor had married Marquise-Thérèse de Gorla, the daughter of an Italian amateur or vendor of quack medicines, whose remarkable beauty captivated in turn Molière, Corneille, and Racine. Being a fairly good actress in comedy, she proved a useful addition to the troop, but her wayward and imperious temper added greatly to Molière’s difficulties as a manager. In the same year, 1653, the company was also joined by De Brie and his wife, a pretty woman who retained for many years her youthful appearance and who with her gentle and conciliating disposition formed a welcome contrast to Mlle Du Parc.
If we may trust the authority of Élomire hypocondre, the new actors began their tenure at the Petit-Bourbon with five tragedies by Corneille, none of which was well received. Then, renouncing tragedy, Molière scored two brilliant successes with L'Étourdi and Le Dépit amoureux. At Easter 1659 there were changes in the company; Dufresne retired, and Mlle Du Parc with her husband deserted Molière for the Theâtre du Marais. A little later (May 21) Joseph Béjart died, and his comrades marked the sense of their loss by closing the theatre for a fortnight. The vacant places were filled by the popular low comedian whose acting name was Jodelet, and his brother Lespy, both from the Marais, by Du Croisy and his wife, and by La Grange. Jodelet, whose name in real life was Julien Bedeau, had made his mark as the valet Cliton in Corneille’s Le Menteur, and in several plays by Scarron—Jodelet ou le Maître-Valet (1645), Jodelet souffleté(I646), Don Japhet d' Arménie (1652), and Le Marquis ridicule (1656). His large nose, powdered face, and nasal accent were admirably suited to broad farce, but he was past sixty when he threw in his lot with Molière. Du Croisy was a gentleman by birth, good-looking but somewhat stout. He was a meritorious actor, and, as we shall see, Molière entrusted to him the part of Tartuffe.-His wife, on the other hand, had little talent, and was of no great assistance to the company.
The most valuable of the recruits was La Grange. He was only twenty, young enough to be trained by Molière for the lovers’ parts, in which he took the place of Joseph Béjart. He not only became an actor of singular grace and charm, but he rendered great services to the company as treasurer and secretary, and later as ‘orator’, in which office he succeeded Molière in 1664. The two chief functions of the orator were to compose the affiche and to make announcements to the audience, the latter duty often demanding considerable tact and esprit. La Grange also kept a private register of events which concerned the company. It has happily been preserved and forms a brief but thoroughly reliable history of Molière’s theatre from 1658 to 16851.
On November 18, 1659 the new company presented Corneille’s Cinna and with it a farcical comedy entitled Les Precieuses ridicules, which Molière had written since his return to Paris. It was very well received, but it gave offence in some quarters and an “alcôviste of quality” prevented its repetition for a fortnight. It was given again on December 2, and between that date and the close of the theatrical year, a fortnight before Easter, La Grange records thirty-two performances, or more than two a week. After the Easter holidays it was played again, but without Jodelet, who had died on the previous Good Friday (March 28). His part was taken by Gros-René, who with his wife now returned to Molière’s company. The same actor played the valet’s part in the new one-act comedy of Sganarelle,ou le Cocu imaginaire, which Moliere produced on May 26, and which was repeated with hardly an intermission till the middle of August.
On August 26 Louis XIV returned to Paris with his Spanish bride, and plans for the completion of the Louvre, which involved the demolition of the Salle du Petit-Bourbon, were approved. In exchange, the theatre of the Palais-Royal, which Richelieu had constructed in 1639, was assigned to Moliere’s company. But it required certain repairs, and for three months they were homeless and had to maintain themselves by giving representations in private houses and in the Louvre.
In this year (166o) Molière’s younger brother, who had been associated with his father in the office of tapissier du roi, died (April 6), and Molière took his place. La Grange tells us that he was “very assiduous” in the performance of his duties, and that in this way he brought himself into notice with the Court as a civil and well-bred man.
On January 20, 1661 the newly repaired theatre opened with a performance of Le Dépit amoureux and Sganarelle. On February 4 Molière produced his first and last tragi-comedy, Don Garcie de Navarre. It was a failure, and he withdrew it after seven performances. Returning to his true bent he achieved a fresh success with L'École des Maris, which was presented on June 24, two months after the death of Mazarin. On July 11 it was played at Fouquet’s princely seat at Vaux before the Queen of England and her daughter Henrietta, who had just married Monsieur, the king’s only brother. In the middle of August, three weeks before his arrest, Fouquet gave a series of magnificent entertainments, to which Molière contributed on August 17 the dramatic portion of a comédie-ballet, entitled Les Fâcheux. The boldness of its satire marks his growing favour with the Court and the public, and the dedication to the king of the printed play is that of a man who is confident of his position. We have an interesting confirmation of this in a letter written by La Fontaine, partly in prose and partly in verse, to his friend Maucroix, in which he gives an account of the proceedings at Vaux, including Les Fâcheux.
C’est un ouvrage de Molière.
Cet écrivain par sa manière
Charme à présent toute la cour.
De la façon que son nom court,
Il doit être par delè Rome:
J'en suis ravi, car c'est mon homme.
On February 20,1662 Molière, now a man of forty, married Armande-Grésinde Béjart, the youngest sister of Madeleine, who was barely twenty. There was a fairly widespread rumour in Molière’s day that Armande was Madeleine’s daughter, but, in 1821, Beffara found the certificate of her marriage, in which it is stated that she was the daughter of Joseph Béjart and Marie Hervé and the sister of Madeleine. Moreover Madeleine, both in her will made on January 9, 1672, when she was mortally ill, and in a codicil of February 14, which she added three days before her death, calls Armande her sister. One would have thought that this put the question beyond doubt, but it is easier to start a scandal than to stop it, and there are still biographers and critics of Molière who with more ingenuity than common sense propound elaborate theories, no two of which agree, to show that Molière’s wife was the daughter of Madeleine Béjart, that both families conspired to make a false statement in the marriage contract, and that Madeleine Béjart on her death-bed confirmed the lie in a legal document.
In June 1662 Molière’s company received some useful additions in the persons of Brécourt, La Thorillière, and Hubert, all from the Théâtre du Marais. Brécourt was a good actor both in comedy and tragedy, and he made his mark in such very different parts as Alain in the École des Femmes and Antiochus in Racine’s Bérénice. He was turbulent and quarrelsome, and it was doubtless on this account that he only remained with the company for two years. He was the author of a few pieces, one of which, L'Ombre de Molière, a one-act comedy in prose, played in 1674, may be regarded as an act of reparation to the memory of his former chief. François Le Noir, Sieur de la Thorillière, was a tall handsome man, who had been a captain in the army. He was for a time secretary and treasurer to the company and in that capacity kept the register of receipts and expenses. His son was a distinguished actor and he had two daughters, both of whom married actors and dramatists, the one Baron, and the other Dancourt. André Hubert has been already mentioned as a successful actor of elderly women’s parts. He kept a Register from April 28, 1672 to March 21, 16731.
In L'École des Maris Molière had taken for his theme the intended marriage of a middle-aged man with a young girl, and he returned to it again in his next comedy, L'École des Femmes, which he produced on December 26, 1662. It was immensely successful. At the Palais-Royal it ran almost without interruption till the Easter holidays, and the receipts for the first eighteen days averaged 1187 livres. There were also performances at the Court and in private houses. But the play, partly by reason of this very success, roused violent opposition in many quarters —from the Hotel de Bourgogne whose receipts must have suffered from the rivalry of the new company, from the précieuses who stigmatized the play as indecent, from the dévots who complained of its irreligion, from the critical pedants who detected in it violations of the rules, and from the marquis who resented their rough handling in Les Fâcheux. On the other hand it was nobly defended by Boileau, who sent his well-known Stances à Moliere as a New-Year’s gift to the poet. Molière too had a powerful supporter in the king, who on March 12, 1663 made the company a present of 4000 livres, while soon after Easter Molière’s name was added to the list of pensions for that year, with the sum of 1000 livres attached to it.
Thus encouraged, Molière on June 1, 1663 replied to his critics in a one-act comedy, La Critique de l' École des Femmes, which still remains the best exposition of the principles of his art; and when the Hotel de Bourgogne commissioned a young author, named Edme Boursault, to make a counter-attack with a piece entitled Le Portrait du Peintre ou la Contre-critique de l'École des Femmes, he avenged himself in L'Impromptu de Versailles, in which he held up to ridicule not only the rival actors, but the marquis, the précieuses, and Boursault himself.
One result of Molière’s favour with Louis XIV was that he was called on from time to time to produce comedie-ballets at short notice. The first of these was Les Fâcheux; the second was Le Mariage forcé, which was played at the Louvre on January 29, 1664, the king taking part in the ballet as a gipsy. Molière’s services were again called upon for the splendid fêtes held at Versailles from May 7 to 12, which Voltaire has thought worthy of commemoration in his Siècle de Louis XIV. For these Moliere wrote La Princesse d'Élide, comedie galante, which he began in verse, but from want of time finished in prose. It was presented on May 8. On the 11th there was a performance of Les Fâcheux, and on the 12th Molière produced the first three acts of Tartuffe. Of the fortunes of the play and of the long struggle which Molière had to go through before it was played in public without let or hindrance I shall speak later. It need only be said here that the complete play in five acts was first given on November 29, 1664 at Raincy, the seat of the Princess Palatine, in honor of Condé, who from this time accorded to Molière the same steadfast and judicious protection that he gave to Racine and Boileau. The performance shows that Molière was occupied with the last two acts of the play during the summer and autumn of 1664.
His next play, Don Juan, which was produced on February 15, 1665 and which bears evident traces of hurried composition, is in a sense a sequel to Tartuffe. The subject may have been suggested to him by his comrades, but his treatment of it, and of the principal character, perhaps the strongest that he ever drew, clearly indicates the militant character of the play. It was well received by the public, the receipts for the first nine representations being very high, and on one occasion reaching 2390 livres. But the boldness of some of its strokes called forth fresh protests from the religious zealots, and after the fifteenth performance (March 2o) it was withdrawn. The attack on the medical profession, initiated in Don Juan, was pushed home in L'Amour Médecin, another comédie-ballet, which, written and rehearsed in five days, was presented at Versailles on September 15, 1665, and at the Palais-Royal on September 22.
During the previous seven months Molière seems to have written nothing; probably because he was discouraged by the unfair attacks of the last two years. Instead of a new piece from his own pen he produced a tragi-comedy entitled La Coquette ou le Favori by Mlle Des Jardins, or, as she called herself, Mme de Villedieu, and revived old plays like Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin's Les Visionnaires, Scarron’s Don Japhet, and Tristan L'Hermite’s Marianne. After L'Amour Médecin he presented La Mère coquette by Donneau de Visé (October 23), and Racine’s Alexandre (December 4). But except Molière’s own play, which ran till the end of November, and Alexandre, none of these pieces met with more than a moderate success, and the receipts of the company for 1665-1666 were lower than in any year since their return to Paris. A single share came only to 2243 livres, whereas in the year 1663-1664 it had reached 4554 livres. On the other hand, in August 1665 the company received a fresh pledge of the royal favour. Louis XIV sent for them to Saint-Germain, and, promising them an annual subvention of 6000 livres, expressed a wish that they should change their title to that of Troupe du Roi.
Besides the king’s support Molière had another source of encouragement in this difficult year 1664. This was his friendship with Racine, Boileau, and La Fontaine. That with Boileau probably dates from the latter’s championship of L'École des Femmes at the beginning of 1663. That with Racine seems to have begun rather later; in November of 1664 Racine refers to Molière in terms which bespeak a certain intimacy. It was probably through Racine, who had known La Fontaine, a relation of his wife’s, since 1659, that both Molière and Boileau were introduced to le bonhomme; at any rate it must have been in the years 1664 and 1665 that the four great writers used to meet either at Boileau’s lodgings in the Rue du vieux Colombier or at the taverns of the Mouton Blanc or the Croix de Lorraine. Molière’s old friend Chapelle and Antoine Furetière, the author of Le Roman bourgeois, with whom Boileau lodged, were sometimes of the party. At the beginning of his Amours de Psyche La Fontaine draws a charming picture of these meetings and of the conversations which took place at them. “They adored the works of the ancients, but they did not refuse to the moderns the praise that was their due. They spoke of their own writings with modesty, and gave one another sincere advice when any of them, which was a rare event, succumbed to the fashionable malady and became an author”. It is true that among the four friends referred to by La Fontaine Molière does not find a place, for Gelaste stands certainly for Chapelle and not, as some suppose, for Molière. But La Fontaine’s words will apply equally to occasions when Molière was present, and it is reasonable to conjecture that their conversations contributed in no small degree to that general unanimity of aim which marks the whole literature of the classical age, and not least the writings of Molière and his three friends.
The five years from May 1664 to February 1669, during which Molière fought for the production of Tartufe, are among the most important, as they are among the most glorious, in the whole annals of French literature. Tartufe, Don Juan, Boileau’s first Satires (I-VII), Le Misanthrope, Andromaque, La Fontaine’s Fables(I-VI), Les Plaideurs, Boileau’s eighth and ninth Satires, all belong to this great lustrum. And to complete the tale of masterpieces we must add La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes and some of Bossuet’s sermons. Each of these works marks a victory in a crucial struggle. Molière with his great trilogy, La Fontaine with his fables, Racine with his tragedies, Boileau with his satires, were all fighting for the cause of nature and truth in art. Boileau’s ninth Satire (r668), in which he scattered his feeble foes in one fierce onslaught, and the removal of the interdict on Tartufe in February 1669, gave the victory to the allies. They had won over the public; it only remained for them to storm the citadel of the Académie franraise. The first breach was made by the election of Racine in 1673.
But at the close of the year 1665 Molière fell upon evil days. On the 4th of December he scored a success with Racine’s new play of Alexandre, and it ran for a fortnight. Then on the 18th he and his company “were surprised” — such is La Grange’s temperate expression—to find that there was a simultaneous performance of it at the Hotel de Bourgogne. It appeared that Racine, dissatisfied with the acting of the Palais-Royal company, had without notice transferred his play to the rival theatre. At the beginning of the next year (1666) Molière, while still smarting from the ingratitude of his friend, had a serious illness, either pleurisy or pneumonia, which left his lungs permanently affected. He had a perpetual cough, of which he makes fun in a well-known passage of L'Avare. “Je n'ai pas de grandes incommodityés”, says Harpagon, “n'y a que ma fluxion qui me prend de temps en temps”, to which Frosine replies, “Votre fluxion ne vous sied pas mal, et vous avez grâce à tousser”. Owing to this illness, and then on account of the death of the Queen-Mother, Anne of Austria, which took place on January 20, the Palais-Royal was closed till February 21. Molière must at this time have been at work on his new play, Le Misanthrope, which he produced on June 4. Though, like Tartufe, it is essentially a comedy, it contains a large element of seriousness, and even an under-current of tragedy, which is clearly inspired by Molière’s own condition. For to the interdict on Tartuffe the perfidy of Racine, and his own ill-health, was added what affected him more than all—his estrangement from his wife. The warm-hearted, but irritable and jealous husband, who loved her with the tenderness of a highly sensitive nature, but who knew that his love was not returned, had found his wife’s coquetry—there is no evidence to show that it was anything worse— more than he could endure, and in the previous October, or thereabouts, they had agreed to separate.
In complete contrast to Le Misanthrope, with its serious tone and lack of external action, is Le Médecin malgré lui, with its broad and often boisterous fun, which was acted with it from September 3. In the winter there were brilliant fetes at Saint-Germain, which lasted from December 2, 1666 to February 19, 1667. They included a Ballet des Muses to which Molière successively contributed Mélicerte, comédie pastorale héroïque, of which he only wrote two acts, a pastorale comique, of which only a few unimportant fragments have come down to us, and a little comedy of much charm, entitled Le Sicilien.
On his return to Paris he had a fresh lung attack, which kept him away from the theatre for two months. When he began to act again, the War of Devolution had begun, and on May 16 the king, followed by the Court, set out for Flanders. During his absence, while Paris, according to Mme de Sevigne, was “a desert”, Molière, on August 5 with the king’s permission, produced Tartuffe, and promised to repeat it on the following day. But the second performance was forbidden by the first President of the Parlement, and though two members of Molière’s company went to see the king in Flanders, bearing a petition skillfully worded by their chief, they could not obtain a reversal of the sentence. In this same year the company suffered another blow in the defection of Mlle Du Parc, who after Easter transferred her services to the Hotel de Bourgogne. Her desertion was naturally attributed to the influence of Racine, who was passionately in love with her, and in whose play of Andromaque she appeared in the following November. Her part was the titlerôle, though she was more fitted in temperament for that of Hermione. But if we may believe Boileau, as reported by Brossette, she was not a great actress in tragedy, and had to be carefully coached by Racine. The difficult part of Hermione would have been beyond her powers, but we may hazard a conjecture that the psychological knowledge displayed by Racine in his study of that character was largely derived from his intimacy with this haughty, passionate, and capricious actress. She did not remain long at the Hotel de Bourgogne, for she died in December 1668.
The whole year, 1667, was anything but a prosperous one for Molière’s company. Corneille’s play of Attila, which they bought for 2000 livres on March 4, though it ran for twenty days, was far from a financial success. When La Grange and La Thorillière went to Lille in August, the theatre again closed its doors and did not reopen them till September 25, when Molière reappeared in Le Misanthrope.
Molière reprenant courage,
Malgré la bourrasque et l'orage,
Sur la scène se fait revoir.
But he did not act for long, and in a new play by Donneau de Visé, which was produced on October 28, he had no part.
It seems clear that at this time he was seriously contemplating retirement. In August of this year (1667) he acquired a pied de terre in the pretty village—as it then was—of Auteuil. It consisted of three rooms on the ground-floor—a dining-room, a kitchen, and a bed-room which also served as a sitting-room—and two attics in the second storey, which he rented for 400 livres a year from Jacques de Grou, Sieur de Beaufort, of whose considerable mansion they practically formed part. Molière also had the right to walk in the adjoining park. His friend Chapelle rented a bed-room in an adjoining building. In Molière’s bed-room were a few books, which at the time of his death consisted of the Works of Balzac in two volumes, the Lives and other works of Plutarch also in two volumes, Montaigne’s Essays, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Heliodorus, Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus (two volumes), and Valerius Maximus. All these were folios. Caesar’s Commentaries, Horace, Rohault’s Traité de physique (1671), and a book of Travels in the Levant represented the quartos. There were also eighteen volumes in octavo or duodecimo, the titles of which are not stated in the inventory. Here the great dramatist forgot his troubles in the society of his friends. These included Boileau, La Fontaine, Chapelle, who contributed greatly to the gaiety of the gatherings, Lulli, Mignard, Rohault the distinguished physicist, and others of lesser fame.
But if Molière seriously thought of spending the rest of his days in this quiet retreat he changed his mind before the end of the year, and on January 3, 1668 he reappeared on the boards of the Palais-Royal.
Veux-tu, lecteur, être ébaudi ?
Sois au Palais-Royal Mardi:
Molière, qu'on idolâtre,
Y remonte sur son théâtre.
Ten days later he took the part of Sosie in his new play of Amphitryon, and in his first speech spoke some lines which, whether they were intended or not, exactly represent his own situation.
Vers la retraite en vain la raison nous appelle,
En vain notre dépit quelquefois y consent ;
Leur vue a sur notre zèle
Un ascendant trop puissant,
Et la moindre faveur d'un coup d'ceil caressant
Nous rengage de plus belle.
His quarrel with the stage was only a lover’s quarrel or dépit amoureux. He could not resist its call, nor could he desert his company, who looked to him for guidance and encouragement and who, largely depended on him for the favour of the public.
The year 1668 was a busy one for Molière. In the course of it he produced besides Amphitryon, George Dandin (July 18) and L'Avare (September 9), the former at Versailles and the latter at his own theatre. It has been remarked that in all three plays a large proportion of the characters are knaves or fools. Moreover, in all three there is an underlying suggestion of tragedy. Amphitryon’s dishonour, the unhappy matrimonial venture of George Dandin, the disruption of Harpagon’s family life, are tragic themes, though Molière has chosen to look at them, as far as possible, from the comic side. In these plays Moliere not only takes a more pessimistic view than he usually does of human nature, but he seems to be deeply impressed, even oppressed, by a sense of the power of evil, and especially of its power to sever the natural bonds of humanity.
But early in 1669 there was a rift in the clouds. On February 5 the king gave permission for Le Tartufe to be performed in public, and that very afternoon it was presented to a crowded house. The receipts amounted to 286o livres, the highest figures ever recorded by La Grange in his Register. It ran without intermission till the Easter holidays, when the accounts showed that the receipts for the year 1668–1669 were higher than they had been since 1663-1664, and that the share of each actor amounted to 5477 livres, a figure which it never reached before or since in Moliére’s lifetime, and which was more than twice that for the preceding year. After Easter there were fifteen public performances up to June 25, and then, after three performances in August and two in September, it made way for a new piece, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, which was presented at Chambord before the king on October 6 and at the Palais-Royal on November 15.
The festivities at Chambord were followed four months later by similar ones at Saint-Germain, for which Molière provided on February 4 a great spectacular display entitled Le Divertissement royal and, as part of this, a comédiehéroïque called Les Amants magnifiques, which contains at least one scene of delicate comedy and an admirable comic character in the person of Moron, the court buffoon.
After Easter there were some changes in the personnel of Molière’s company. Louis Mart, Sieur de l'Eguisé, though he was only in his fortieth year, retired and was voted a yearly pension of 1000 livres. His retirement was apparently due to a wound which had left him permanently lame. When Harpagon says of his son’s valet, La Flèche “Je ne me plais point à voir ce chien de boiteux-là”, there is an evident allusion to the lameness of the actor who created the part. The additions to the company were M. and Mlle Beauval, and Baron. Mlle Beauval was an extremely useful accession; she was the Nicole of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and the Toinette of Le Malade imaginaire. There is a story that at one of the rehearsals for the latter play she complained to Molière that he found fault with everybody except her husband, who was cast for the part of that immortal simpleton, Thomas Diafoirus. “If I did so”, replied Molière, “I should spoil his acting; nature has given him better instruction than mine for the part”. This simple minded person had begun his connexion with the stage as a snuffer of candles, and it is said that it was his wife’s energy that first made him her husband and then got him an engagement as an actor in a provincial company. More than twenty years later she created the part of Nerine in Regnard’s Le Joueur (1696). Alike as soubrette and as tragedy-queen she maintained her reputation till her retirement in 1704. Her last part was that of Lisette in Regnard’s Les folies amoureuses. She died in 172o.
Michel Boyron, called Baron, was the son of an actor, and was only in his seventeenth year. Left an orphan at the age of nine, he had been engaged in a juvenile troop, of which the manager was one Raisin. In 1665 Molière, having lent his theatre to them for three performances, and having been struck by the boy’s precocity, secured him for his own company, took great pains with his education, and entrusted him with the part of Myrtil in Mélicerte (1666). But Mlle de Molière having, it is said, boxed his ears at a rehearsal, he took offence and after the performances were over joined a provincial company. Three and a half years later Molière brought him back to Paris by means of a lettre de cachet signed by the king and countersigned by Colbert. The same convenient method procured him the Beauvals. Baron developed into a fine actor and an insufferable coxcomb.
Molière was still in high favor with the king, and the fulfillment of the royal commands took up nearly his whole time. The comédie-ballet of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was presented at Chambord on October 14, 167o, Psyché, a tragédie-ballet in which Molière collaborated with Corneille and Quinault, at the Tuileries on January 17, 1671, and La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, a little comedy which with a lost pastorale formed part of a great spectacular representation entitled Le Ballet des Ballets, at Saint-Germain on December 2 of the same year. Between the two last pieces Molière brought out at the Palais-Royal on May 24 a new comedy, Les Fourberies de Scapin. It is a free imitation from the Phormio of Terence, but the main influences are partly national and partly Italian. Nowhere does Moliere’s genius for gay comedy of a farcical type display itself more convincingly.
On February 17, 1672 Molière and his company suffered a great loss by the death of Madeleine Béjart. After certain charitable bequests and small annuities to her brother Louis and her sister Geneviève, she left all her property, amounting to 17,800 livres in ready money, besides plate and jewels to the value of 3000 livres, to Moliere’s wife. Before her death, probably about the end of the year 1671, a reconciliation had taken place between the ill-matched couple, and a son was born to them on September 15, 1672, but he only survived till October 11. Molière was now a rich man, and on October 1 he moved into a large house in the Rue Richelieu, of which he rented the greater portion for 1300 livres. The only comedy from his own pen that he produced in 1672 was Les Femmes savantes, which ran at the Palais-Royal from March it to the Easter holidays, and after the holidays till the middle of May. In the summer his health became worse, and La Grange notes that the theatre was closed from August 9 to 12 owing to “the indisposition of M. de Moliére”. According to a well-known story, the authority for which is Cizeron Rival, the editor of the correspondence between Boileau and Brossette, Boileau paid him a visit in December, and noticing his cough and distressed breathing urged him to leave the stage. But Molière replied that it was a point of honor with him not to give up, revealing in these simple words his passion for his art and his devotion to the interests of his company. So with the same courage and defiance with which he had met the attacks of his opponents he now faced the last enemy—death. Just as in Le Misanthrope he had mocked at his own misanthropic humour, so now he made sport of his own malady, and on Feb. 10, 1673 he produced at the Palais-Royal the comédie-ballet of Le Malade imaginaire.
This admirable play shows him in full possession of his dramatic powers. The execution is large and easy; the characters and the dialogue are extraordinarily true to life, and the wealth of comic action makes it an excellent acting play. Moreover in that lyricism of laughter, as Sainte-Beuve calls it, in that exuberance of comedy in which Molière’s only rivals are Aristophanes and Rabelais, it is the equal of M. de Pourceaugnac and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. The attack on the doctors is fiercer than ever; as La Grange says, after laughing at doctors individually in several plays Molière now laughed at the whole Faculty of Medicine. But, underneath all this boisterous gaiety lay a grim and cruel humour. The actor, who played the part of the imaginary invalid, who excited the laughter of the audience, as he now ran shouting about the stage, now dropped exhausted into his chair, was in reality a dying man. On February 17, the fourth representation of the comedy, he was suffering more than usual, and his wife and Baron urged him not to act. “What would you have me do?” he said, “there are fifty poor workmen who have nothing to live on but their day’s wages. What will happen to them, if I do not act?” So he went to the theatre, but just before the close of the piece he had a sudden seizure, and it was only by a great effort that he got through his part. When the play was over he was carried in a chair to his house in the Rue Richelieu accompanied by Baron. The play had begun punctually at four o'clock, so that it must by this time have been nearly seven. He asked for some bread and Parmesan cheese, and when he had eaten them he had himself put to bed. His cough then redoubled in violence, and he broke a blood-vessel in his lungs. Baron went to fetch his wife, and a servant was told to find a priest to administer the Sacrament. But in about three-quarters of an hour after the attack, before the arrival of either wife or priest, he died in the arms of two Sisters of Charity, who were staying in the house as his guests. He was only fifty-one years of age.
Since Molière was an actor and had died unshriven, the curé of Saint-Eustache, in accordance with the ordinances of the Church, refused him Christian burial. Thereupon his widow appealed to the Archbishop of Paris, representing to him that Molière had died with Christian sentiments, that he had received the Sacrament at the Easter before his death from the Abbé Bernard of Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, who was his confessor, that immediately he felt himself to be dying he had sent for a priest, that two had declined to answer the summons, and that the third had arrived too late. Mlle Molière also addressed a petition to the king, and it was almost certainly by his wishes that the Archbishop so far overruled his subordinates as to permit a religious ceremony of the barest kind. The funeral was to be after dark and without any pomp; the body was to be taken straight to the cemetery, and there was to be no service in any church. A touch of irony was added to this grudging concession by the fact that Harlay de Champvallon, the Archbishop, was a notorious evil-liver.
Such is the bare outline of Molière’s life. A few details may be added by way of an attempt to fill in the picture. The only written description of his outward appearance that we have from a contemporary appeared in the Mercure de France nearly seventy years after his death. The author, Mlle Poisson, a daughter of the actor Du Croisy, had acted with him in Psyché, and had joined his company in 1673. “He was”, she says, “neither too fat nor too thin; he was tall rather than short; he had a noble bearing and a well-turned leg. He walked with a grave and serious air. He had a large nose and mouth, thick lips, and a dark complexion. His eye-brows were black and strongly-marked, and the way he moved them made his physiognomy extremely comics”. This description is borne out by the portrait at Chantilly, which is generally ascribed to his friend Mignard, and which is certainly the best that exists. One is particularly struck by its serious and sad expression. We know indeed from other sources that Molière often wore a melancholy look, and that he was usually silent in general company. “Il ne parlait guère en compagnie”, says La Grange, “à moins qu'il ne se trouva avec quelqu'un pour qui il eût une estime particulière. Cela faisait dire à ceux qui ne le connaissaient pas qu'il était rêveur et mélancolique”, and with this we may compare a passage from La Critique de l’École des Femmes, in which Molière says of himself “vous connaissez l'homme et sa natuelle paresse à soutenir la conversation”. But it will be observed that La Grange says it was those who did not know him who thought he was a dreamer and melancholy. Molière, in fact, was an observer and a thinker rather than a dreamer, and though the vicissitudes of his life and his observation of human nature had given him no little cause for sadness, he was at bottom a laughing and not a weeping philosopher. The following passage from Chappuzeau’s Le Theâtre français, which, as has been said, was published in 1674, shows in what a high estimation he was held as a man by his contemporaries. After praising him as a writer and an actor, Chappuzeau goes on to say : “In addition to these great qualities necessary to a poet and an actor, he had those of a true gentleman; he was generous and a good friend, polite and honorable in all his actions, modest in the reception of praise, learned without wishing to appear so, and he talked with such charm and ease that the first men of the Court and the Town were delighted to converse with him”.
In Grimarest’s anecdotes—some of which, as coming from Baron and relating to the last years of Molière’s life when the young actor was living in his house, may be accepted as substantially true—Molière is always on the side of reason and moderation and common sense. The most improbable of these anecdotes, but the best authenticated, for it is also told by Louis Racine, is the well-known one of the supper-party at Auteuil. It tells how Chapelle unexpectedly brought Boileau, Lulli, and two other friends to supper with Molière, and how the latter, being on a milk diet, drank his glass of milk and retired early to bed, leaving Chapelle to do the honors. Hard drinking followed, till the friends, becoming more and more gloomy, instead of more and more hilarious, finally decided to get rid of life altogether by drowning themselves in the river. On some countrymen trying to prevent them a free fight ensued, till Molière, who had been summoned by Baron, persuaded them that so noble a design should be carried out in the full light of day. So they went quietly to bed. Another story, in which figure Molière, Chapelle, and a lay-friar, represents Molière as disputing with his friend on the respective merits of Descartes and Gassendi as philosophers, Molière being for Descartes and Chapelle for Gassendi.
Molière was generous with his money and charitable to the poor. His pecuniary relations with his father testify not only to his generosity, but to his delicacy. He not only did not claim from his father the residue, amounting to about 1500 livres, of his share in his mother’s fortune, but he repaid 2800 livres of what he had already received from him. Further, in 1668, six months before his father’s death, he lent him through a friend, without his own name appearing in the transaction, 10,000 livres for the purpose of rebuilding a house which was tumbling down.
Moliere’s liberality with his money is all the more praiseworthy, because it was that of a man who was orderly and careful about details in every department of life. He insisted on exactitude and precision in his domestic life. A window opened or shut at the wrong moment made him furious, and the misplacement of a book was enough to prevent him from working for a fortnight. So says Grimarest, with evident exaggeration, but we find the same love of precision and the same irritability in Molière’s relations with his troop. At rehearsals he spared no pains to bring his actors up to his own high standard of perfection. Of his manner and method we get an excellent idea from L'Impromptu de Versailles. At the very outset he depicts his own irritability, “La peste soit des gens!” “Je crois que je deviendrai fou avec tous ces gens-ci”. “Ah! les étranges animaux à conduire que des comediens!” And then we see how cleverly he indicates to each actor the idea underlying his part, and how in some cases he enforces his advice with a stroke of irony or criticism. When Mlle Du Parc protests that no one in the world is less affected than she is, he replies, “Quite true, and so you can show all the better what an excellent actress you are by representing a part which is so contrary to your nature”. Then he advises Brécourt “to gesticulate as little as he possibly can”, and to Mlle Du Croisy he says: “Your part is that of one of those women who always give a passing dig at their neighbors, and who are loath to leave them with a good reputation. It is a part in which you will acquit yourself fairly well, I think”. But actors and actresses alike forgave him his irritability and his little coups de langue because they recognized his goodness of heart, and his unswerving loyalty to his comrades.
As regards Molière’s own powers as an actor contemporary testimony is fairly unanimous. In tragedy he was not regarded as a success. In the first place his physical appearance was not suited to the part of a tragic hero.
Les mains sur les côtés d'un air peu négligé,
La tête sur le dos comme un mulet chargé,
Les yeux fort egarés, puis débitant ses rôles
D'un hoquet éternel sépare ses paroles.
This portrait of Molière as Caesar in Corneille’s Pompée, which occurs in the younger Montfleury’s L'Impromptu de l'Hôtel de Condé, represents the ill-natured criticism of a rival company, but it contains, no doubt, a certain element of truth. Secondly, Molière’s elocution in tragedy was too natural to please the public of his day, accustomed as it was to the declamatory methods of the Hotel de Bourgogne. “II faut dire les choses avec emphase”, he says, in the Impromptu de Versailles just before he begins his imitation of Montfleury père. “Là, appuyez comme il faut le dernier vers. Voilà ce qui attire l'approbation et fait faire le brouhaha”.
But as a comic actor he was supreme. His expressive countenance, his large mouth and eloquent eyes, all lent themselves to that power of impersonation of which he was so great a master. “Il etait tout comedien”, says Le Mercure galant just after his death, “depuis les pieds jusqu'à la tête. Il semblait qu'il eût plusieurs voix ; tout parlait en lui; et, d'un pas, d'un sourire, d'un clin d'oeil et d'un remuement de tête it faisait plus concevoir de choses que le plus grand parleur n'aurait pu dire en une heure”. Fastidious critics, indeed, said that he was un peu grimacier, that he made too much play with his features. But Grimarest, who reports this, adds that Molière would probably have replied that the ordinary public liked exaggeration. The criticism, however, is interesting, because it bears out what is evident from a study of Molière’s plays that he had learnt from the Italian comedians the great value of gesture and movement. Grimarest, like Montfleury, notes the hiccough or spasm of the throat from which he suffered, and explains it by saying that when he first began to act he noticed that his utterance was too rapid, and that the hiccough resulted from his efforts to counteract this defect.
The hiccough is also mentioned by Mlle Poisson and the same cause is given for it. She also tells us that nature had refused him the physical gifts necessary for the stage, and especially for tragic parts, for he had naturally a voice without resonance, with metallic inflexions. But he conquered these difficulties by study and force of will, and became a great comic actor. “Not only did he please in the parts of Mascarille, Sganarelle, Hali, &c.; he was also excellent in characters of high comedy, such as those of Arnolphe, Orgon, Harpagon. It was in these parts that by the truth of his sentiments, by the intelligence of his expression, and by every refinement of art, he fascinated his audience so completely that they did not distinguish the person represented from the actor who represented him”.
But there was another and deeper reason than the careful study of his art which made Molière so admirable an actor of comic, and especially of humorous parts, and that was his innate simplicity. He was always thinking of his characters and never of himself. He did not mind appearing ridiculous on the stage, or even of appearing in the character of a downright fool. Quick though he was to detect folly, he observed it with a sympathetic eye. This is the essence of humour, and without humour he could neither have conceived nor have interpreted many of his characters.
Thus Moliere’s company adored their chief as a staunch friend and an incomparable actor. “Tous les acteurs aimaient le sieur Molière, leur chef, qui joignait à un mérite et à une capacité extraordinaire une honnêteté et une manière engageante qui les obligea tous à lui presenter qu'ils voulaient courir sa fortune, et qu'ils ne le quitteraient jamais, quelque proposition qu'on leur fit et quelque avantage qu'ils pussent trouver ailleurs”. So wrote La Grange in his Register at that critical stage in the company’s fortunes when the Petit-Bourbon was being pulled down and the Palais-Royal was under repair, and when the rival actors of the Hotel de Bourgogne and the Marais were trying to sow dissension among them and to attract them to their own theatres. To La Grange, as of right, may be left the last word in praise of his chief. The thirteen years which followed only cemented more closely the ties between Moliere and his company.