'The vices of my age', 1664
What is the duty of comedy?
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I am a devil dressed in flesh and clothed like a man, a freethinker, impious, worthy of an exemplary execution. Public burning would not suffice to expiate my offence, that would be letting me off too lightly…
This week I spotted that 15th January (tomorrow, as I write) happens to be the 400th anniversary of the birth of the French playwright Molière (ie Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, c.1622–1673), so of course I wondered what history might have brought us in his own words beyond his plays and poetry. Did he write interesting letters or even a journal?
Alas not, and here’s one of the classic dilemmas of the biographer, especially as one reaches back further in time. His most recent English language biographer Virginia Scott wrote in her 2000 work Molière: A Theatrical Life:
The biographer of Molière is not, however, overwhelmed with facts or even with information. There are no original manuscripts, no letters, journals, or written documents from the hand of Molière, nothing of what biographers usually require for reasonably reliable evidence of a subject’s life and inner life.
Rather like his English predecessor, William Shakespeare, then – and there has even been a similar authorship controversy (although this seems to have been resolved by modern analysis). Like Shakespeare, Molière was an actor, too, and we do have a description of him in character from one Mademoiselle des Jardins, who was at the first performance of his 1659 play Les Précieuses Ridicules:
His wig was so huge that it swept the stage every time he bowed, and his hat so small that it easy to imagine that the marquess carried it in his hand more in often than upon his head. His cravat suggested seemly dressing-gown; and his canons seemed made for children to play hide-and-seek in. A bunch of tassels dangled from his pocket as if it were a horn of plenty; and his shoes were so covered with ribbons that you could not tell whether they were Russia leather, English calf-skin, or Morocco; at all events, I know they were at least half a foot in height, and I found it hard to understand how heels high and slender could carry the weight of the marquess, his ribbons, canons, and powder.
And we have a pen portrait of the man himself (not published until 1740 and not of 100% certain provenance), from a Mlle Poisson, whose parents were Monsieur and ‘Mademoiselle’ du Croisy (aka Gassaud), actors in Molière’s company. Their daughter wrote:
Molière was neither too fat nor too thin. He was tall rather than short, his bearing was noble, his leg well turned. He walked sedately, his manner was serious, his nose important, his mouth large, his lips thick, his complexion dark, his eyebrows black and bushy, while the various twitches he gave them made his expression extremely comical…
He had monotonous voice, hard in inflection, and he spoke with a volubility which made his declamation hurried. He was only able to correct himself of this fault, so contrary to good articulation, by constant effort, through which was produced a sort of hiccough, lasting to his death…
But although we lack autobiographical material, of course there’s the content of the playwright’s own works which gives hints – and in the case of his 1663 play L’Impromptu de Versailles, he even has a character called Molière (a ‘ridiculous marquis’), and the fourth-wall-busting scene of the drama is an actors’ green room during rehearsals. This ‘Molière’ reacts to his theatrical critics:
… let them do as they wish; nothing they undertake bothers me. They criticize my plays; so much the better; God keep me from making anything that pleases them. That would be a bad business for me... But finally I will make my declaration publicly about this. I do not intend to make any response to their critiques or counter-critiques. Let them find all the faults in the world in my plays, I agree with them… Courtesy has limits…
Molière’s career was defined by controversy thanks to his frank satires about religion and the medical profession, although the support of the king, Louis XIV, and of the public, saved him. The greatest controversy surrounded his 1664 play Tartuffe – this satire against hypocrisy among the pious was performed at Versailles, but then the king was pressured by the church into suppressing it (an official statement read “although one does not doubt the good intentions of the author, even so he forbids it in public, and deprived himself of this pleasure, in order not to allow it to be abused by others”).
Among the few documents that we do have outside his fictional work are three petitions he sent to the king defending himself over Tartuffe, as well as a preface to the 1669 edition of the play. In these1 we can certainly hear Molière’s voice loud and clear. Here, then, is the text of the first, from 1664, ‘Le premier placet présenté au Roi sur la comédie du Tartuffe’:
Whereas the duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them, I felt that, being in that profession, I could do no better than to attack, by ludicrous portrayals, the vices of my age; and since hypocrisy is certainly one of the commonest, most disagreeable, and most dangerous, the thought occurred to me, Sire, that I should render no small service to all the upstanding people of your kingdom, if I wrote a comedy which would discredit hypocrites and properly expose all the studied grimaces of those excessively pious folk, all the covert rascalities of those counterfeits of piety who try to trap men with spurious zeal and sophistical charity.
I made this comedy, Sire, with, I believe, all the possible care and circumspection demanded by the delicate nature of the subject; and, the better to preserve the esteem and respect we owe to the truly pious, I differentiated as well as I could between them and the character I had to deal with. I have left no ambiguity, I have removed whatever could confuse good with evil, and in this portrait I have used only clear colours and essential traits that make immediately manifest a true, out-and-out hypocrite.
Nevertheless, all my precautions have come to naught. They took advantage, Sire, of the susceptibility of your heart in matters of religion, and they were able to overcome you in the only way by which you are vulnerable, I mean by your respect for sacred things. The tartuffes [i.e. hypocrites] have had the underhanded skill to find grace in the eyes of your Majesty; in short, the originals have had the copy suppressed, no matter how innocent nor how true the likeness.
Although the suppression of this work was a severe blow, nevertheless my misfortune was softened by your Majesty’s explanation of this matter; and I believed, Sire, that you relieved me of all grounds for complaint by your kindness in saying that your Majesty found nothing to criticize in the play that you forbade me to present in public.
But despite this splendorous declaration from the greatest as well as the most enlightened king in the world, despite the added approval of his Eminence the Papal Legate and the great majority of our prelates, who all, after my private readings of the work, have been in agreement with the sentiments of your Majesty; despite all that, I say, we see a book composed by [Pierre Roulle, a curate], which brazenly contradicts all that august testimony. Your Majesty speaks for nothing, and his Eminence the Legate and the prelates give judgment for nothing; my comedy – though not seen – is diabolical, and diabolical, my brain; I am a devil dressed in flesh and clothed like a man, a freethinker, impious, worthy of an exemplary execution. Public burning would not suffice to expiate my offence, that would be letting me off too lightly; this worthy gentleman is careful not to stop there in his charitable zeal: he wants me to get no mercy from God; he insists that I be damned – the matter is settled.
This book, Sire, was presented to your Majesty; and, surely, you can imagine how disagreeable it is for me to be exposed every day to those gentlemen’s insults, how much wrong such calumnies will do me in the world if they must be tolerated, and, finally, how much it is in my interest to be purged of its deceit and to make known to the public that my comedy is nothing like what is claimed. I shall not say, Sire, what I should like to request for my reputation and to justify to all the innocence of my work. Enlightened kings like yourself have no need to have our wishes pointed out; they see, like God, what we need, and know better than we what they should grant to us. It is sufficient to place my interests in the hands of your Majesty and to await respectfully whatever it may please your Majesty to ordain.