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Molière, the stage name of playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, is considered by many one of the greatest comedic writers in the history of literature. His plays are noted for their wordplay, puns and social-issue themes. The playwright, actor and troupe manager is believed by experts to have reformed French theater and built the backbone of comedic farce in modern writing.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in 1622 to an interior designer employed by the court of the king and the daughter of a prosperous French family. Despite his father’s attempts to secure him a place as a servant of the court, it was to acting that the young Jean-Baptiste was irresistibly drawn. Acting was considered a disgraceful pursuit at the time, and experts suggest the young actor lost his father’s affection entirely when he founded a theater called L'Illustre Théâtre in 1643. Shortly thereafter, possibly to protect his father’s position and reputation, Jean-Baptiste adopted the pseudonym, Molière.
The young actor spent 12 years traveling the country with his theater troupe, performing in small towns and beginning his own work as a writer. In 1658, Molière returned to Paris and performed for King Louis XIV, who enjoyed his work immensely. The king awarded him an annual pension, and became a frequent defender of the writer’s work despite political hatred from influential courtiers. Over the next 15 years, he wrote over 30 plays, acting in many of them, while simultaneously managing his own theater company.
The playwright's style initially owed much the raunchy Italian form of traveling theater, Commedia dell’arte. Though he privately admitted a preference for tragedy the playwright made frequent use of the style’s stock characters and problematic love stories in his own plays. As he matured as a writer, Moliere’s works moved away from pure comedy and toward satire. His greatest plays are revered by experts for their mocking portrayals of hypocritical characters and politically-sensitive issues.
Plays like Tartuffe, which mocks a hypocritical religious character, and The School for Wives, which hints at the foolish results of denying women education, brought outrage from many high places. Angry courtiers and religious devotees formed the parti des Devots to protest his satirical plays. His enemies wielded considerable power, and succeeded in having Tartuffe banned from public presentations for several years. Yet the king’s enduring appreciation saved Moliere from serious trouble, and the playwright’s careful avoidance of mocking royalty or true church authority made sure Louis XIV remained a fan.
Molière’s life was troubled by a persistently worsening fight with tuberculosis that may have influenced his many satirical portrayals of doctors. His death is recounted as a famous legend among theater actors. During a 1662 performance of The Hypochondriac, the playwright collapsed while on stage in a fit of coughing. Despite the king’s encouragement to stop the play until he was recovered, Molière insisted on continuing the performance. He suffered a hemorrhage later that day and died.
Because a church ban forbade actors from being buried in sacred cemeteries, Molière’s funeral was held at night, in secret, on the order of the king. This last mockery of society’s sillier rules was well attended despite its secrecy. Over 800 mourners arrived at the funeral to farewell the man many consider to be France’s greatest playwright.
What I find most compelling about Moliere's work is how most remain relevant today. For example, "The Misanthrope" can easily be seen as an indictment of the problems with politics today. Lies seem to run the world, and even if a politician wants to be honest, it is seemingly impossible. Escape from society does seem like the only possible answer, which is obviously unfortunate. I wish more of Moliere's plays were actually staged. I live in a fairly major market, but haven't seen one performed since high school. I'd welcome the chance to even see videos of performances.
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