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Molière | Biography


Childhood and Education

The comic playwright known as Molière was baptized Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris on January 15, 1622. The Poquelin family was solidly middle class. Molière's father held an official appointment as a "carpet-furnisher to the king," providing bed linens to the palace. As a youth Molière had the benefit of a good education at the Collège de Clermont, a school later attended by the young Voltaire (1694–1778), who was one of France's most brilliant writers and philosophers. Molière followed his school years with legal studies in the city of Orléans. His father hoped the son would follow him in his trade, but by age 21 Molière made plain his desire to pursue a career in the theater.

Apprenticeship and Years in the Provinces

In Molière's time making a living in the theater in France was exceptionally challenging. There were, for example, only two permanent theaters in Paris. Yet just five months after his 21st birthday, Molière, the actress Madeleine Béjart, and a few friends founded a company of players called the Illustre-Théâtre ("Illustrious Theater Company"). The company struggled to remain solvent, however, and Molière served two terms in debtors' prison. It was clear there was only one route for the company's survival: a move to the countryside.

From late 1645 until the autumn of 1658 Molière and his company toured the lesser cities of France, including Nantes, Toulouse, Lyon, Béziers, and Montpellier. Information about these years is sketchy, but it is evident Molière gained practical experience as an actor, manager, and playwright.

Success in the Capital and at Court

In October 1658 Molière and his company succeeded in gaining the favor of the brother of King Louis XIV, the duc d'Orléans, with an entertainment entitled Le Docteur amoureux (The Doctor in Love). For more than a dozen years, Molière's fortunes steadily rose. He authored a series of comedies in varying formats: some were comedies of manners set in elegant surroundings, while others combined comedy with ballet and musical accompaniment. Some of the plays clearly displayed the influence of classical comedy, in particular the works of Greek playwrights Aristophanes (450–388 BCE) and Menander (342–292 BCE) and those of Roman authors Plautus (254–184 BCE) and Terence (195–159 BCE). Molière mixed classical influences with the routines and stock characters of the commedia dell'arte (comedy of art or comedy of the profession). Commedia dell'arte is an Italian theatrical form that was popular throughout Europe—especially in France—from the 16th through the 18th century.

In 1662 Molière married actress Armande Béjart—the sister, or perhaps the daughter—of Molière's previous lover, Madeleine Béjart. Armande was 20 years his junior, and it does not seem to have been a happy marriage.

Despite royal patronage and a string of notable successes, turmoil played a major role in Molière's life during these years. The competition to retain actors and audiences was unremitting. Molière was also heavily involved with disputes about his plays, most particularly Dom Juan (1665) and Tartuffe (1664), both of which the Roman Catholic Church found offensive. Tartuffe shined the light of ridicule on religious hypocrisy—an immediate backlash from the Catholics of the day resulted in a ban on the play. Molière lobbied the king repeatedly on Tartuffe's behalf, finally gaining authorization in 1669 to again present the play after five years of prohibition.

Last Years and Legacy

Like English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Molière was a total man of the theater: actor, writer, director, and company shareholder. Unlike Shakespeare, however, he did not enjoy the leisure of retirement. From 1669 to 1673 he wrote and produced at least a half dozen plays, including some of his best-known comedies, such as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman, 1670) and Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid, 1673). The first focused on the obsessive folly of a social climber, the second on a hypochondriac. Taking the title role in Le Malade imaginaire was an instance of situational irony on Moliere's part, as he had suffered with tuberculosis for several years. On February 17, 1673, during the play's fourth performance, Molière collapsed on stage and died the same evening.

In 1682 Molière's longtime friend and fellow actor Charles Varlet de la Grange published Molière's Collected Works. During his career Molière had authored more than 30 plays, always remaining true to his "golden rule"—"to give pleasure." In addition to providing entertainment he also held up a mirror to French society, allowing them to see—and laugh at—themselves. Molière is read and performed today as one of the greatest comic playwrights in world literature. His innovative bridging of classical and folk traditions had a lasting impact on the theatrical world.

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