Childhood and Education
The comic playwright known as Molière was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, France, on January 15, 1622. The family was solidly middle class. Molière's father held an official appointment as a "furnisher to the king," a kind of interior decorator. As a youth Molière had the benefit of a good education at the Collège de Clermont, a school attended in the next century by the young Voltaire, one of France's most brilliant writers and philosophers. Molière followed his school years with legal studies. Though his father hoped his son would follow him in his trade, by age 21 Molière had decided 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 was, for example, only one permanent theater in Paris. Together with the actress Madeleine Béjart, the young Molière founded a company of players called the Illustre Théâtre (Illustrious Theater Company) when he was only 21. The company struggled to remain solvent, however, and Molière served two terms in debtors' prison. It was clear that there was only one route for the company's survival: a withdrawal to the provinces outside Paris where they could work more easily.
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 clear that Molière gained much 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 a patron: the brother of King Louis XIV, the Duc d'Orléans. For more than a dozen years following, Molière's fortunes steadily rose. He authored a series of comedies in varying formats: some were static drawing-room plays, while others combined comedy with ballet and musical accompaniment. Some of the plays clearly displayed the influence of classical comedy—in particular, the plays of Aristophanes and Menander from ancient Greece and Plautus and Terence from ancient Rome. Mixing with classical influences were the routines and stock characters of the commedia dell'arte, an Italian theatrical form that was popular throughout Europe—and especially in France—from the 16th through the 18th centuries.
In 1662 Molière married Armande Béjart—possibly the sister, or perhaps the daughter, of Madeleine Béjart. She was 20 years his junior. It does not seem to have been a happy marriage but rather a turbulent one.
Despite royal patronage and a string of notable successes, turmoil definitely 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. Molière lobbied King Louis XIV repeatedly, finally gaining authorization in 1669 to present Tartuffe, which deals with religious hypocrisy, after five years of prohibition.
Last Years and Legacy
Like British playwright William Shakespeare before him in England, Molière was a total man of the theater: actor, playwright, 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. While acting the title role in Le Malade imaginaire, Molière collapsed on stage on February 17, 1673; he had been suffering from tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection, for some time. He died that same evening. Controversy ensued regarding where the church would permit him to be buried.
Molière, as his works are read and performed today, is regarded as one of the greatest comic playwrights in world literature. His innovative bridging of classical and folk traditions has had a lasting impact on the theatrical world. From all of Molière's plays, The Misanthrope is one of the most original and most performed, often called his greatest masterpiece.
About the Translator
Richard Wilbur, born in New York City on March 1, 1921, grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Amherst College and attended Harvard University for graduate studies. Wilbur published his first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes, in 1947. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his poetry, in 1957 and in 1989. Wilbur has also won acclaim for his translations of 17th-century French drama, especially the comedies of Molière and the tragedies of Jean Racine. In 1987 Wilbur served in Washington as Poet Laureate of the United States. He died on October 14, 2017, in Belmont, MA at age 96.