son of a Parisian artisan, Poquelin lost his mother when still a child
and entered the prestigious Jesuits' Collège de Clermont, to
complete his studies. There are many stories about his time at the college:
It is said that his father was very demanding of him, that he met the
Prince of Conti, or that he was a pupil of the philosopher Pierre Gassendi,
but none of these seem to have any foundation.
It is certain, however, that Poquelin was a close friend of the abbé
La Mothe Le Vayer, son of François de La Mothe-Le-Vayer, in the
years in which the abbé was editing his father's works, and it
has been suggested that Poquelin may have been influenced by them. Among
his first works was a translation (now lost) of De Rerum Natura by the
Roman philosopher Lucretius.
When Poquelin reached the age of 18, his father passed on to him the
title of Tapissier du Roi, and the associated office of valet de chambre,
which brought him into frequent contact with the king. Poquelin is claimed
to have graduated in law at Orléans in 1642, but some doubts
remain as to this.
In June 1643, together with his lover Madeleine Béjart and a
brother and sister of hers, he founded the theatre company or troupe
of L'Illustre Théâtre, which became bankrupt in 1645. At
this time he assumed the pseudonym of Molière, inspired by the
name of a small village in Southern France. The failure of the company
caused him to spend some weeks in prison for debt. He was freed by the
help of his father, and he left with Madeleine for a tour of villages
as a travelling comedian. This life lasted for 14 years, during which
he initially played with the companies of Charles Dufresne, and subsequently
created a company of his own. In the course of his travels he met the
prince of Conti, the governor of Languedoc, who became his patron, and
he named his company after him. But this friendship would end later,
when Conti joined Molière's enemies in the Parti des Dévots.
In Lyons, Mme Duparc, famous as la Marquise, joined the company. La
Marquise was courted, in vain, by Pierre Corneille and later became
the lover of Jean Racine. Racine offered Molière his tragedy
Théagène et Chariclée (one of the first works he
wrote after he had left his theology studies), but Molière did
not perform it, though he encouraged Racine to pursue his artistic career.
It is said that soon after Molière became very angry with Racine
when he was told that he had secretly presented his tragedy to the company
of Hôtel de Bourgogne too.
Molière reached Paris in 1658 and played at the Louvre (then
for rent as a theatre) in Corneille's tragedy Nicomède and the
farce Le docteur amoureux (Doctor in Love), with some success. He was
awarded the title of Troupe de Monsieur (the Monsieur was the king's
brother) and with the help of Monsieur, his company joined a locally
famous Italian company that played Commedia dell'arte. He became firmly
established at their theatre Petit-Bourbon, where on November 18, 1659
he gave the premier of Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected
Young Ladies), one of his masterpieces.
Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was born in Paris on January
15, 1622. His father was one of eight valets de chambre tapissiers who
tended the king's furniture and upholstery, so the young Poquelin received
every advantage a boy could wish for. He was educated at the finest
schools (the College de Clermont in Paris.) He had access to the king's
court. But even as a child, Molière found it infinitely more
pleasant to poke fun at the aristocracy than to associate with them.
As a young boy, he learned that he could cause quite a stir by mimicking
his mother's priest. His mother, a deeply religious woman, might have
broken the young satirist of this habit had she not died before he was
yet twelve-years-old. His father soon remarried, but in less than three
years, this wife also passed away. At the age of fifteen, Jean-Baptiste
was left alone with his father and was most likely apprenticed to his
The boy never showed much of an interest for the business of upholstering.
Fortunately, his father's shop was located near two important theatrical
sites: the Pont-Neuf and the Hôtel de Bourgogne. At the Pont-Neuf,
comedians performed plays and farces in the street in order to sell
patent medicines to the crowds. Although not traditional theatre in
the strictest sense, the antics of these comic medicine-men brought
a smile to Jean-Baptiste's face on many an afternoon. At the Hôtel
de Bourgogne--which the boy attended with his grandfather--the King's
Players performed more traditional romantic tragedies and broad farces.
Apparently, these two theatrical venues had quite an impact on the young
Poquelin, for in 1643, at the age of twenty-one, he decided to dedicate
his life to the theatre.
Jean-Baptiste had fallen in love with a beautiful red-headed actress
named Madeleine Béjart. Along with Madeleine, her brother Joseph
and sister Genevieve, and about a dozen other young well-to-do hopefuls,
Jean-Baptiste founded a dramatic troupe called The Illustrious Theater.
It was about this time that he changed his name to Molière, probably
to spare his father the embarrassment of having an actor in the family.
Molière and his companions made their dramatic debut in a converted
tennis court. Although the company was brimming with enthusiasm, none
of them had much experience and when they began to charge admission,
the results proved disastrous. Over the course of the next two years,
the little company appeared in three different theatres in various parts
of Paris, and each time, they failed miserably. Several of the original
members dropped out of the company during this period. Finally, the
seven remaining actors decided to forget Paris and go on a tour of the
provinces. For the next twelve years, they would travel from town to
town, performing and honing their craft.
It was during this period that Molière began to write plays for
the company. His first important piece, L'Étourdi or The Blunderer,
followed the escapades of Mascarille, a shrewd servant who sets about
furthering his master's love affair with a young woman only to have
his plans thwarted when the blundering lover inadvertantly interferes.
The five-act piece proved quite successful, and a number of other works
followed. By the spring of 1658, Molière and his much-improved
company decided to try their luck once more in Paris. When they learned
that the King's brother, the Duke of Anjou, was said to be interested
in supporting a dramatic company which would bear his name, they immediately
set about gaining an introduction to the Court.
On the evening of October 24, 1658, Molière and his troupe performed
for the first time before Louis XIV and his courtiers in the Guard Room
of the old Louvre Palace. They made a crucial mistake, however, by performing
a tragedy (Cornielle's second-rate Nicoméde) instead of one of
their popular farces. The Court was not impressed. Fortunately Molière,
realizing their blunder, approached the King at the conclusion of the
tragedy and asked permission to perform one of his own plays, The Love-Sick
Doctor. The King granted his request, and the play was such a success
that the little company--which would thereafter be known as the Troupe
de Monsieur--was granted use of the Hôtel du Petit Bourbon, one
of the three most important theaters in Paris.
The first of Molière's plays to be presented at the Petit Bourbon
was Les Précieuses Ridicules or The Pretentious Ladies which
satirized Madame de Rambouillet, a member of the King's court who had
set herself up as the final judge of taste and culture in Paris. The
play proved so successful that Molière doubled the price of admission
and was invited to give a special performance for the King. The King
was delighted and rewarded the playwright with a large gift of cash,
but Molière had made powerful enemies of some of the King's followers.
Madame de Rambouillet and her coterie managed to have performances of
the play suspended for fourteen days and, in an attempt to drive Molière
from the city, eventually managed to have the Petit Bourbon closed down
completely. But the King immediately granted Molière use of the
Théâtre du Palais Royal where he would continue to perform
for the rest of his life.
Over the course of the next thirteen years, Molière worked feverishly
to make his company the most respected dramatic troupe in Paris. (Eventually,
they were awarded the coveted title "Troupe of the King.")
He directed his own plays and often played the leading role himself.
On February 17, 1673, Molière suffered a hemorrhage while playing
the role of the hypochondriac Argan in The Imaginary Invalid. He had
insisted on going through with the performance in spite of the advice
of his wife and friends saying, "There are fifty poor workers who
have only their daily wage to live on. What will become of them if the
performance does not take place?" He passed away later that night
at his home on the Rue Richelieu. The local priests refused to take
his confession, for actors had no social standing and had been excommunicated
by the church. Nor would they permit him to be buried in holy ground.
Four days later, the King interceded and Molière was finally
buried in the Cemetery Saint Joseph under the cover of darkness.
Molière left behind a body of work which not only changed the
face of French classical comedy, but has gone on to influence the work
of other dramatists the world over. The greatest of his plays include
The School for Husbands (1661), The School for Wives (1662), The Misanthrope
(1666), The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1666), Tartuffe (1664,1667,1669),
The Miser (1668), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673).
later to adopt the stage name Molière, was born into a comfortable,
respected bourgeois family of Paris in 1622. Despite the best efforts
of his family, he was immutably destined, it seems, for the theatre.
He completing a law degree and was entitled to inherit his father's
lucrative position as official upholsterer to the King but he never
pursued either profession. Instead, having stumbled into a friendship
with the Béjart family, a theatre dynasty of the day - and being
very taken with a daughter of the family, Madeleine, he set his eyes
on the stage.
At 21 he co-founded, along with the Béjarts and other actors,
the Illustre Théâtre, a Paris-based troupe that went bankrupt
in short order - due largely to an energetic anti-theatre lobby within
the Church. The situation landed the young actor/producer in debtor's
prison. When Jean-Baptiste's father consented to liquidate the debt,
Molière and the Béjarts left Paris for the provinces.
There they toured for some 13 years, enjoying consistent moderate success
and garnering the patronage - essential, given the ecclesiastic climate
- of a number of important noblemen. During this period Molière
acted in a varied, extensive repertory, established himself as the leader
of the company, and began writing plays.
Resolving to give
the capital another try, the troupe returned to Paris in 1658, where
Molière obtained the patronage of Monsieur, Louis XIV's brother.
Granted a chance to play before the King himself, the company presented
Corneille's tragedy Nicomède, which flew, apparently, on wings
of lead. Le Docteur amoureux - a farce followed it on the bill, perhaps
in desperation. This Molière original so delighted the King that
he granted Molière's group use of the Petit Bourbon theatre where
a number of his original comedies were greeted with accolades. Louis
also commissioned Molière to write and stage many comédies-ballets
- royal entertainments intermingling dialogue, song and dance, performed
in palace settings, often featuring members of the court.
His 1663 School
for Wives inaugurated Molière's final period, a decade that earned
him both enormous acclaim and a venomous squall that would never entirely
abate. Shrill accusations of indecency flew in the wake of Wives. His
next major work, Tartuffe caused an even greater furor. The Compagnie
du Saint-Sacrement, a group of clerics self-appointed to root out heresy
and blasphemy, were especially ill-disposed towards Molière,
and militated for the suppression of Tartuffe before it was ever performed,
believing it to ridicule not hypocritical piousness but true devotion.
One Parisian Priest, Pierre Roulé, even called publicly for Molière
to be burned at the stake. Church orders went out not only banning performance
of Tartuffe, but threatening excommunication to anyone reading or listening
to the play. On another front, the envy of competing stage artists sparked
satiric attacks that, if not life-threatening, were savagely ugly. Having
married Madeleine Béjart's younger sister Armande, Molière
was subjected to public claims that he'd married not the sister but
the daughter of the woman everyone believed to have been his lover,
as well as salacious representations of Madeleine herself. In a height
of indignity, the accusation that Molière's wife Armande was
in fact his own child was promulgated in a satiric play mounted by a
nonetheless, continued his prolific output -directing and performing
his and other playwrights' works and creating commissioned palace entertainments.
Indeed this period of controversy and venom coincides with the creation
of what are now seen as his most important works, The School for Wives
and Tartuffe, as well as The Misanthrope, Dom Juan, The Miser, The Learned
Ladies and his final opus The Hypochondriac. A man of theatre to the
end, Molière insisted on performing in that last piece, despite
an advanced pulmonary condition. He began coughing blood during the
fourth performance, but finished the show, and died mere hours later.
Though he was originally denied burial on Church property, because of
his status as an actor who had never renounced the profession, his long-time
patron and defender Louis, by we know not what machinations, was able
to have his remains transferred to holy ground.