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Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was christened at Paris, January 15, 1622. His family consisted of decent burghers, who had for two or three generations followed the business of manufacturers of tapestry, or dealers in that commodity. Jean Poquelin, the father of the poet, also enjoyed the office of valet-de-chambre in the royal household. He endeavored to bring his son up to the same business, but finding that it was totally inconsistent with the taste and temper of the young Jean-Baptiste, he placed him at the Jesuits' College of Clermont, now the College of Louis-le-Grand. Young Poquelin had scarcely terminated his course of philosophy when, having obtained the situation of assistant and successor to his father, in his post of valet-de-chambre to the king, he was called on to attend Louis XIII. in a tour to Narbonne, which lasted nearly a year. Doubtless, the opportunities which this journey afforded him, of comparing the manners and follies of the royal court and of the city of Paris, with those which he found still existing in the provincial towns and among the rural noblesse, were not lost upon the poet by whose satirical power they were destined to be immortalized.
A Dinner at the House of Moliere at Auteuil.
There was, however, a temptation which threatened to withdraw him from the worship of Thalia. This was an offer on the part of the Prince of Conti, who had been his condisciple at college, to create Moliere his secretary. He declined this, on account of his devoted attachment to his own profession, strengthened on this occasion, perhaps, by his knowledge how the place had become vacant. This, it seems, was by the death of Sarrasin (who had held the office), in consequence of un mauvais traitement de Monseigneur le Prince de Conti. In plain English, the prince had, with the fire-tongs, knocked down his secretary, who never recovered from the effects of the blow. It is probable that, notwithstanding the laurel chaplet worn by Moliere, he had little faith in the sic evitabile fulmen.
This was in 1654. He continued to perambulate the provinces with his company for several years longer; in 1658 he returned to Paris, and at last, through the influence of his patron the Prince of Conti, was introduced to Monsieur, the king's brother, and by him presented to the king and queen. On October 24th, his company performed in presence of the royal family, and he obtained the royal license to open a theatre under the title of "Troupe de Monsieur," in opposition to, or in emulation of, the comedians of the Hotel de Bourgogne. The pieces which Moliere had already composed were received with great favor, but it was not until 1659, that he commenced the honorable satirical war upon folly and affectation which he waged for so many years. It was then that he produced "Les Precieuses Ridicules."
The piece was acted for the first time November 18, 1659, and received with unanimous applause. The public, like children admitted behind the scenes, saw, with wonder and mirth, the trumpery which they had admired as crowns, sceptres, and royal robes, when beheld at a distance--thus learning to estimate at their real value the affected airs of super-excellence and transcendental elegance assumed by the frequenters of the Hotel de Rambouillet.
On the other hand, the party which was consequently made the laughing-stock of the theatre were much hurt and offended, nor was the injury at all the lighter that some of them had sense enough to feel that the chastisement was deserved. They had no remedy, however, but to swallow their chagrin and call themselves by their own names in future. Menage expressed his own recantation in the words of Clovis, when he became a convert to Christianity, and told his assembled Franks they must now burn the idols which they had hitherto adored. The affectation of the period, such as we have described it, received a blow no less effectual than that which Ben Jonson, by his satire called "Cynthia's Revels," inflicted on the kindred folly of euphuism, or as the author of "The Baviad and Maeviad" dealt to similar affectations of our own day. But Moliere made a body of formidable enemies among the powerful and learned, whose false pretensions to wit and elegance he had so rudely exposed.
Two things were remarkable as attending the representation of this excellent satire: first, that an old man, starting up in the parterre, exclaimed, "Courage, Moliere, this is real comedy!" and, secondly, that the author himself, perceiving from the general applause that he had touched the true vein of composition, declared his purpose henceforward to read his lessons from the human bosom, instead of studying the pages of Terence and Plautus.
After an unsuccessful effort at a serious piece ("Don Garcie de Navarre, ou Le Prince Jaloux"), Moliere resumed his natural bent; and in "L'Ecole des Maris" presented one of his best compositions, and at once obliterated all recollection of his failure. It was acted at Paris with unanimous applause, and again represented at the magnificent entertainment given by the superintendent of finances, Fouquet, to Louis XIV. and his splendid court.
"L'Ecole des Femmes" was Moliere's next work of importance. It is a comedy of the highest order. An old gentleman, who had been an intriguer in his youth and knew (as he flattered himself) all the wiles of womankind, endeavors to avoid what he considers as the usual fate of husbands, by marrying his ward, a beautiful girl, simple almost to silliness, but to whom nature has given as much of old mother Eve's talent for persuasion and imposition as enables her to baffle all the schemes of her aged admirer and unite herself to a young gallant more suited to her age. The "Country Wife" of Wycherly is an imitation of this piece, with the demerit on the part of the English author of having rendered licentious a plot which, in Moliere's hands, is only gay.
Although this piece was well received and highly applauded, it was at the same time severely criticised by those who had swallowed without digesting the ridicule which the author had heaped on the Hotel de Rambouillet in the "Precieuses Ridicules," and on the various conceits and follies of the court in "Les Facheux." Such critics having shown themselves too wise to express the pain which they felt on their own account, now set up as guardians of the purity of the national morals and language. A naive expression used by Agnes was represented as depraving the one; a low and somewhat vulgar phrase was insisted upon as calculated to ruin the other. This affected severity in morals and grammar did not impose on the public, who were quite aware of the motives of critics who endeavored to ground such formidable charges on foundations so limited. The celebrated Boileau drew his pen in defence of his friend, in whose most burlesque expression there truly lurked a learned and useful moral: "Let the envious exclaim against thee," he said, "because thy scenes are agreeable to all the vulgar; if thou wert less acquainted with the art of pleasing, thou wouldst be enabled to please even thy censors." Moliere himself wrote a defence of "L'Ecole des Femmes," "in which," says M. Taschereau, "he had the good fortune to escape the most dangerous fault of an author writing upon his own compositions, and to exhibit wit where some people would only have shown vanity and self-conceit."
In the evening of the same day which saw his next comedy, "Le Mariage Force," there came out as a part of the royal fete, the three first acts, or rough sketch, of the celebrated satire, entitled "Tartuffe," one of the most powerful of Moliere's compositions. It was applauded, but from the clamor excited against the poet and the performance, as an attack on religion, instead of its impious and insidious adversary, hypocrisy, the representation was for the time interdicted; a fortunate circumstance, perhaps, since in consequence the drama underwent a sedulous revision, given by Moliere to few of his performances.
"Le Festin de Pierre"--the Feast of the Statue--well known to the modern stage under the name of "Don Juan," was the next vehicle of Moliere's satire. The story, borrowed from the Spanish, is well known. In giving the sentiments of the libertine Spaniard, the author of "Tartuffe" could not suppress his resentment against the party, by whose interest with the king that piece had been excluded from the stage, or at least its representation suspended. "The profession of a hypocrite," says Don Juan, "has marvellous advantages. The imposture is always respected, and although it may be detected, must never be condemned. Other human vices are exposed to censure and may be attacked boldly. Hypocrisy alone enjoys a privilege which stops the mouth of the satirist, and enjoys the repose of sovereign impunity." This expression, with some other passages in the piece (the general tenor of which is certainly not very edifying), called down violent clamors upon the imprudent author; some critics went so far as to invoke the spiritual censure and the doom of the civil magistrate on Moliere as the atheist of his own "Festin de Pierre." He was, however, on this as on other occasions, supported by the decided favor of the king, who then allowed Moliere's company to take the title of "Comediens du Roi," and bestowed on them a pension of 7,000 livres, thereby showing how little he was influenced by the clamors of the poet's enemies, though attacking his mind on a weak point.
In the month of September, 1665, the king having commanded such an entertainment to be prepared, the sketch or impromptu called "L'Amour Medecin" was, in the course of five days, composed, got up, as the players call it, and represented. In this sketch, slight as it was, Moliere contrived to declare war against a new and influential body of enemies. This was the medical faculty, which he had slightly attacked in the "Festin de Pierre." Every science has its weak points, and is rather benefited than injured by the satire which, putting pedantry and quackery out of fashion, opens the way to an enlightened pursuit of knowledge. The medical faculty at Paris, in the middle of the seventeenth century, was at a very low ebb. Almost every physician was attached to some particular form of treatment, which he exercised on his patients without distinction, and which probably killed in as many instances as it effected a cure. Their exterior, designed, doubtless, to inspire respect by its peculiar garb and formal manner, was in itself matter of ridicule. They ambled on mules through the city of Paris, attired in an antique and grotesque dress, the jest of its laughter-loving people, and the dread of those who were unfortunate enough to be their patients. The consultations of these sages were conducted in a barbarous Latinity, or if they condescended to use the popular language, they disfigured it with unnecessary profusion of technical terms, or rendered it unintelligible by a prodigal tissue of scholastic formalities of expression.
The venerable dulness and pedantic ignorance of the faculty was incensed at the ridicule cast upon it in "L'Amour Medecin," especially as four of its most distinguished members were introduced under Greek names, invented by Boileau for his friend's use. The consultation held by these sages, which respects everything save the case of the patient--the ceremonious difficulty with which they are at first brought to deliver their opinions--the vivacity and fury with which each finally defends his own, menacing the instant death of the patient if any other treatment be observed, seemed all to the public highly comical, and led many reflecting men to think Lisette was not far wrong in contending that a patient should not be said to die of a fever or a consumption, but of four doctors and two apothecaries. The farce enlarged the sphere of Moliere's enemies, but as the poet suffered none of the faculty to prescribe for him, their resentment was of the less consequence.
The "Misanthrope," accounted by the French critics the most correct of Moliere's compositions, was the next vehicle of his satire against the follies of the age. Except for the usual fault of his gratuitously adopted coarseness, it is admirably imitated in the "Plain Dealer," of Wycherly. Alceste is an upright and manly character, but rude and impatient even of the ordinary civilities of life and the harmless hypocrisies of complaisance, by which the ugliness of human nature is in some degree disguised. He quarrels with his friend Philinte for receiving the bow of a man he despises; and with his mistress for enjoying a little harmless ridicule of her friend, when her back is turned. He tells a conceited poet that he prefers the sense and simplicity of an old ballad to the false wit of a modern sonnet--he proves his judgment to be just--and receives a challenge from the poet in reward of his criticism. Such a character, placed in opposition to the false and fantastic affectations of the day, afforded a wide scope for the satire of Moliere. The situation somewhat resembles that of Eraste, in "Les Facheux." But the latter personage is only interrupted by fools and impostors during a walk in the Tuileries, where he expects to meet his mistress; the distress of Alceste lies deeper--he is thwarted by pretenders and coxcombs in the paths of life itself, and his peculiar temper renders him impatient of being pressed and shouldered by them; so that, like an irritable man in a crowd, he resents those inconveniences to which men of equanimity submit, not as a matter of choice, indeed, but as a point of necessity. The greater correctness of this piece may be owing to the lapse of nine months (an unusual term of repose for the muse of Moliere) betwixt the appearance of "L'Amour Medecin" and that of the "Misanthrope." Yet this chef-d'oeuvre was at first coldly received by the Parisian audience, and to render it more attractive, Moliere was compelled to attach to its representation the lively farce of "Le Medecin malgre lui." In a short time the merit of the "Misanthrope" became acknowledged by the public, and even many of those critics who had hitherto been hostile, united in its praise. Yet scandal was not silent; for Moliere was loudly censured, as having, in the person of Alceste, ridiculed the Duke de Montausier, a man of honor and virtue, but of blunt, uncourteous manners. The duke, informed that he had been brought on the stage by Moliere, threatened vengeance; but being persuaded to see the play, he sought out the author instantly, embraced him repeatedly, and assured him that if he had really thought of him when composing the "Misanthrope," he regarded it as an honor which he could never forget.
But not even the praises paid to the "Misanthrope," though a piece of a mood much higher than "Le Medecin malgre lui," satisfied Moliere. "Vous verrez bien autre chose," said he to Boileau, when the latter congratulated him on the success of the chef-d'oeuvre which we have just named. He anticipated the success of the most remarkable of his performances, the celebrated "Tartuffe," in which he has unmasked and branded vice, as in his lighter pieces he has chastised folly. This piece had been acted before Louis, before his queen, and his mother, and at the palace of the great Prince of Conde; but the scruples infused into the king long induced him to hesitate ere he removed the interdict which prohibited its representation. Neither were these scruples yet removed. Permission was, indeed, given to represent the piece, but under the title of the "Impostor," and calling the principal person Panulphe, for it seems the name of Tartuffe was particularly offensive. The king, having left Paris for the army, the president of the parliament of Paris prohibited any further representation of the obnoxious piece, thus disguised, although licensed by his majesty. Louis did not resent this interference, and two compositions of Moliere were interposed betwixt the date of the suspension which we have noticed, and the final permission to bring "Tartuffe" on the stage. These were, "Melicerte," a species of heroic pastoral, in which Moliere certainly did not excel, and "Le Sicilien, ou L'Amour Peintre," a few lively scenes linked together, so as to form a pleasing introduction to several of those dances in costume, or ballets, as they were called, in which Louis himself often assumed a character.
At length, in August, 1667, "Le Tartuffe," so long suppressed, appeared on the stage, and in the depth and power of its composition left all authors of comedy far behind. The art with which the "Impostor" is made to develop his real character, without any of the usual soliloquies or addresses to a confidant, for the benefit of the audience, has been always admired as inimitable. The heart of a man who had least desired, and could worst bear close investigation, is discovered and ascertained, as navigators trace the lines and bearings of an unknown coast. The persons among whom this illustrious hypocrite performs the principal character, are traced with equal distinctness. The silly old mother, obstinate from age as well as bigotry; the modest and sensible Cleante; his brother-in-law, Orgon, prepared to be a dupe by prepossession and self-opinion; Damis, impetuous and unreflecting; Mariane, gentle and patient; with the hasty and petulant sallies of Dorine, who ridicules the family she serves with affection; are all faithfully drawn, and contribute their own share on the effect of the piece, while they assist in bringing on the catastrophe. In this catastrophe, however, there is something rather inartificial. It is brought about too much by a tour de force, too entirely by the de par le roi, to deserve the praise bestowed on the rest of the piece. It resembles, in short, too nearly the receipt for making the "Beggars' Opera" end happily, by sending someone to call out a reprieve. But as it manifested at the same time the power of the prince, and afforded opportunity for panegyric on his acuteness in detecting and punishing fraud, Moliere, it is certain, might have his own good reasons for unwinding and disentangling the plot by means of an exempt or king's messenger.
"George Dandin" was acted July 18, 1668. On September 3, in the same year, the moral comedy of "L'Avare" was presented to the public by the fertile muse of our author. The general conception of the piece, as well as many of the individual scenes, are taken from Plautus, but adapted to French society with a degree of felicity belonging to Moliere alone. Omitting "Les Amants Magnifiques," called by Moliere a minor comedy, but which may be rather considered as a piece of framework for the introduction of scenic pageantry, and which is only distinguished by some satirical shafts directed against the now obsolete folly of judicial astrology, we hasten to notice a masterpiece of Moliere's art in "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." This piece was written to please the court and gentry, at the expense of the nouveaux riches, who, rendered wealthy by the sudden acquisition of immense fortune, become desirous to emulate such as have been educated in the front ranks of society, in those accomplishments, whether mental or personal, which cannot be gracefully acquired after the early part of life is past. A grave, elderly gentleman learning to dance is proverbially ridiculous; but the same absurdity attaches to everyone who, suddenly elevated from his own sphere, becomes desirous of imitating, in the most minute particulars, those who are denizens of that to which he is raised. It is scarcely necessary to notice that the ridicule directed against such characters as Monsieur Jourdain properly applies, not to their having made their fortunes, if by honest means, but to their being ambitious to distinguish themselves by qualities inconsistent with their age, habits of thinking, and previous manners.
The last of this great author's labors was at once directed against the faculty of medicine, and aimed at its most vulnerable point--namely, the influence used by some unworthy members of the profession to avail themselves of the nervous fears and unfounded apprehensions of hypochondriac patients. Instead of treating imaginary maladies as a mental disease requiring moral medicine, there have been found in all times medical men capable of listening to the rehearsal of these brain-sick whims as if they were real complaints, prescribing for them as such, and receiving the wages of imposition, instead of the honorable reward of science. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the faculty has always possessed members of a spirit to condemn and regret such despicable practices. There cannot be juster objects of satire than such empirics, nor is there a foible more deserving of ridicule than the selfish timidity of the hypochondriac, who, ungrateful for the store of good health with which nature has endowed him, assumes the habitual precautions of an infirm patient.
Moliere has added much to the humor of the piece by assigning to the Malade Imaginaire a strain of frugality along with his love of medicine, which leads him to take every mode that may diminish the expense of his supposed indisposition. The expenses of a sick-bed are often talked of, but it is only the imaginary valetudinarian who thinks of carrying economy into that department; the real patient has other things to think of. Argan, therefore, is discovered taxing his apothecary's bill, at once delighting his ear with the flowery language of the pharmacopoeia, and gratifying his frugal disposition by clipping off some items and reducing others, and arriving at the double conclusion, first, that if his apothecary does not become more reasonable, he cannot afford to be a sick man any longer; and secondly, that as he has swallowed fewer drugs by one-third this month than he had done the last, it was no wonder that he was not so well. The inference, "Je le dirai a Monsieur Purgon, a fin qu'il mette ordre a cela," is irresistibly comic.
As the Malade Imaginaire was the last character in which Moliere appeared, it is here necessary to say a few words upon his capacity as an actor. He bore, according to one contemporary, and with justice, the first rank among the performers of his line. He was a comedian from top to toe. He seemed to possess more voices than one; besides which, every limb had its expression--a step in advance or retreat, a wink, a smile, a nod, expressed more in his action, than the greatest talker could explain in words in the course of an hour. He was, says another contemporary, neither corpulent nor otherwise, rather above the middle size, with a noble carriage and well-formed limbs; he walked with dignity, had a very serious aspect, the nose and mouth rather large, with full lips, a dark complexion, the eyebrows black and strongly marked, and a command of countenance which rendered his physiognomy formed to express comedy. A less friendly pen (that, of the author of "L'Impromptu de l'Hotel de Conde") has caricatured Moliere as coming on the stage with his head thrown habitually back, his nose turned up into the air, his hands on his sides with an affectation of negligence, and (what would seem in England a gross affectation, but which was tolerated in Paris as an expression of the superbia quoesita meritis) his peruke always environed by a crown of laurels. But the only real defect in his performance arose from an habitual hoquet, or slight hiccough, which he had acquired by attempting to render himself master of an extreme volubility of enunciation, but which his exquisite art contrived on almost all occasions successfully to disguise.
Thus externally fitted for his art, there can be no doubt that he who possessed so much comedy in his conceptions of character, must have had equal judgment and taste in the theatrical expression, and that only the poet himself could fully convey what he alone could have composed. He performed the principal character in almost all his own pieces, and adhered to the stage even when many motives occurred to authorize his retirement.
We do not reckon it any great temptation to Moliere that the Academy should have opened its arms to receive him, under condition that he would abandon the profession of an actor; but the reason which he assigned for declining to purchase the honor at the rate proposed is worthy of being mentioned. "What can induce you to hesitate?" said Boileau, charged by the Academicians with the negotiation. "A point of honor," replied Moliere. "Now," answered his friend, "what honor can lie in blacking your face with mustachios and assuming the burlesque disguise of a buffoon, in order to be cudgelled on a public stage?" "The point of honor," answered Moliere, "consists in my not deserting more than a hundred persons, whom my personal exertions are necessary to support." The Academy afterward did honor to themselves and justice to Moliere by placing his bust in their hall, with this tasteful and repentant inscription:
"Nothing is wanting to the glory of Moliere. Moliere was wanting to ours!"
That Moliere alleged no false excuse for continuing on the stage, was evident when, in the latter years of his life, his decaying health prompted him strongly to resign. He had been at all times of a delicate constitution, and liable to pulmonary affections, which were rather palliated than cured by submission during long intervals to a milk diet, and by frequenting the country, for which purpose he had a villa at Auteuil, near Paris. The malady grew more alarming from time to time, and the exertions of voice and person required by the profession tended to increase its severity. On February 17, 1673, he became worse than usual. Baron, an actor of the highest rank and of his own training, joined with the rest of the company in remonstrating against their patron going on in the character of Argan. Moliere answered them in the same spirit which dictated his reply to Boileau. "There are fifty people," he said, "who must want their daily bread, if the spectacle is put off. I should reproach myself with their distress if I suffered them to sustain such a loss, having the power to prevent it."
He acted accordingly that evening, but suffered most cruelly in the task of disguising his sense of internal pain. A singular contrast it was betwixt the state of the actor and the fictitious character which he represented. Moliere was disguising his real and, as it proved, his dying agonies, in order to give utterance and interest to the feigned or fancied complaints of Le Malade Imaginaire, and repressing the voice of mortal sufferance to affect that of an imaginary hypochondriac. At length, on arriving at the concluding interlude, in which, assenting to the oath administered to him as the candidate for medical honors in the mock ceremonial, by which he engages to administer the remedies prescribed by the ancients, whether right or wrong, and never to use any other than those approved by the college, as Moliere, in the character of Argan, replied, "Juro," the faculty had a full and fatal revenge. The wheel was broken at the cistern--he had fallen in a convulsive fit. The entertainment was hurried to a conclusion, and Moliere was carried home. His cough returned with violence, and he was found to have burst a blood-vessel. A priest was sent for, and two scrupulous ecclesiastics of Saint Eustace's parish distinguished themselves by refusing to administer the last consolations to a player and the author of "Tartuffe." A third, of better principles, came too late; Moliere was insensible, and choked by the quantity of blood which he could not discharge. Two poor Sisters of Charity who had often experienced his bounty, supported him as he expired.
Bigotry persecuted to the grave the lifeless reliques of the man of genius. Harlai, Archbishop of Paris, who himself died of the consequences of a course of continued debauchery, thought it necessary to show himself as intolerantly strict in form as he was licentious in practice. He forbade the burial of a comedian's remains. Madame Moliere went to throw herself at the feet of Louis XIV., but with impolitic temerity her petition stated, that if her deceased husband had been criminal in composing and acting dramatic pieces, his majesty, at whose command and for whose amusement he had done so, must be criminal also. This argument, though in itself unanswerable, was too bluntly stated to be favorably received; Louis dismissed the suppliant with the indifferent answer, that the matter depended on the Archbishop of Paris. The king, however, sent private orders to Harlai to revoke the interdict against the decent burial of the man, whose talents during his lifetime his majesty had delighted to honor. The funeral took place accordingly, but, like that of Ophelia, "with maimed rites." The curate of Saint Eustace had directions not to give his attendance, and the corpse was transported from his place of residence and taken to the burial-ground without being, as usual, presented at the parish church. This was not all. A large assemblage of the lower classes seemed to threaten an interruption of the funeral ceremony. But their fanaticism was not proof against a thousand francs which the widow of Moliere dispersed among them from the windows, thus purchasing for the remains of her husband an uninterrupted passage to their last abode.
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