Molière is generally considered to have been the greatest comic dramatist of France and the author of some of the most brilliant comedies in all of theatrical history.
His real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, and he was born in Paris in l622, the son of an upholsterer who prospered by rendering his services to the French court. Educated at a Jesuit school where he was graded as an excellent scholar, the young Jean-Baptiste declined to take up his father’s vocation, flirted with a study of law, and fell in with a troupe of players with whom he acted for thirteen years through the provincial towns of France, often in skits of his own authorship derived from old Italian comedies and stock farces which later, in Paris, he quickly polished and expanded into the plays that have come down to us. It was during this early career as an actor that he adopted the name Molière.
In l658 his troupe came to Paris and had a chance to appear before King Louis XIV and his court. They began their performance with a short poetic tragedy of Corneille. The troupe was so much more suited to comedy than to the bombastic tragic style of the time that the reception was disastrous–until Molière modestly introduced a farce of his own, The Doctor in Love, and theatrical history was made. Molière and his company (of which he was the leading actor, director, manager, and playwright) immediately were “taken up” by the court and subsequently quickly became a popular success throughout the country.
During the next fifteen years, until his death form overwork, Molière poured out his great stream of twenty-seven plays, acted in them, directed them, and choreographed them–for he combined many of the plays with music and ballet to achieve a unification of all theatrical arts in a form that did not continue after his death but flowered again in opera l25 years later, and in American musical comedies 300 years later.
Molière enjoyed such royal support from King Louis XIV that on several occasions when his plays were premiering at court the king participated in them, acting small roles and in some cases dancing in the ballets. The king was a great ally (he even stood as godfather to Molière’s second child), and protected Molière and his troupe from the wrath evoked by their scathing portraits of French society. In the nineteenth century, the English historian Lord Morley commented that the best claim to lasting fame of Louis XIV was “the protection he extended to Molière.”
Molière saw to it that comedy came to rival tragedy in importance in French theatre. The best known of his plays today are The Affected Young Ladies (l658), which was the first modern social satire, holding up to ridicule the affectations of the overly-elegant women of courtly society of the time; The School for Wives (l662), a sequel to The School for Husbands that was even even more successful than the predecessor; Tartuffe (l664), the masterpiece that so vividly painted a hypocrite that the character’s name has become a synonym for hypocrisy in all languages; The Misanthrope (l666), a truly original play, an illustrious portrait of a man of integrity; The Doctor in Spite of Himself (l666); The Miser (l668); The Would-Be Gentleman (l67l); The Learned Ladies (l672); and The Imaginary Invalid (l673), which was presented by the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1989, the inaugural season of the Randall L. Jones Theatre.
These plays are still presented with great frequency in the United States and other English-speaking countries, and they are standard fare in France today, especially at the Comédie Francaise, the greatest national theatre of modern France, which was founded soon after Molière’s death by the joining of his own company with two others. In honor of the towering dramatist, the Comédie Francaise is often called “the House of Molière.”
The Imaginary Invalid was not only Molière’s last play, but a turning of his slapstick upon himself as a man who felt himself to be really ill, and probably dying, but who could not be sure that he was not hypochondriacally deluding himself about his health. In 1673, during his fourth performance in the comedy’s title role, Molière proved he wasn’t imagining himself to be sick by falling into a convulsion and dying later that night.
Other Molière plays include The Deaf One (1658), Lover’s Spite (1658), The Tiresome Ones (1661), Don Garcia of Navarre (1661), On Criticism of the School for Wives (1662), The Impromptu of Versailles (1663), The Forced Marriage (1664), The Princess of Elide (1664), Don Juan (1665), Love Is the Doctor (1665), The Sicilian (1667), George Dandin (1668), Amphitryon (1668), Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), Psyche (1671), and The Rascalities of Scapin (1671).