Molière - 400th Anniversary of his birth

‘Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, and all fashionable vices pass for virtue’ Molière

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière was a French playwright, poet and actor. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers in world literature and the French language. Molière’s works include comedies, tragic comedies, comedy-ballets and farces. Many of his plays often attack hypocrisy. Molière’s plays are performed at the Comedie-Francaise in Paris, more frequently than any other playwright today. He has also acted, directed and managed theatre groups throughout his life. Molière’s writing has been so influential that even the French language has been referred to as the ‘language of Molière’!  

Image of a Portrait of Moliere (1622-73) (w/c on paper), French School, (17th century) / French, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Orleans, France, © Bridgeman Images

Molière’s Early Life 

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in the heart of Paris, France, January 15, 1622. Molière’s father was a successful upholsterer - he held the position of official furnisher at the royal court. His mother however died when he was ten years old.  As a young child, Molière had always been attracted to the theatre. 

When the Italian actor Tiberio Fiorelli (called Scaramouche) came to Paris in 1640, Molière struck a friendship with him. Molière was educated at the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit institution. There, Molière received a classical education. At school, Molière was a promising scholar of Greek and Latin. He later studied law briefly and began to practice in 1641. 

Image of a Bust of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known as Moliere, 1781 (terracotta) (b/w photo), Houdon, Jean-Antoine (1741-1828) / French, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Orleans, France, © Bridgeman Images

A Career in Theatre 

‘The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them’ Molière

Molière set up an acting troupe, the Illustre Theatre in 1643 in collaboration with the Bejart family. It was believed that Molière had fallen in love with Madeleine Bejart at the time. Around this time he had adopted the pseudonym ‘Molière’, which would become how he is most regularly known today. The stage name was first found in a document dated June 28, 1644. After an unsuccessful season in Paris the company went bankrupt. From 1646 to 1658, he went on to tour the provinces in southern and southwestern France. These twelve years gave Molière an opportunity to polish his skills as an administrator, playwright, actor and director. The acting troupe returned to Paris in 1658 and played before Louis XIV. The king’s brother Philippe, duc d’Orleans became Molière’s patron. Later on, ‘The Sun King’, Louis XIV appointed Molière’s troupe as official providers of entertainment - the path to fame commenced. Molière dedicated 30 years of his life to the theatre. King Louis XIV took over the company,  and in turn it was known as ‘Troupe du roi’. 

Image of Moliere at breakfast with Louis XIV. Illustration from Great Men and Famous Women edited by Charles Horne (Selmar Hess, c 1900). Digitally cleaned image, © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

This image below is an illustration from Molière’s play The Bourgeois Gentleman, a classic satire which focuses on poking fun at the sham and hypocrisy of 17th century French society. 

Image - 'Follow me, that I might a little show my dress about the town', illustration of Monsieur Jourdain from Act III Scene 1 of 'The Bourgeois Gentleman' by Moliere (1622-73) engraved by Ludwig Wolff (1776-1832) (coloured engraving), Geffroy, Edmond A.F. (1804-95) (after) / French, © Bridgeman Images

‘I want to be distinguished from the rest; to tell the truth, a friend to all mankind is not a friend for me’ Molière. 

The Precious Maidens Ridiculed (1659) established Molière as the most popular comic playwright of his day. The Imaginary Invalid was another extremely admired comedy. Actors Montfleury and Hauteroche envied Molière’s success with the public and the royal protection he endured. Molière incorporated these figures into his comedies as ‘ineffectuals and buffoons’.  

Image of Actors from the Theatre Francais, c.1714-15 (oil on canvas), the comedians of Theatre Francais also known as Coquettes; Watteau, Jean Antoine (1684-1721) / French, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, 20x25 cms, © Bridgeman Images

‘It is a strange enterprise to make respectable people laugh’ Moliere. 

Molieres, ‘L’Ecole des Femmes; The School for Wives’, is a 17th century theatrical comedy described by critics to be one of Molière’s finest achievements. The play tells the tale of a character who is incredibly intimidated by femininity that he results to marry his young, naive ward, proceeding to make clumsy advances to this purpose. 

Image of Moliere's 'L'Ecole des Femmes' '( 'The School for Wives' )- Drawing from Act 5, Scene 3. Producer at The Theatre du Palais Royal, 26 December 1662. Jean Baptiste Poquelin 15 January 1622-17 February 1673. Le Livre 1882, © Lebrecht Authors / Bridgeman Images

Molière married Armande Berjart, a nineteen year old actress. They had one child together, Esprit-Madeliene, born in 1665. 

The Misanthrope is another satirical 17th century comedy by Molière, first performed on 4 June 1966 at the Theatre du Palais Royal. The play portrays hypocrisies found in the French aristocratic society whilst also engaging with the more serious theme of pointing out flaws that humans possess. 

Image of Illustration of the 19th century for the personages of Alceste and Celimene in Moliere's play “Le Misanthrope”, © Bridgeman Images

‘I become quite melancholy and deeply grieved to see men behave to each other as they do. Everywhere I find nothing but base flattery, injustice, self-interest, deceit and roguery. I cannot bear it any longer; I’m furious; and my intention is to break with all mankind.’ Moliere, The Misanthrope. 

Image of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, also known by his stage name, Molière, was a French playwright and actor. Molière:1622 – 1673. From a History of France (Volume IV) by Guizot page 557, © Lebrecht History / Bridgeman Images

Molière died on February 17, 1673. He collapsed during the fourth performance of The Imaginary Invalid and died at home later on in the evening. On February 21, Molière was interred in Saint Joseph’s Cemetery. The King, seven years later, united Molière’s company with its competitor, the French national theatre; the Comedie Francaise, now known as the House of Molière. 

Molière’s Legacy 

Molière is perhaps the most influential playwright in seventeenth century French history! His successes have been remembered through modern theatre plays, television shows and films! Have a look at these wonderful modern images which celebrate Molière’s achievements. 

The APAT, the Artistic Theater Association organized the 22nd Molière’s ceremony on Monday April 28. The television host, Karine Le Marchand presented the event. 

Image - 22nd NUIT DES MOLIERES, Ceremonie des MOLIERES 2008 at the Folies Bergere in Paris on April 28, 2008: Judith Magre and Annie Duperey, Photo © Pascal Victor / ArtComPress / Bridgeman Images

French film actress Isabelle Adjani played the character Agnes in the play ‘L’ecole des femmes’ for a television screening. Agnes is an innocent girl who had caught the eye of the character Arnolphe. His intention was to bring up Agnes as too ignorant to ever be unfaithful to him. His plot does not succeed. 

Image of Isabelle Adjani as Agnes in the play "L'ecole des femmes" by Moliere for tv on august 18, 1972, Photo © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

This image below shows a film still from the film Molière, 1978 directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. The film was entered into the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. The film tells the story of Molière and his early childhood. The film shows Molière working as a handyman, studying law at university, travelling the country as an actor and finally as a successful playwright, performing in front of the Duke of Orleans and the King. 

Image of Molière d'Ariane Mnouchkine 1978, © Bridgeman Images

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