For these notes I have presented the views of famous French critics, especially from Lagarde & Michard’s Collection Littéraire  XVII SIECLE.  I have given page references to this book, which students of French Literature will normally have on their bookshelves

L&M -7/1 Comedy before Molière
Theatre played a very important part in the lives of the townspeople of Medieval Europe and it had great diversity.  In scope it varied from the entertainment provided by single performers or small groups, for example jugglers, musicians, story-tellers to the large- scale -productions over several days, involving roles for sometimes hundreds of people.

There were no theatres as such, just wooden platforms and sets constructed in town squares, but for the elaborate productions there could be special sets and complicated stage machinery to achieve the illusionary stage effects required, with trapdoors and pyrotechnics. The theatre brought life to the towns and attracted rich and poor.  The notables paid for seats on raised theatre boxes for a good view. 

At the outset it was the Church that provided plays for religious instruction.  The first plays appear around the year 1000, performed in Latin before the Church altar. By the 12th century, they had moved out onto the forecourt of the church and the language was French.  Originally the congregation had watched in awe actors speak words that they did not understand, but now they were able to watch for entertainment. 

Increasingly, it was lay people who took over local dramatic entertainment.  These were  town officials, along with other bodies, confréreries (brotherhoods) such as the organisation of legal clerks known as “les Basoches”, long established and active in the provinces as well, with a taste for disputation and satire. 

The clergy became increasingly anxious as they saw themselves losing control of this means of opinion forming and as they saw access to the scriptures, their sole prerogative falling into unauthorised hands.  In coming years many Basoches and their associates would be punished by prison and worse, for the liberties that they had taken.
7/2 The variety of popular theatre in the Middle Ages

Among the religious plays found in these centuries were:

Les Soties – (In the 15th and 16th century.)  Their tradition was from the carnival,“la Fête des Fous” and their central figure was “le Sot”.  As he had the excuse of folly, he was able to criticize with impunity.  The plays consisted of a series of verbal exchanges containing vicious mockery of some current social or political target.  Their authors often belonged to the Basoches (see above), and they were aimed at an educated middle-class audience. For example, in 1510-1511, Pierre Gringoire wrote plays mocking Pope Julius II when the French
monarchy was in conflict with the Vatican.

Farces - The farce (From the Middle Ages well into the 16th century) was a short comic play without moralizing or satirical intentions (as opposed to the moralités and the soties). It derived its humour from amusing situations, tricks, verbal dexterity, and sudden reversals of the action.  In a typical plot, a man who sets about trying to seduce another man’s wife finally discovers that it is he who has been cuckolded. The word farce is usually interpreted as meaning ‘stuffing’, thus implying that farces were originally served as comic interludes in serious mystery plays. A short farcical play was sometimes performed after a mystery play to retain the audience longer, or to send them home with a smile on their faces.  Other scholars reject the link between “farce” and “stuffing”, seeing its derivation in an old word for deception.

The characters in the farces were not abstract virtues or vices, as in the soties and moralities; they were presented as real people with normal failings, although pushed to an exaggerated level.  However, the characters in these farces had little individualisation.  They were conventional stereotypes- possessive, jealous husband, lecherous priest, flirtatious, unfaithful wife, dishonest merchant, inept teacher, etc. the action of the play such as it is, develops from the situation caused by these conflicts of character

8/1 The theatre as a cohesive force in Medieval Europe

Medieval French theatre brought the people together as a community in the town square, where they were preached at, where they found entertainment, with drama, excitement and music, where together they laughed at and perhaps got angry about people and events in their lives. 

8/2 The suppression of popular theatre in the second half of the 16th century

Popular theatre, with both its religious and non-religious plays was thriving in France at the turn of the 16th century.  In cultural life, however, the early years of the 16th century,  saw  a major revolution with the dawning of the French Renaissance. This brought the exhilaration of new ideas, inspired by a revived interest in the writings of Ancient Greece and Rome, but in the social and intellectual turmoil that ensued, French popular theatre became an indirect casualty. 

The Kings and the Church became increasingly aware that the upsurge of reformist ideas of freedom of thought and expression challenged the absolute authority of Church and Monarch which together had jointly held tight control of the populace since the time of Constantine.  Kings of France became more aware of the need to control the subversion occurring in popular entertainment, particularly in the sotties that sometimes had the effrontery to ridicule members of the royal family and the church and frequently expressed a viewpoint unfavourable to officialdom. Nevertheless, it was not the monarchy but the Church that came forward with the first sweeping ban on public theatre.  Although religious plays remained popular, the Church promulgated in 1548 a complete ban on the performance of all mystères.  Henceforth the only plays that could be performed were on non-religious matters and they had to be decent and in keeping with the laws of the land.

 Later in the century, (1588- 1594) the Paris Parlement issued edicts banning the performance of all kinds of plays in public places.  These decrees of Church and state sealed the fate of the French popular theatre and the non-professional theatre, which had been such an active force in French public life went into rapid decline.  It is said that at this, professional actors took to the road as travelling players

9/1 The new French theatre of the 16 th century

The last years of the sixteenth century and the early decades of the 17th century were nervous years for playwrights and actors in France.  It is a strange paradox, however, that, at a time when the theatre was in such disfavour. Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to the King from 1624 – 1642, had a stage installed in his sumptuous new Bishop’s palace in Paris: Le Palais Cardinal.  He was a major patron of the arts and significantly for the history of French theatre became the patron of the great French tragedian Pierre Corneille.  We will see later how the Bishop’s personal palace theatre became important for Molière

The authoritarianism that was to gain an increasing stranglehold over France in the 17th century was to be seen also in the development of French contemporary theatre. The theorists of the art of theatre thought it right and proper to stipulate rules that good playwrights would need to observe in order to create successful plays. They extrapolated these rules from their analysis of the dramas of the ancient world and from a few observations made on the subject by Horace and Aristotle.  I t was perhaps not unexpected that Cardinal Richelieu would be supportive of those people defining correctness in the cultural field  and with the greatest enthusiasm he joined those who sought to codify and arbitrate upon the writing of works for the theatre.  The rules that they devised became dogma akin to that in the church.  Mainly they consisted of:

6/2- The actors and the Church

In spite of Richelieu’s interest in the French theatre, the Church’s hostility to the acting profession remained uncompromising throughout the 17th century.  French clergy regarded theatre as an enemy of public morals a long succession of bishops and theologians were to ensure that all members of the theatrical profession were excommunicated and they were refused burial in hallowed ground (See the biography of Molière.
On the death of Molière, the French Bishop, Bossuet, eloquent preacher for the Royal Court, spoke of the grim prospect for a man of the theatre in the afterlife:
Il passa des plaisanteries du théâtre au tribunal de Celui qui dit: “Malheur à vous qui riez car vous pleurerez. The Jansenists condemned playwrights totally.  The Jansenist leader, Nicole, said:
… un poète du théâtre est un empoisonneur public, non pas des corps, mais des âmes des fidèles.

Under French law, actors were excluded from any honourable employment.  Magistrates were forbidden to attend theatrical representations.

This ecclesiastical interdiction continued into the 18th century and when the greatest actress of the age, Adrienne Lecouvreur died in 1730, she had to be buried in secrecy by her friends. Voltaire expressed his disgust in a poem:
Et dans un champ profane on jette à l'aventure
De ce corps si chéri les restes immortels!
Dieux ! Pourquoi mon pays n'est-il plus la patrie
Et de la gloire et des talents ?

Nevertheless, in spite of the disapproval of the Church and some powerful lawyers, the theatre was an indispensable part of the lifestyle of townspeople across France and most importantly at the court of King Louis XIII and Louis XIV and in a massive contradiction that illustrates the extent to which the rulings of authoritarian regimes can be arbitrary , French theatre came to have royal protection (in the biography of Molière we will see how he benefited from this).  

It was 1641 that was the crucial year in securing the status of French theatre and the instigator of this change was probably the Chief Minister and Head of the French Catholic Church. Cardinal Richelieu is believed to have persuaded the King, Louis XIII to issue an edict acknowledging the theatre to be a legitimate form of entertainment. As a result the royal wish was proclaimed that the calling of an actor should no longer be held prejudicial to his social standing:

“En cas que les dits comédiens règlent tellement l’action du théâtre qu’elles soient du tout exemptes d’impureté, nous voulons que l’exercice des comédiens qui peut divertir nos peuples de diverses occupations mauvaises ne puisse lui être imputé à blâme ni préjudice à leur réputation dans le commerce public. »   

After this edict a number of young noblemen became actors, among them La Grange and La Thorillière, (both male in spite of the feminine "la") who were actors in Molière’s theatre company.

Richelieu’s successor, Mazarin, continued the encouragement to the theatre. To raise the standards of French comedy, the Italian born Cardinal invited Italian players to Paris. One of these was Tiberio Fiorelli, whose performance of the boasting buffoon Scaramouche established him as a favourite with the people of Paris and the royal court. These actors of the Commedia Del Arte were an important influence on the young Molière.

6/1 The importance of theatre to the French monarchy in the 17th century –Page 89 L & M

In spite of the strictures of some sections of the Church, the 17th century was to become, above all, the century of the theatre in French cultural history. Contemporary society determined this, because of all literary forms, theatre is the most social.  The performance of a play is a ceremony, a social rite, and this fitted in as an extension of the elaborate social rites of the court of Louis XIV.

6/3 The royal entertainments   L&M page 91
The plays of Moliere often gave his monarch and the social elite of the court food for thought in their laughter   However, Molière also served up pure entertainment and he delighted his young king with comédie-ballets, dance , music and fantasy. Short comédie-ballets were sometimes attached to Molière's plays, as the king, an accomplished dancer, liked to display his talents at the end of an evening. Most notably, sumptuous dramatic spectaculars such as “Les plaisirs de l’île enchantée (May 1664) were organised over several days to convey the splendour of the monarchy. On these occasions, professional actors and actresses rubbed shoulders with princes and princesses and the assembled French nobility as they joined together in elaborately contrived mythological and romantic games.

                                                9/2 Comedy in early 17th century France            

In early 17th century France while theatre was surviving against a background of official hostility, a new theatrical vogue, nevertheless, established itself. This genre, which broke away from previous traditions, was the comedy of intrigue. Its origins were the comedies of ancient Greece and Rome, which had been re-discovered during the Renaissance of the previous century and went on to inspire the works of contemporary playwrights in Italy, Spain, England and France.

As the subject matter came from centuries past, there was no danger of subversive references to contemporary issues and they were deemed safe by the authorities. This professional theatre was welcomed in the French court.

In the traditional comedy of intrigue, the suspense arises from the growing complications of the action which the author builds up to crisis point and then needs to unravel, in the dénouement of the play.

The defects of this kind of theatre were:

(N.B.The tragedian, Pierre Corneille, also wrote such comedies and he made an innovation by making some of the characters in his cast supposedly members of the nobility.)

10/1 Molière and the comedy of intrigue.

We are going to see how Moliere went on to create his own distinctive class of comedy, for which he is now universally renowned.  However throughout his career he remained the heir of the previous French traditions, including the Comedy of Intrigue.

Molière wrote and performed four comedies of intrigue.  He wrote the first two while he was in the provinces:

Molière, however, added a higher dimension to his comedies of intrigue by including a study of the manners of the time and also by creating true comedy of character.

As discussed previously with reference to Richelieu’s involvement in the theatre, rules for playwriting were being stipulated for French theatre based on the plays of Ancient Greece and Rome.  At the head of these rules were the “Unities” and one of these was the Unity of Action.

lagarde and Michard tell us that the Unity of Action in these comedies of intrigue by Molière depended on one character that he had borrowed from Italian comedy - the valet.

10/2 Typical conduct of the valet


11/2 Molière's plots in his comedies.

Lagarde and Michard now go on to show how Molière transcends the stock fare of traditional comedies of intrigue:

Molière showed that he was capable of building an interesting plot, which was unexpected and well constructed. After “L’Ecole de Femmes”, where the twists and turns of traditional comedies of intrigue play a major part, Molière gives greater emphasis to the study of manners and the study of character. 

In his later plays his concern is to paint from the real world, to give “un portrait d’après nature” and the plot now takes a subsidiary place.

11/3 The usual plot of his comedies

Molière usually remains faithful to the traditional theme of the comedies of intrigue: a marriage, which is blocked by the parents of the girl, but in Molière this leads to a study of character because:
The character who opposes the marriage is generally an obsessed person who is blinded by his vices and his failings. The action of the play spotlights these faults and these absurdities.

In the plays of Molière the dramatic conflict is between three parties in the play. These parties are shown in the three columns below each with an explanation of their role.

The exploiters

The “heroes” /focal characters of Molière

The side of good sense –
The lovers and their allies

The intriguers exploit the obsession of the main character for their own personal gain.

These are skilful hypocrites.
They may be traced back to the traditional character of Scapin. 

Yet Molière's characters are more subtle and  more varied. The stratagems these exploiters use show a deep knowledge of the victim.

The central characters of the play block their daughters’ marriages -- usually because they are in the grip of an obsession an obsession. Among them are:
The miser, Harpagon, who wishes to marry off his daughter to a rich, old widower.
In “Le bourgeois Gentilhomme”, a middle-class man who wishes to advance himself in society, refuses to let his daughter marry a man who is not a nobleman.

In “La Femme Savante”, Philaminte wishes her daughter to marry a “héros d’esprit”.

In “Le Malade Imaginaire, the hypochondriac, Argan, arranges for his daughter to marry a doctor.

In Tartuffe, Orgon, obsessed with religion wishes to give his daughter to his Director of Conscience, Tartuffe.

Characters in this column are the victims the coalition of maniac exploiters and the duped central character.  They are composed of

  • The threatened lovers:

These are usually helpless and unable to defend themselves effectively.

  • The reasonable characters:

Often these are:

  • Brothers or brothers-in-law. Their sermons have sometimes earned them the title of “raisonneurs”.
  • They can also be other members of the family who are able to show some ingenuity.
  • Also the servants can be allied with them, using rough common sense and a ready tongue.

The role of the “raisonneurs”
Critics debate the role of the "raisonneurs” - the characters who preach reason.  Moliere felt the playwright had a moral teaching role and he wished to attack all the moral faults of his time. (Preface to Tartuffe) "Si l'emploi de la comédie est de corriger les vices des hommes je ne vois pas par quelle raison il y en aurait de privilégiés."

Unfortunately some critics have overstressed the teaching elements in his work. As an absurd extreme the speeches of the raisonneurs have been seen as the true purpose of the comedy serving as the means for Molière’s advocacy of his personal viewpoints.  Modern critics warn against this emphasis. 
Rene Bray says "Il n'y a pas de raisonneur dans le théâtre de Molière." He says that a character like Cléante is there as an essential part of the dramatic balance of the play.

Certainly, Molière was a writer of comedy, first and foremost.  On the other hand, he had to please not only the gallery but also the "honnêtes gens" and so he had to provide an intelligent comedy, based on contemporary life:
"C'est une étrange entreprise que celle de faire rire les honnêtes gens."

Thus Moliere deals with the concerns and controversies of his time and, among these, the most contentious were the religious issues, the inclusion of which caused Molière a lot of grief.

13/1 The art of situations L &M page 191

In spite of the basic similarities of structure in the plots of Molière, it would be most untrue to say that the plots of Molière's plays are all alike.  His genius can assist in creating for each of his plays a basic situation which will spotlight the characters. This situation will of course be totally different from play to play as he is dealing with different characters.

13/2 The Perfection of Certain Plots
Moliere's aim was to invent plots that would unfold naturally, in which he would paint characters and manners.  Lagarde and Michard judge that Moliere achieved this only in certain high comedies such as “Tartuffe”, “Les Femmes Savantes” and “Le Misanthrope”.

In their view, the plot is of secondary importance in his other great plays.  Instead, it is the central character who dominates these plays and around whom the plays are built.   Plays which Lagarde and Michard quote as examples of this group are: “Dom Juan” – “L’Avare” – “Le Malade Imaginaire” - and above all : « Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme »

13/4 The techniques that Molière uses for ending his plays. –“Les Dénouements”

If the plays of Molière continued on their logical course, they would lead not to a happy outcome but to a cruel drama, not suitable to a comedy.  Obsessions as strong as those held by Molière’s principal characters are normally incurable.

As a result, in reality, Tartuffe would strip Orgon and his family of their wealth and happiness.  Dom Juan would continue to live, as was his stated intention, in just the same way and break hearts and families.
Yet Molière was writing comedies and this genre normally demanded a happy ending with innocence and virtue emerging triumphant.  In order to achieve this, Molière uses artificial devices to change the course of events and his dénouements are full of the Romanesque and the fantastic surprises of traditional comedy of intrigue.  In them we find:

The last minute discovery by the King that Tartuffe is a convicted criminal -  In the ancient comedies a traditional ending saw the characters recognising each other as long lost family members, who had been separated by a shipwreck and this is the ending  that Molière uses in L’Avare.

The truth is revealed by a cunning trick thought up by one of the characters.  These tricks are often contrived and improbable. It is hard to believe that Orgon would have crawled under the table for the test of Tartuffe’s integrity. 

Perhaps to dispel the invraisemblance, Molière will end his play with the euphoria of the music and dancing of a final ballet sequence as in “Le Malade Imaginaire”

Such is the intervention of the King in “Tartuffe”.  In Dom Juan, the agent of God, the Commander, descends from heaven to lead Dom Juan to hell, while theatrical effects turn Dom Juan into a burning mass on the stage.

14/1 A Comedy of Molière that goes on to its sad, logical conclusion. 
There is only one of Molière's main comedies where he allows the plot to proceed to its logical, pessimistic conclusion.  In “le Misanthrope” Alceste accepts that the woman he loves cannot be changed. He finds the strength to make the break and retires from society

Lagarde and Michard maintain the the same pessimism of Molière underlies the artificiality of the endings of the other plays. They suggest that Molière believed that man in his obsessions is incorrigible and that human vices are too deeply rooted to be easily torn out.. Thus at the end of Molière’s plays, we are left with a clear view of human failings, while Molière’s art of comedy has warded off the pessimism. As a result of this some critics talk of the melancholy of Molière

The comedy of Molière -- page 199 -- L and M


14/2 The seriousness of Moliere’s comedies
The critic, Fernandez, has said that Molière had discovered that comedy is a point of view on the whole of man and on the whole of his life. And this view is as valid as that of tragedy:
le ridicule est un point de vue sur l’homme entier,…..un mode d’expression qui vaut, au même degré que la tragédie, pour tout ce qui de l’homme est à exprimer

15/1 Molière on the brink of the tragic
People often talk about the melancholy of Molière, mentioned above:
Goethe thought that his plays touched on tragedy.
Musset, the French Romantic poet, spoke of his male gaiety so sad so profound.
But these are the interpretations of two leading European romantics and should not be accepted without reserve.

15/2 The subjectivity of Molière
Lagarde and Michard ask the question whether Molière uses his plays to express his personal view is and whether we are seeing the effect his personal experiences and emotions:

In “Dom Juan” and “Le Misanthrope”, there are bitter words against the manners of the time.  In particular, in several of his plays we see Molière's personal fight with the hypocrites, most notably in "Tartuffe".

Lagarde and Michard, however,reject the idea that Arnolphe in “L’Ecole de Femmes” and Alceste in “Le Misanthrope” are pained confidences of Molière, who had personal anxieties in his marriage to a younger wife --
N.B. Arnolphe is a man who is in love, but cannot make himself loved nor find the words to move the woman he loves.
Alceste is a serious man in love with a coquette, who has many suitors.

In spite of the certainty of Lagarde and Michard, we may recall that his fellow actor, La Grange said that Molière put a lot of himself and his family situation in to his plays

15/3 The pessimism of Molière
The seriousness of Molière's Theatre could be seen to stem naturally from his realistic depiction of the world. There is something distressing in this mediocre humanity:
The ravages of vice
The central characters of his plays degrade themselves morally and make themselves miserable. In the grip of their obsessions, they betray the love they owe to their families and friends. They accept the faults as the truth. They act against good sense and tend towards madness.
The misfortunes of a family.
The egoism of the maniacs causes misfortunes to all around them.
In “Tartuffe”, we see a family split by dissension and threatened with ruin.
The play “Dom Juan”, in spite of the comic scenes, is a drama.
Molière’s comic genius

Lagarde and Michard sum up Molière's comic genius by saying that it consists in making basically distressing situations amusing and entertaining. Perhaps we might qualify their verdict in these terms:
Molière's comic gift was certainly not his ability to select the happy and amusing moments of life, but to represent life in its reality from a successfully comic point of view. 

The critic Fernandez  says:  “le ridicule est un point de vue sur l’homme tout entier…. Un mode d’expression qui  vaut, au même degré que la tragédie, pour tout ce qui est de l’homme à exprimer  

16/1 Molière's view of life

Molière's guiding principle was “La Nature”.  This term in its French 17th century usage, referred to naturalness and hence good sense.

Moliere believed that to act in the face of nature invited disaster. When people acted naturally, they avoided all pretences and excesses.

Molière attacks the pretences of the Précieux, of middle-class people who ape the nobility, of doctors, who spout their false science. 

Molière attacks the excesses of the over devout (Orgon), of the hypocrites (Tartuffe), of those so frank that they cause hurt (Alceste), of faithless seducers (Dom Juan).  N.B. Dom Juan’s error is that he goes against “la nature”. He is “Un monstre dans la nature”.

16/ 2 Molière and the Golden mean.

For centuries and Molière has been characterised by his respect for "le juste milieu" the “Golden Mean” which is defined as: everything in moderation and nothing to excess . 

This principle is mentioned in the tribute to him by the actor, Brécourt upon Molière's death in 1674:
Il était dans son particulier, ce qu’il paraissait dans la morale de ses pièces, honnête, judicieux, humain, franc, généreux, et même malgré ce qu’en ont cru quelques esprits mal faits, il tenait un si juste milieu dans de certaines matières, qu’il s’éloignait aussi sagement de l’excès qu’il savait se garder d’une dangereuse médiocrité.

In two often quoted lines from « Le Misanthrope », Molière wrote:
La parfaite raison fuit toute extrémité
Et veut qu’on soit sage avec sobriété

It is in the name of middle-class common-sense that Molière criticises those who go to excess. As a result of this, Rousseau accuses Molière of conformism accusing him of turning away from correcting the vices of society and of only being concerned with its absurdities. However Rousseau did not do Molière Justice.  His sense of dissatisfaction was deeper and more personal than Rousseau gives him credit for. One suspects that Alceste’s denunciation of contemporary society reflects Molière's own viewpoint:
Trahi de toutes parts, accablé d’injustices,
Je vais sortir d’un gouffre où triomphent les vices
Et chercher sur la terre un endroit écarté
Où être homme d’honneur on ait la liberté

We should read also in full Cléante’s speech from Act One Scene V of Tartuffe

Les bons et vrais dévots, qu'on doit suivre à la trace
Ne sont pas ceux aussi  qui font tant de grimace
Hé quoi! vous ne ferez nulle distinction
Entre l'hypocrisie et la dévotion?
Vous les voulez traiter d'un semblable langage,
Et rendre même honneur au masque qu'au visage
Égaler l'artifice à la sincérité,
Confondre l'apparence avec la vérité,   
Estimer le fantôme autant que la personne,
Et la fausse monnaie à l'égal de la bonne?
Les hommes, la plupart, sont étrangement faits!
Dans la juste nature on ne les voit jamais;
La raison a pour eux des bornes trop petites ;
En chaque caractère ils passent ses limites
Et la plus noble chose, ils la gâtent souvent
Pour la vouloir outrer et pousser trop avant.
Que cela vous soit dit en passant, mon beau-frère.