The Playwright

MOLIÈRE BIOGRAPHY – By Janice Paran

Portrait of young Molière, attributed to Pierre Mignard (circa 1660)
Portrait of young Molière, attributed to Pierre Mignard (circa 1660)

Molière was the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, born in 1622, to a prosperous Parisian upholsterer.  At the age of 21, Jean-Baptiste left the family business and abandoned his legal studies and birth name to take up a career in the theater. His first appearances on stage were with the Illustre Théâtre, a young ensemble whose fortunes soon faltered. After a brief stint in debtors’ prison, Molière rededicated himself to a life in the theater, spending most of the next fifteen years touring the provinces with Madeleine Béjart, the Illustre’s leading lady and his mistress, and other itinerant performers, honing his skills as a comic actor and playwright (though he longed for success as a tragedian), and turning out a number of farces inspired by the Italian commedia troupes he encountered in his travels.

The company returned to Paris in 1658 with Molière as their manager.  Invited to perform before Louis XIV, they quickly won his favor, and Molière was granted the use of the Petit Bourbon (a court theater adjacent to the Louvre) and later the Palais-Royal for the troupe’s farces, character comedies, and lavish court entertainments—with music by Jean Baptiste Lully.  In 1662, Molière married Armande Béjart (the younger sister–or the daughter, some insinuated–of his mistress), who became a leading actress in his company, beginning with his next play, The School for Wives, which demonstrated the playwright’s maturing talent and propelled him into the ranks of France’s greatest dramatists.

Not all of Molière’s plays were unqualified successes, however, and not even the patronage of Louis XIV could protect him from the censure provoked by Tartuffe (1664).  Its story of a pious hypocrite and his willing dupe was interpreted by many as a condemnation of religion, and five years elapsed before the play, in modified form, passed official muster. Molière fared little better with Don Juan (1665); its free-thinking title character incurred the wrath of the censors immediately after opening night and the play soon disappeared from the repertoire. Still, by 1665, Molière’s company was awarded regular pensions from the crown, and took the title of La Troupe du RoiThe Misanthrope and The Doctor in Spite of Himself premiered a year later, followed by The Miser (1668) and The Learned Ladies (1672).  Molière’s next play, The Imaginary Invalid (1673), which featured the playwright as a grousing hypochondriac, was to be his last; Molière, who suffered from tuberculosis, took ill during a performance and died shortly thereafter. A Christian burial was initially denied him because he had not received last rites nor had he made a deathbed recantation of his profession (as tradition required), but the archbishop of Paris, responding to petitions from Molière’s widow, grudgingly allowed a private burial in the parish cemetery, on condition that it be carried out at night, without ceremony.

 

Source: McCarter Theatre – Audience Guide
http://www.mccarter.org/education/tartuffe/html/3.html
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