Molière or the legends of an illustrious unknown

With the exception of his plays, he left no diaries, no correspondence. Nothing that can shed any light on his personality. Is he Argan, Arnolphe or Alceste? All three at once? The mystery remains.

A well-born bourgeois who became Louis XIV’s favorite playwright, Molière left no personal trace that could shed light on the personality of the greatest Western comic author. The only survivor of her four children, Esprit-Madeleine, lost her manuscripts and the first biography Life of M. de Molière published in 1705 has since fed the legends around Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, whose 400th birthday is being celebrated.

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In addition to the testimonies of the period, there remains above all his work, some thirty comedies in verse and prose, which the most malevolent imputed to Corneille or even to Louis XIV. Many believed to identify him by establishing parallels between his character and his Alceste, Argan or Arnolphe. Michel Bouquet even detected in his rooms “a settling of scores with himself”. “The vices he painted, it is not only for having observed them in the world but for having experienced them himself”, wrote in 2017 the actor who has played his master more than 400 times. But nothing is less certain.

The Molière mystery begins at birth. It was not until 1820 that his baptismal certificate was found, dated January 15, 1622 at Saint-Eustache in Paris: he was born one or two days earlier.

In the documented facts, we know that he is promised a comfortable future. Eldest son, he was to inherit from his father the office of upholsterer and valet to the king. Motherless at the age of 10, he grew up between the luminous arteries of the Louvre and the lively but dangerous guts of the Halles. There he acquired his acute sense of observation.

At the College of Clermont (now Louis-le-Grand), the Jesuits taught him Greek, Latin and theatre. Erudite, Molière will be inspired by Plautus, Terence, Italian and Spanish comedy. There is no proof of his law degree in Orleans: he might as well have bought his diploma.

troop leader

At 21, the daring young man renounced his inheritance to become an actor, an uncertain profession, then hit with excommunication. This vocation also remains mysterious. On the death of his younger brother in 1660, he will recover the paternal charge, enjoying direct access to Louis XIV.

On June 30, 1643, by notarial deed, he created the “Illustre Théâtre”, with ten other acrobats including Madeleine Béjart, a red-haired and ardent actress, familiar with literary circles. First a lover, she will remain his faithful partner for thirty years. On January 23, 1662, Molière will marry Armande, the adulterine daughter of Madeleine (officially her sister).

The custom was that the actors take a name of “campaign”: he chooses “Molière” which designates a stone quarry. We don’t know why. At the Jeu de Paume, the “Illustre Théâtre” fizzled out: debts piled up, Molière was imprisoned in the Châtelet. His father, who has nothing of a Harpagon, settles his debts. The son fled Paris at 23.

For 13 years, he criss-crossed France with his troupe. He plays for the beggars, the bourgeois, the nobles: the receipts are important, his supporters in high places. Accomplished troop leader, he dreams of returning to the capital: preceded by a reputation of “beautiful spirit”. Molière plays on October 24, 1658 for the young Louis XIV. He wrote only two comedies but his comic game conquers the sovereign.

Star of the court

From an actor, he became an author with the success of Precious ridiculous end of 1659. “This burlesque pochade reveals a new form of comedy, resulting from the parody of worldly customs”, writes Georges Forestier in his Moliere. Poquelin dusts off the comedy of manners.

After Women’s school (1662) where he magnifies by farce a young girl freeing herself from an absurd education, he goes beyond simple entertainment and bristles the reactionaries. It takes him five years and three versions of Tartuffe to thwart the censorship orchestrated by the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, indirectly targeted by the play on the false devotee. On February 5, 1669, the obstinate made a triumph. Molière has just invented the moral comedy: his art now aims to correct vices, through laughter.

Star of the court but target of the Jansenists, he created Don Juan (1665) then The Misanthrope (1666), his cruellest but most human play. He still writes great comedies (The Miser, 1668 ; Wise women, 1672), pranks (The doctor despite Himself, 1666), an Italian comedy (Deceits of Scapin, 1671) and comedy-ballets (doctor love, 1665).

Legend has it that he died on stage on February 17, 1673. It was actually at his home, 40 rue de Richelieu, that he died suddenly shortly after playing the hypochondriac Argan. The joker offered his ultimate snub: in the skin of the “Imaginary patient”, the man of the theater succumbed to a hemorrhage caused by a very real inflammation.


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