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Molière’s Strategies

Timely Reflections on his Art of Comedy


Walter E. Rex

Of all the playwrights from the age of Louis XIV, only Molière’s work is still regularly performed in France and beyond. This book analyses certain elements of the plays that may explain Molière’s longevity: a plausible chain of events peppered with shocks and surprises; tensions between opposites; intellectual concerns that had not previously been the province of comedy; and plots founded on situations that are anything but comic. These hallmarks added up to an intense type of comic theatre, meaningful in ways that gave the genre a new dimension. The author of this study does not treat Molière’s plays as variations on a single prototype, but brings a fresh approach to each. The book’s witty, learned and penetrating readings examine critical issues such as the ambiguous anti-feminism of Les Femmes savantes, Molière’s revisions of the myth of Don Juan, ‘conversion’ as the theological starting point of Le Tartuffe, contrariety as the basis of comedies such as George Dandin and Le Misanthrope, and coded satire in the comédie-ballets. Each play is revealed to have a seamless comic design, while at the same time speaking to the wider world. Molière’s works are shown to be entirely and immediately involved in human society, in the social dimension of the human condition.


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Introduction A Main Principle of ‘Comedy’ in Classical Style


Since the object of comedy is to provoke mirth and laughter in the audi- ence, critics are apt to assume that comedy’s roots, too, lie in pleasure and good feeling.1 Perhaps in some instances they do. But at least in the classical period2 in France, the pleasure of comedy originates in, makes its capital of, and even provides the remedy for, the frictions, anxieties, pains, and unpleasantness of human society: which is to say that, in this era, contrary to appearances, the pleasure emanates, not from good feeling, but from distress.3 Later on, some of the historical features of this peculiar situation will be explored. But meanwhile, the stellar example of the paradox, an author who ironically even became a martyr to it, was of course the great- est modern practitioner of the comic genre, Molière. His importance in this connection is without equal, if only because his art is based on, and perhaps even sums up, so many of the comic traditions that went before him (Roman, French, Italian, more indirectly, Spanish [see Martinenche 1900]), and because he set the style for comedy almost everywhere in Europe for the next hundred years. But how can classical comedy’s ‘pleasure’ emanate from ‘distress’, when the two terms are not just opposites, but – at least in those blessed centuries prior to the invention of the German Schadenfreude – mutually destructive, so that in fact they cancel each other out? An excellent question, particu- larly in respect to Molière, whose entire art...

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