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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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Figure 8: Jean Lepautre, performance of Le Malade imaginaire (19 July 1674), Bibliothèque Nationale de France Though many social and religious issues are broached in his plays, Molière’s theatre could never directly bring into question the foundations of society or openly confront established religion. That would be the challenge of the next century, obviously impossible under the rule of the Sun King. And yet, the first miracle of Molière is how much one senses the push towards social dynamism just under the surface of his theatre. The tensions of seri- ous, far-reaching social and religious discontent are potentially all there, just barely out of sight. And the second miracle of Molière is that it could all happen right under the nose, and even with the sponsorship, laughter 250 Finale and applause of a king whose sovereign absolutism in the long run did not fit very well with an author who repeatedly made his capital out of ridicul- ing male authority figures and revealing the consequences of their tyranny (of a domestic, bourgeois sort). And perhaps it was in order to forestall any suspicion of a royal or courtly pertinence to his mockeries of tyranny that one finds such a strong current of sycophancy in Molière’s plays, f lat- teries of the court and king, along with occasional casuistical distinctions making it absolutely clear that he would not dream of attacking prevailing, reasonable values, only the ridiculous values of others. It could not have been otherwise....

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