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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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This book began by assuming as a principle that Molière’s whole art of comedy and laughter derived from the reconfiguration of distress. No one would be so foolish as to claim that Molière invented this strategy: the idea of pain and distress producing laughter is built into the basic term slapstick, and it is fundamental as well to all the nasty/funny tricks played by clowns. Pain/distress has always been the main element of low comedy. But in Molière, as is typical of his dynamism, the strategy is blended into a texture that elevates and socializes it to the point of seeming an almost three-dimensional representation of reality, becoming part – in fact a major part – of situations that are not only believable as belonging to human expe- rience but have social and intellectual consequences as well. Needless to say, it is these larger implications that endow his comedies with a universality unique among comic authors of modern times. But Molière is unique and universal as well in his often-unspoken acknowledgment that the basis of our laughter is the painfulness of the human condition. As we have traveled through his major works, comedy as reconfigu- ration of this underlying reality has been visible at every stage along the way. Perhaps it is time to mention another aspect of the situation: almost by definition, distress involves some threat to the life processes. Distress is always caused by what hinders, spoils or endangers the things most essential to our well-being,...

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