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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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List of Illustrations ix Editors’ Foreword xi Acknowledgements xv Preface: Choosing an Author in Old Age xvii Introduction A Main Principle of ‘Comedy’ in Classical Style 1 PART I Marriage, Libertinage 5 Chapter 1 George Dandin, ou le mari confondu 7 Chapter 2 Literary Sources of George Dandin: La Jalousie du barbouillé 19 Chapter 3 Dom Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre 29 PART II Three Dif ferent Hands 63 Chapter 4 Le Loup et l’Agneau by La Fontaine: Molière’s Endings 65 vi Chapter 5 Le Misanthrope 77 Chapter 6 Delaying Tactics in a Caractère by La Bruyère 83 PART III Farce, Philosophy 95 Chapter 7 Molière’s Two Funniest Scenes 97 Chapter 8 Sex, Philosophy and Other Problems in Les Femmes savantes 109 PART IV Unmaskings 127 Chapter 9 Le Tartuf fe, Act I: Conversion 129 Chapter 10 Le Tartuf fe, Acts II–V: Seduction 145 PART V Towards Le Malade imaginaire 155 Chapter 11 Hierarchy, Comédie-ballet, the Ballets of George Dandin 157 vii Chapter 12 The Musical and Spoken Prologues of Le Malade imaginaire 167 Chapter 13 Molière’s Titles, Vraisemblance, Surprise 177 PART VI Le Malade imaginaire: Structures and Transformations of the Theme 187 Chapter 14 Act I: Male Authority, Comic Manoeuvres, Toinette 189 Chapter 15 Act II: Structure as Rite, Marriage as Medicine 201 Chapter 16 Act III: Philosophical Centre and Theatrical Crisis 217 Chapter 17 Troisième Intermède: Music, Dance, Medicine 237 Finale 249 Conclusion 253 Notes 257 Works Cited...

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