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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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Walter E. Rex had finished this book and written a detailed prospectus for publishers when he died from complications attendant upon surgery in January 2010, at the age of eighty-two. Molière had been his main pre- occupation since he finished his preceding book, Diderot’s Counterpoints, in 1998. His energy, wit and acuity did not diminish as he grew older. This was one of two ambitious and intensively researched books he wrote after retiring from a long, distinguished teaching career at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992. Rex was known as a student of the eighteenth century. He explains in the preface to this book why, when choosing a subject for the book he knew would be his last, he abandoned the Enlightenment for the century of the Sun King. He wanted a diverting subject, something that would keep him laughing. But, not coincidentally, he detects in Molière the critical acumen, the political good sense, irony and sweet reason he had always admired in Diderot. The impact of Rex’s work on a great variety of fields was reflected in two interdisciplinary sessions organised in his honour at the annual meeting of the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies in March 2012. His doctoral thesis at Harvard, written on Pierre Bayle, under the direction of the renowned Diderot specialist Herbert Dieckmann, was published in 1965 (Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy). Numerous publications followed, including: (in collaboration with Richard N. Schwab) a transla- tion of Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s...

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