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This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 178-81.

THE life of Molière is a story of struggle, hard work, domestic unhappiness, death and burial in obscurity and almost in shame. In time, he belongs between Corneille and Racine, but he died before either of them. His birth is obscure. At school he seems to have become acquainted with many Latin, Spanish, and Italian comedies. In his poverty he associated with low companions, and at one time he acted as valet in the household of the king. At about the age of twenty-two he became an actor and manager; but for a time he was wholly unsuccessful. One theatrical enterprise after another failed, and in 1645 he was imprisoned for debt. After being released, he gathered together a group of actors and left Paris for a tour of the provinces -- a tour which lasted about ten years.

In 1658 Molière brought his company of actors to Paris and played for the first time in the presence of the king, Louis XIV, in the guard room of the old Louvre. The pieces presented were Corneille's Nicomède, and Docteur Amoureux, by Molière himself. Fortunately, on this return to the capital Molière's sense of humor was tickled by the absurdities of the salons and the literary ladies whose chief aim in life was to promote culture; and the production of Les précieuses ridicules (The Pretentious Young Ladies) in 1659 proved the turning point in his career. It was his first attempt to handle real life as it was in Paris of his own day. Madame de Rambouillet was dead; but the literary cult which she had established was still very much the fashion. Molière seized upon the affected speech, the elegant gallantries and the learned sentimentality of the précieuses and caricatured them with infinite skill. Even the blue-stockings and the gallants were obliged to laugh at themselves. Les précieuses ridicules was an immediate success, and encouraged its author to believe that contemporary life was his true field.

From that time on Molière gradually perfected his style, though as manager he continued to produce the plays of intrigue and roystering adventure which were characteristic of the older school. In his own plays he created a new genre, attacking not only the sentimental blue-stockings and the vapid swains of the salon, but nobles, actors, priests, doctors, Corneille and the high-flown writers of his class together with the plays of the rival theater -- anybody and everybody afforded a target for his laughter-provoking shafts. He was not only dramatist but also chief actor in his company, and as comedian he must have had extraordinary gifts. While acting in his last play, Le malade imaginaire, in 1673, he was seized with an attack of coughing which proved to be the forerunner of his death. He was denied the sacrament of the Church, and grudgingly allowed Christian burial. During the following century his bust was placed in the Academy, and a monument erected over his grave.


There are in all more than a score of plays from the hand of this genius. They are written in verse of a rather prosaic sort, and divided sometimes into three, sometimes into five acts. He attempted many different methods in the handling of comedy, and in almost every one he succeeded brilliantly. Brander Matthews has listed plays which belong respectively to the comedy of manners, the comedy of character, romantic comedy, tragi-comedy, comedy ballet, criticism in dialogue, satiric interlude, legendary drama, and a sort of philosophic comedy which sometimes turned to farce, and sometimes developed into serious drama. Molière took his plots from whatever source pleased his fancy. Some came from Lope de Vega and other Spanish playwrights; others from Italian originals which had been brought to France by Larrivey. He was familiar with the methods of the Italian Commedia dell' Arte. It is neither in his plots nor in his situations that the greatness of Molière lies, but in his understanding and revelation of character. He could pick up the trifling, intimate details of a man's daily habit and turn them to dramatic uses with marvellous dexterity. His style was well adapted to speech, his wit almost unfailing. While borrowing freely from Spanish and Italian sources, yet he had small interest in the childish devices of trap doors, lost children, abductions and strawberry-mark recognitions. What interested him was the way a man could act when vanity, conceit, hypocrisy or greed gained control. He set forth his story and brought the action to a climax without the use of confidants, asides, soliloquies, or clumsy explanations; and all the time he kept his audience laughing. In the language of George Meredith, he was "both precise and voluble," regarding nothing as sacred, nothing beyond the reach of his wit. With all this, however, there was in his mind a positive belief in the goodness of human nature and in the saving power of common sense. He himself was kind, sincere, honest, with a hatred of hypocrisy and cant, of sham and humbub. He loved youth and all things that are hearty and wholesome; and he was never bigoted, malicious or mean.


Nearly all of Molière's work was done with too much haste. He has been accused of not having a consistent, organic style, of using faulty grammar, of mixing his metaphors, and of using unnecessary words for the purpose of filling out his lines. All these things are occasionally true, but they are trifles in comparison to the wealth of character he portrayed, to his brilliancy of wit, and to the resourcefulness of his technique. He was wary of sensibility or pathos; but in place of pathos he had "melancholy -- a puissant and searching melancholy, which strangely sustains his inexhaustible mirth and his triumphant gaiety." [1]

Both the comic and the serious drama were powerfully affected by the work of Molière, not only in his own age and country but everywhere and up to the present time. Every dramatist who has lived since his time is indebted to him. Fielding and Sheridan in England, and Regnard in France learned their technique from him, and sometimes borrowed his situations outright. And the general structure of his plays has never been improved.

1 Brander Mattews. The Development of the Drama.