Moliere’s Theory of Comedy

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      Moliere (1622-1673), was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, best known by his stage name Moliere. According to Jerry L. Crawford, “What Shakespeare is to the English, Moliere is to the French. While there are differences between them, there are also similarities: both were practical men of the theatre; both were actors as well as playwrights; both had incredible insight into human life; both had a breath-taking mastery over language. As a writer of comedy, however, Moliere is more closely akin to Aristophanes, Ben Jonson, and George Bernard Shaw than he is to Shakespeare, for his comedies not only entertain, but they also sparkle with satire and devastating criticism of society.” As an inborn master of especially comic plays, Moliere’s focus was on the aesthetic home truth. In his La Critique de L’Ecole des femmes, he states that tragedy might be heroic, but comedy must hold the mirror up to nature: “You haven’t achieved anything in comedy unless your portraits can be seen to be living types...making decent people laugh is a strange business.” He comments: “I wonder if the golden rule is not to give pleasure and if a successful play is not on the right track.”

      Moliere’s principal short plays (in one or two acts) are: The Jealous Husband (1645?), The Flying Doctor (1648?), Sganarelle (1660), The Rehearsal at Versailles (1663), and The Forced Marriage (1664); the longer plays (in three or five acts) include The School for Husbands (1661), The School for Wives (1662), Tar tuffe (1664), Don Juan (1665), The Misanthrope (1666), The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1666), Amphitryon (1668), The Miser (1668), George Dandin (1668), The Bourgeois Gentleman (1670), Scapin (1671), The Learned Ladies (1672), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673).

      The strongest influence on Moliere’s theater came from the Italian commedia dell'arte troupes - with their stock characters and situations - that he encountered during his travels. This influence was enhanced by Moliere’s sharing of the Theatre du Petit-Bourbon in Paris with the Italian players, led by the celebrated Scaramouche. In his longer comedies, Moliere immensely refined the commedia themes and techniques, setting most of his plots in and around Paris and raising neoclassical French comedy to a plane of artistry and inventiveness never attained before or since. He applied the alexandrine, or rhymed hexameter line - borrowed from contemporary tragedies, many of which he had staged - to a relaxed dialogue that imitated conversational speech. He also created a gallery of incisive portraits: Tartuffe the religious hypocrite, and Orgon, his dupe; Jourdain the social climber; Don Juan the rebel and libertine; cuckolds such as Arnolphe, Dandin, and Amphitryon; Alceste the stony idealist; Harpagon the miser; Scapin the trickster; Aruan the hypochondriac; Philaminte the pretentiously cultured lady; and many more.

      The attacks on L’Ecole des femmes were child’s play in comparison with the storm raised by Tartuffe and Don Juan. The attacks on them also drew from the poet a valuable statement of artistic principle. On Don Juan, he made no public reply since it was never officially condemned. The documents in defense of Tartuffe are two placets, or petitions, to the king, the preface to the first edition of 1669 (all these published over Moliere’s own name), and the Lettre sur la comedie de I’lmposteur of 1667. The placets and preface are aesthetically disappointing, since Moliere was forced to fight on ground chosen by his opponents and to admit that comedy must be didactic. The Lettre is much more important. It expresses in a few pregnant lines the aesthetic basis not only of Tartuffe but of Moliere’s new concept of comedy:

“The comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it. To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence and we must see wherein the rational consists...incongruity is the heart of the follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.”

      Moliere seems here to put his finger on what was new in his notion of what is comic: a comedy, only incidentally funny, that is based on a constant double vision of wise and foolish, right and wrong seen together, side by side. This is his invention and his glory.

      A main feature of Moliere’s technique is a mixing of registers, or of contexts. Characters are made to play a part, then forget it, speak out of turn, overplay their role, so that those who watch this byplay constantly have the suggestion of mixed registers. The starting point of Le Medecin malgre lui, the idea of beating a man to make him pretend he is a doctor, is certainly not subtle, but Moliere plays with the idea, makes his woodcutter enjoy his new experience, master the jargon, and then not know what to do with it. He utters inanities about Hippocrates, is overjoyed to find a patient ignorant of Latin, so that he need not bother about meaning. He looks for the heart on the wrong side and, undeterred by having his error recognized, sweeps aside the protest with the immortal: “We have changed all that.” The miser robbed of his money is pathetic, but he does not arouse emotions because his language leads him to the absurd “ s all over...I’m dying, I’m dead, I’m buried.” He demands justice with such intemperance that his language exceeds all reasons and he threatens to put the courts in the court. Moliere’s Misanthrope is even more suggestive in his confusion of justice as an ideal and as a social institution: “I have justice on my side and I lose my case!” What to him is a scandal of world order is to others just proof that he is wrongheaded. Such concession does Moliere’s dramatic speech achieve.

      Moliere is that he does not exaggerate; his fools are never over witty, his buffoons too grotesque, and his men of wit too anxious to display their smartness, nor his fine gentlemen too fond of immodest and ribald talk. His satire is always kept within bounds, his repartees are never out of place, his plots are but seldom intricate, and the moral of his plays is not obtruded, but follows as a natural consequence of the whole. He rarely rises to those lofty realms of poetry where Shakespeare so often soars, for he wrote not idealistic, but character, comedies. This is, perhaps, the reason that some of his would-be admirers consider him rather commonplace. His claim to distinction is based only on strong common-sense, good manners, sound morality, real wit, true humor, a great, facile, and accurate command of language, and a photographic delineation of nature. It cannot be denied that there is little action in his plays, but there is a great deal of natural conversation. His personages show that he was a most attentive observer of men, even at court, where a certain varnish of over refinement conceals nearly all individual features. He generally makes vice appear in its most ridiculous aspect, in order to let his audience laugh and despise it; his aim is to correct the follies of the age by exposing them to ridicule.

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