Molière on Stage: What's So Funny?

Molière on Stage: What's So Funny?

by Robert W. Goldsby


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‘Molière on Stage’ takes the reader onstage, backstage and into the audience of Molière’s plays, analyzing the performance of his works in both his own time and in ours. Written by a professional stage director with over fifty years’ experience directing and translating Molière, this text explores how the playwright strove to create a communal experience of shared laughter, and investigates four key topics relating to this achievement: Molière’s early experiences that lead to his later theater experiences; his central great plays of love and lust; his comedic genius and his passion for the stage; and the final words and performances of his life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857284426
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 04/01/2012
Series: Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance , #1
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Robert W. Goldsby is a retired professor and chairman emeritus at the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

Read an Excerpt

Molière on Stage

What's so Funny?

By Robert W. Goldsby

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Robert W. Goldsby
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-942-1



La Comédie-Française

My introduction to Molière came through an ecstatic experience as a member of an audience. Since it was the beginning of my long obsession with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin dit Molière, I share it as a springboard into my subject.

In the late forties I was in Paris on the GI Bill. By a great stroke of luck I had rented a room in Montmartre behind the Sacré Coeur. It was owned by an actress, Mademoiselle Nadine Marziano, a pensionnaire at the Comédie-Française, who became my friend and mentor. She told me that a famous actor she greatly admired was making his return to the theater after his absence during the war. She, a Swiss citizen, had played in the repertory during the German occupation, while many French actors had left the public view for various personal and political reasons. Monsieur Aimé Clariond, who had left the company to work heroically in the World War II French underground Resistance, was returning that night for the first time to perform his pre-war role as Alceste in Molière's Le Misanthrope, a role for which he had been highly acclaimed. I accepted her invitation to join her at the theater.

The square in front of the Comédie-Française was swarming with people; the lobby was packed; throngs crowded around le contrôle – a high counter that served as a VIP box office, behind which sat three black-suited officials presiding like minor Brechtian gods over everyone's fate. Mlle Marziano managed, with much fervent discussion, to obtain two green slips that allowed us to enter the theater. I found myself sitting in the center aisle on a little strapontin – a fold-down seat attached to the permanent aisle seat in the first row where Mlle Marziano was installed. The place was buzzing with rapidly spoken French discussions and much moving about. Looking around, I saw the boxes surrounding the orchestra all overflowing with eager spectators awaiting the curtain's rise on the stage of what is familiarly known as "The House of Molière."

At that time I knew little of Molière and had hardly any real knowledge of either the theater or the language around me; yet I experienced an unusual heightened excitement of waiting for something very special to begin. I heard for the first time the famous rapid pounding on the floor and the final three heavy, slow blows – les trois coups. The curtain rose, and a figure burst out of the up-center door of a faded old-fashioned set and stormed downstage shouting a French phrase that even a beginner like me could understand: "Laissez-moi je vous prie!" ("Let me alone, please!") He was standing right above me as he finished this explosive entrance. At that moment, the entire audience stood up as one person and yelled. I got up slowly, looking around in shock. Never had I heard such a sound, such a roar. He stood there on stage; they stood there in the audience. He started weeping; they did too. What the hell was going on? This exuberant welcome went on and on. The sound was overwhelming. I found myself weeping with the others without quite knowing why. Finally, finally the noise subsided into intense quiet and he began the scene, struggling against his emotion-wracked voice.

At the intermission, we went backstage – in this theater granted to Molière's company by Louis XIV in 1680 — where actors receive friends in their comfortably appointed dressing rooms. The sweating actor, still reeling from the reverberations of his ecstatic welcome, was hoarsely regaling his friends with details of the scene he had just gone through. Obviously, my cursory reading of Molière in a humanities course at Columbia in an old Everyman translation had not prepared me for this kind of experience. This was museum theater?

Later that night I asked Mlle Marziano about that evening's extraordinary event and she told me the story of Molière's death. As she was telling the story she began to weep as if describing the death of a parent or a lover. She sobbed as if she had been in the small torch-lit procession of friends that took his body out in the middle of the night and lowered it into unhallowed ground, without the rites of the Catholic Church.

These two emotional events – one of joy and one of grief – made a profound impression on a twenty-year-old beginning to have yearnings toward the theater. Who was this long-dead playwright? How is it he is so alive in performance for a modern audience? Why does his work have such an emotional hold on people of today? What made those actors last night weep: one for joy; the other for grief?




a film by Ariane Mnouchkine

In writing this book, I want to bring Molière back to the place he loved – the stage – by using the language and theories, the written and unwritten laws and trade secrets of his chosen craft to better understand this complex artisan of the theater, and in so doing to evoke through the comic spirit of Molière the miracle of the theater as a whole: a unique, deep and ongoing experience as it is born in the coming together of writer, actor and audience.

In 1947, when I saw my first Molière performance, the man inside the character of Alceste, transforming the actor standing in front of me and that ecstatic audience, was Molière. That ecstatic experience in the public grew out of feelings of joy for the ending of the Nazi Occupation; pride in the return of their national theater to French hands; admiration for the actor who had played an heroic role in the Resistance – all coalescing in their great love for Molière. The people in the audience who were standing and yelling – as well as the actor standing weeping right above my little strapontin in the front row center – all had some knowledge of the "given circumstances," to use Stanislavski's later words, surrounding Molière's work. Everyone knew, at the very least, some details about his life while the actor on stage knew him as if he were his brother.

Some research will make a director, actor or audience member appreciative of the atmosphere of Molière's time. Three fine books in English tell the reader almost everything one needs to know about his life. Their authors are Virginia Scott, W G. Moore and Ramon Fernandez. But with an eye to his obsessions, his passions and his comic instincts, my mission in this brief chapter is to point to key developments in the boy's life which are indicators of how the man became a master at firing the raw clay of his worldly fixations – the stuff of all comedy – into some of humanity's greatest comic masterpieces.

His name was, in the beginning, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. The first of six children he was born in 1622, six years after the death of Shakespeare. He died in 1673 in Paris not far from his birthplace. He grew up as the son of a well-to-do bourgeois craftsman whose title was Tapissier du Roi (Upholsterer to the King) and whose work was, among other things, furnishing bed covers to the king and tents to the military. The father, Jean Poquelin, was even called upon to make up the foot of the king's bed from time to time when the king traveled. Someone else made up the head! His mother, Marie Cressé, bore six children in six years and died when Jean-Baptiste was only ten years old. It was a terrible loss to the family. Ariane Mnouchkine, in her film entitled Molière, which is in essence her book on Molière, captured that loss beautifully. She shows the beloved mother in an imaginary scene in which she sits cooing a song while picking lice from the head of her little daughter. Jean-Baptiste, a stalwart nine-year-old son, then pushes the sister away and smiles beatifically as the crooning mother put her hands lovingly on his head; then the father appears, pushes aside the son and sits down between her knees to have his head caressed. It may seem obvious to say that Marie Cressé's early death created an almost inconsolable yearning in Molière's heart for the touch of love, but such a fact in the life of a ten-year-old is hard to ignore. And the fact that his mother was bled to death by misinformed doctors may well have created an unforgiving animosity to the entire medical profession. Thus out of one death, two great emotional themes for his later plays were born.

Molière grew up playing in the markets and streets around the Pont Neuf, not far from the charnel house where his mother's corpse would have been taken. The broad and cobblestoned bridge – the only bridge over the Seine without houses – was an oasis between the muddy Parisian streets on either side, a little suspended world peopled with masked "medicine" sellers, farceurs, hussies, varlets, strumpets and showmen of one sort or another. A short distance from the family home was the theater in the Hôtel de Bourgognewhere famous comic actors held forth when they were not replaced by the more important tragedians. Molière's grandfather was reportedly a theater-goer, and in another scene from Mnouchkine's film, he takes Jean-Baptiste out of the home while the doctors are bleeding his mother to death, to watch a street farce featuring Death as a grimacing, white-skull-masked giggling actor making fun of a black-masked grunting old man – surely a Pantalone character from the Commedia dell'Arte — sitting noisily on a chamber pot. He was learning the delight and joy of laughter even in the face of death. It was a hands-on schooling in the all-too-human, non-intellectual, unbound world of farce.

Molière would have crossed the Pont Neuf in order to get to his school, the Collège de Clermont, one of the best schools in Paris. The Jesuits, who ran the school for both aristocratic and wealthy middle-class sons, had as a goal "a perfect knowledge of Greek and Latin." There was dawn-to-dusk study six days a week featuring fierce, competitive struggles to recite – perfectly – passages from Latin works and from time to time, to enact Roman comedies or tragedies. Notably, this sounds much like Shakespeare's education as described by Stephen Greenblatt in his book, Will In The World..1 Rhetorical skills were seen as essential if one was to have power and influence over others. These skills included analyzing the great speeches from the orators of Greece and Rome, as well as vigorous work in how to win arguments and persuade others to your point of view. Debate structures are seen throughout the plays of Molière and this is where he began his understanding of rhetoric. He may also have studied philosophy with Gassendi – a follower of Epicurean atomism and materialism which was at variance with both Descartes' teachings and the absolute faith promulgated by Jesuitical Christianity – in after-school meetings organized by the father of his school friend, Chapelle, for a small group of boys (one of whom was the real-life Cyrano de Bergerac). The Collège was a school handling several thousand students and so required a program of intense discipline, often demanding vicious competition among the boys who were seated in the classroom on benches arranged to separate the best from the worst students, thus making manifest their successes and failures. What better instruction and preparation for the rigors of a theatrical life: the rejections, the inspiration, the burning determination to succeed.

Reportedly, to distract him from a burgeoning interest in the theater, Molière's father sent him off to Orléans to study "law" in 1640. This may have meant a bit of tutoring and the money to buy a degree. This foray may have deepened his rhetorical skills of debate and argument, but it did nothing to dampen his growing love for the theater. In a last-gasp effort to distract him, Père Poquelin sent his son to Avignon to serve Louis XIII in an apprenticeship as tapissier du roi where, as fate would have it, Poquelin fils met the ravishing Madeleine Béjart, the famous tragedienne he had often seen on stage in Paris. When he came back to Paris he uttered the famous words that so many parents dread to hear their nineteen-year-old son say: "I want to be an actor." Three years earlier he had been granted the rights of succession to his father's business and was pronounced ready to practice the trade, but the record confirms his giving up his "office" as Tapissier du Roi in January of 1643; another record shows his starting a theater six months later in July of 1643 with nine other actors, most of whom were in the Béjart family, a family that had been active in the Parisian theater for some time. It was not, however, this well-known theatrical family that mesmerized the young Jean-Baptiste. It was their leading lady.

The famous Madeleine Béjart had flaming red hair and a magnetic personality on stage. He was nineteen; she was twenty-six. She was a femme d'esprit oozing charisma. She had been the mistress of Esprit de Remond, Comte de Modène, and in 1638 bore him a daughter named Françoise. She had a second illegitimate daughter by the name of Armande born somewhere in the mists of late 1642 — or early 1643! The precise identity of Armande's father has always remained in question. The Comte de Modène acknowledged paternity for the first illegitimate daughter but no one ever did for Armande, though Molière raised her as his daughter. Over the next thirty years, both mother and daughter became the most important people in Molière's life: he played opposite them on stage and in life he was the passionate lover of each at different times. In the beginning he joined Madeleine on stage and in her bed, and Armande was elsewhere. Maybe in a cradle in the corner? Fifteen years later he was sleeping with Armande and Madeleine was rocking in another room.

The theater the two lovers founded together in 1643 in a converted tennis court they named Le Théâtre Illustre. It was at this time that he took the name of Molière. This "illustrious" theater was one of the more famous flops in theater history. It lasted two years, at the end of which the young co-founder was hauled off to jail for the company's debt. After being bailed out with a little help from Madeleine's mother, twenty-one-year-old Molière and Madeleine led their troupe out of Paris and headed to southern France, where they traveled in the provinces for the next thirteen years. During those long years of apprenticeship, Molière set about to learn his craft and to shape his company in his own image. He learned that though he loves tragedy and tragediennes his true talent is making people laugh, even, unfortunately, in the tragedies.

Among the actors the lusty young theater manager added to his roster were two young women who would eventually become stars in his plays. The first one to join the company in its travels was nineteen-year-old Catherine Leclerc, the daughter of two actors. She became a member of Molière's troupe by marrying one of his character actors, named Edme Villequin de Brie, a man twice her age. By the time they all arrived in Paris in 1658, she was a major actress along with Madeleine. She was known as Catherine de Brie or Mlle de Brie; she created thirty of Molière's characters. Many of her roles were romantic ingénues that she continued to perform for years, even after Molière's death in 1673. She also played countless other roles in the comedies and tragedies of the time. She was an actress of formidable talents, able to transform herself into a great variety of complex characters. She was a woman of soft grace and beauty who could play with delicious delicacy or surprising force. Many think she and Molière had become lovers by the time they returned to Paris.

The second woman to join with them on their stage as a company member came into sight as an acrobat huckstering for her father who ran a carnival show from Italy. Here is how Ramon Fernandez describes the arrival of Molière's third "goddess," Marquise-Thérèse de Gorla:

She executed some remarkable acrobatics. Her legs and part of her thighs were visible, because her skirt was slit at either side, and her hose was modestly fastened at the top to short underpants. She was destined to wreak havoc on the susceptibilities of our great men, for, if we must trust the record, those who fell in love with her were Molière, both Corneilles, La Fontaine, and Jean Racine.

In other words, she came to share the bed of the most successful playwrights of the day – and probably some unsuccessful ones, too. This gorgeous creature married the fat character man, René Berthelot Du Parc, who was already a popular member of Molière's company under the name Gros-René (Fat-René). She gained considerable fame as an actress – more in tragedy than in comedy – and was billed as Mlle Du Parc.


Excerpted from Molière on Stage by Robert W. Goldsby. Copyright © 2012 Robert W. Goldsby. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Act One: The Back Story: I. ‘’Allo Molière’; II. The First Stages; III. Finding His Light; IV. The Actor Unmasked. Act Two: The Agon: V. Into the Mouth of the Wolf; VI. ‘Go Saddle Yon Braying Ass’; VII. Entrances…; VIII. …And Exits; IX. Loves Me; Loves Me …; X. …Not. Act Three: Comic Relief: XI. ‘The Blessedness of Laughter’; XII. Classic Routines; XIII. Musical Comedy; XIV. The Bones of Farce. Act Four: And Leave ‘Em Laughing: XV. The Dancing Skeleton; XVI. The Imaginary Invalid; XVII. Full Circle

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From the Publisher

“Robert Goldsby has outdone scholarship by perceiving Molière’s plays in multiple dimensions: as the actor prepares, rehearsing them over and over again; in the mind’s eye, with fertile imagination; and in stagings reconstructed, past and present, here and abroad, and in various translations, including his own. It’s hard to conceive of any study of Molière so encompassing, so informed by intimacy with the texts.” —Professor Herbert Blau, University of Washington

“Goldsby’s unique book blends profound scholarship sustained over a long lifetime, with decades of practical experience working with the texts in the theatre and an incomparable sense of personal affinity for its main subject. From now on, anyone reading or performing Molière’s plays will be grateful for this startling book.” —Dr Lissa Tyler Renaud, co-editor (English) of ‘Critical Stages/Scènes critiques’

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