Tartuffe and Other Playsby Moliere, Donald M. Frame (Translator), Virginia Scott (Foreword by)
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This memorable collection represents the many facets of Moliere's genius and offers a superb introduction to the "comic inventiveness, richness of fabric, and insight" which comprise Moliere's living legacy to theater and literature.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Molière is probably the greatest and best-loved French author, and comic author, who ever lived. To the reader as well as the spectator, today as well as three centuries ago, the appeal of his plays is immediate and durable; they are both instantly accessible and inexhaustible. His rich resources make it hard to decide, much less to agree, on the secret of his greatness. After generations had seen him mainly as a moralist, many critics today have shifted the stress to the director and actor whose life was the comic stage; but all ages have rejoiced in three somewhat overlapping qualities of his: comic inventiveness, richness of fabric, and insight.
His inventiveness is extraordinary. An actor-manager-director-playwright all in one, he knew and loved the stage as few have done, and wrote with it and his playgoing public always in mind. In a medium in which sustained power is one of the rarest virtues, he drew on the widest imaginable range, from the broadest slapstick to the subtlest irony, to carry out the arduous and underrated task of keeping an audience amused for five whole acts. Working usually under great pressure of time, he took his materials where he found them, yet always made them his own.
The fabric of his plays is rich in many ways: in the intense life he infuses into his characters; in his constant preoccupation with the comic mask, which makes most of his protagonists themselves—consciously or unconsciously—play a part, and leads to rich comedy when their nature forces them to drop the mask; and in the weight of seriousness and even poignancy that he dares to include in his comic vision. Again and again he leads us from the enjoyable but shallow reaction of laughing at a fool to recognizing in that fool others whom we know, and ultimately ourselves; which is surely the truest and deepest comic catharsis.
Molière’s insight makes his characters understandable and gives a memorable inevitability to his comic effects. He is seldom completely realistic, of course; his characters, for example, tend to give themselves away more generously and laughably than is customary in life; but it is their true selves they give away. It is an obvious trick, and not very realistic, to have Orgon in Tartuffe (Act I, scene 4) reply four times to the account of his wife’s illness with the question “And Tartuffe?” and reply, again four times, to each report of Tartuffe’s gross health and appetite, “Poor fellow!” But it shows us, rapidly and comically, that Orgon’s obsession has closed his mind and his ears to anything but what he wants to see and hear. In the following scene, it may be unrealistic to have him in one speech (ll. 276–79) boast of learning from Tartuffe such detachment from worldly things that he could see his whole family die without concern, and in the very next speech (ll. 306–10) praise Tartuffe for the scrupulousness that led him to reproach himself for killing a flea in too much anger. But—again apart from the sheer comedy—it is a telling commentary on the distortion of values that can come from extreme points of view. One of Molière’s favorite authors, Montaigne, had written about victims of moral hubris: “They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts.” Molière is presenting the same idea dramatically, as he does with even more power later (Act IV, scene 3, l. 1293), when Orgon’s daughter has implored him not to force her to marry the repulsive Tartuffe, and he summons his will to resist her with these words:
Be firm, my heart! No human weakness now!
These moments of truth, these flashes of unconscious self-revelation that plunge us into the very center of an obsession, abound in Molière, adding to our insight even as they reveal his. And even as he caricatures aspects of himself in the reforming Alceste or in the jealous older lover in Arnolphe, so he imparts to his moments of truth not only the individuality of the particular obsession but also the universality of our common share in it.
* * *
Molière is one of those widely known public figures whose private life remains veiled. In his own time gossip was rife, but much of it comes from his enemies and is suspect. Our chief other source is his plays; but while these hint at his major concerns and lines of meditation, we must beware of reading them like avowals or his roles like disguised autobiography.*
He was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris early in 1622 and baptized on January 15, the first son of a well-to-do bourgeois dealer in tapestry and upholstery. In 1631 his father bought the position of valet de chambre tapissier ordinaire du roi, and six years later obtained the right to pass it on at his own death to his oldest son, who took the appropriate “oath of office” at the age of fifteen. Together with many sons of the best families, Jean-Baptiste received an excellent education from the Jesuit Fathers of the Collège de Clermont. He probably continued beyond the basic course in rhetoric to two years of philosophy and then law school, presumably at Orléans.
Suddenly, as it appears to us, just as he was reaching twenty-one, he resigned his survival rights to his father’s court position, and with them the whole future that lay ahead of him; drew his share in the estate of his dead mother and a part of his own prospective inheritance; and six months later joined in forming, with and around Madeleine Béjart, a dramatic company, the Illustre-Théâtre. In September 1643 they rented a court-tennis court to perform in; in October they played in Rouen; in January 1644 they opened in Paris; in June young Poquelin was named head of the troupe, and signed himself, for the first time we know of, “de Molière.”
Molière’s was an extraordinary decision. Apart from the financial hazards, his new profession stood little above pimping or stealing in the public eye and automatically involved minor excommunication from the Church. To write for the theater, especially tragedy, carried no great onus; to be an actor, especially in comedy and farce, was a proof of immorality. Though Richelieu’s passion for the stage had improved its prestige somewhat, this meant only that a few voices were raised to maintain its possible innocence against the condemnation of the vast majority.
Obviously young Molière was in love with the theater, and had to act. He may also have been already in love with Madeleine Béjart; their contemporaries were probably right in thinking them lovers, though all we actually know is that they were stanch colleagues and business partners. Their loyalty was tested from the first. Although the Béjarts raised all the money they could, after a year and a half in Paris the company failed and had to break up; Molière was twice imprisoned in the Châtelet for debt; he and the Béjarts left Paris to try their luck in the provinces. For twelve years they were on the road, mainly in the south.
For the first five of these they joined the company, headed by Du Fresne, of the Duc d’Épernon in Guyenne. When d’Épernon dropped them, Molière became head of the troupe. From 1653 to 1657 they were in the service of a great prince of the blood, the Prince de Conti, until his conversion. Even with a noble patron, the life was nomadic and precarious, and engagements hard to get. However, the company gradually made a name for itself and prospered. Molière gained a rich firsthand knowledge of life on many levels. In the last few years of their wanderings he tried his hand as a playwright with such plays as L’Étourdi and Le Dépit amoureux.
At last in 1658 they obtained another chance to play in the capital. On October 24 they appeared before young Louis XIV, his brother, and the court, in the guard room of the old Louvre, in a performance of Corneille’s tragedy Nicomède, which Molière followed with his own comedy The Doctor in Love. Soon they became the Troupe de Monsieur (the King’s brother) and were installed by royal order in the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon. Though they still performed tragedies, they succeeded more and more in comedy, in which Molière was on his way to recognition as the greatest actor of his time.
Within a year he made his mark also as a playwright with The Ridiculous Précieuses (November 18, 1659), which, though little more than a sketch, bore the stamp of his originality, keen observation, and rich comic inventiveness.* Nearly thirty-eight, Molière was to have thirteen more years to live, and was to live them as though he knew this was all. To his responsibilities as director and actor he added a hectic but glorious career as a very productive playwright, author of thirty-two comedies that we know, of which a good third are among the comic masterpieces of world literature. The stress of his many roles, of deadlines, and of controversy is well depicted in The Versailles Impromptu. Success led to success—and often to more controversy—but never to respite. He was to be carried off the stage to his deathbed. No doubt he wanted it that way, or almost that way; for probably no man has ever been more possessed by the theater.
On February 20, 1662, at the age of forty, he married the twenty-year-old Armande Béjart, a daughter (according to the mostly spiteful contemporaries) or sister (according to the official documents) of Madeleine. Though what we know of their domestic life is almost nothing, contemporary gossip, a friend’s letter, and Molière’s own preoccupation in several plays with a jealous older man in love with a flighty young charmer, combine to suggest an uneasy relationship. They had two sons who died in infancy and a daughter who survived. The King himself and his sister-in-law (Madame) were godfather and godmother to the first boy—no doubt to defend Molière against a charge, or rumor, that he had married his own daughter.
When the Petit-Bourbon theater was torn down in October 1660 to make way for the new façade of the Louvre, things looked bad; but the King granted the company the use of Richelieu’s great theater, the Palais-Royal, which remained Molière’s until his death. An early success there was his regular, elaborate verse comedy, The School for Husbands. Within a year of his marriage he wrote his first great play and one of his most popular, The School for Wives. It aroused much controversy; when Molière published it, he dedicated it to Madame; the King gave him the support he sought in the form of a pension of one thousand francs for this “excellent comic poet.” The Critique of the School for Wives and The Versailles Impromptu (June and October 1663) completed Molière’s victory in the eyes of the public.
However, his attack on extreme piety and hypocrisy in Tartuffe showed him the strength of his enemies. The first three-act version, performed in May 1664, was promptly banned. For the next five years much of his time and energy went into the fight to get it played: petitions, private readings, revisions, private performances. In August 1667 a five-act version entitled The Impostor was allowed a second public performance—then also banned. Only in February 1669 was the version that we know put on, with enormous success; and this time it was on the program to stay.
Meanwhile Molière had hit back at his enemies in 1665 in Don Juan, which he soon withdrew. In August of that year his company became The King’s Troupe, and his pension was raised to six thousand francs. A year later he completed his greatest and most complex play, The Misanthrope, which met only a modest success, and the light but brilliant farce that often served as a companion piece, The Doctor in Spite of Himself. In 1668 he displayed the bitter comic profundities of The Miser; and in the last four years of his life—still to mention only his finest plays—The Would-Be Gentleman, The Mischievous Machinations of Scapin, The Learned Women, and The Imaginary Invalid.
Molière’s last seven years were dogged by pulmonary illness. A bad bout in early 1666 and another in 1667 led him to accept a milk diet and spend much of the next four years apart from his wife in his house in Auteuil. The year before his own death saw those of his old friend Madeleine Béjart and later of his second son. As his health grew worse, he composed—characteristically—his final gay comedy about a healthy hypochondriac. Before its fourth performance, on February 17, 1673, he felt very ill; his wife and one of his actors urged him not to play that evening; he replied that the whole company depended a lot on him and that it was a point of honor to go on. He got through his part, in spite of one violent fit of coughing. A few hours later he was dead. Since he had not been able, while dying, to get a priest to come and receive his formal renunciation of his profession, a regular religious burial was denied at first, and later grudgingly granted—at night, with no notice, ceremony, or service—only after his widow’s plea to the King. He died and was buried as he had lived—as an actor.
* * *
Translations of Molière abound. Two of the most available, both complete, are by H. Baker and J. Miller (1739) and Henri Van Laun (1875–76). The former is satisfactory, but its eighteenth-century flavor is not always Molière’s; the latter is dull. Better for the modern reader are the versions of selected plays by John Wood (1953 and 1959), George Graveley (1956), and especially three others.
Curtis Hidden Page has translated eight well-chosen plays (Putnam, 1908, 2 vols.) which include three verse comedies done into unrhymed verse. Though it sometimes lacks sparkle, his version is always intelligent and responsible.
Morris Bishop’s recent translation of nine plays (one for Crofts Classics, 1950, eight for Modern Library, 1957) is much the best we have for all but two. His excellent selection includes six in prose (Précieuses, Critique, Impromptu, Physician in Spite of Himself, Would-Be Gentleman, Would-Be Invalid) and three done into unrhymed verse (School for Wives, Tartuffe, Misanthrope). His knowledge of Molière and talent for comic verse make his translation lively and racy, and his occasional liberties are usually well taken.
Richard Wilbur has translated Molière’s two greatest verse plays, The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, into rhymed verse (Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1955 and 1963). They are the best Molière we have in English. My sense of their excellence is perhaps best stated personally. I have long wanted to try my hand at translating Molière. When the Wilbur Misanthrope appeared, I decided not to attempt it unless I thought I would do that play either better or at least quite differently. When I finally tried it, I was surprised to find how different I wanted to make it. Wilbur’s end product is superb; but in his Misanthrope I sometimes miss the accents of Molière.* His Tartuffe seems to me clearly better, since it follows the original closely even in detail. Both are beautiful translations. Again and again my quest for sense and for rhymes has led me to the same solution that Wilbur found earlier.
The question whether foreign rhyme should be translated into English rhyme has been often debated and seems to me infinitely debatable. I think a different answer may be appropriate for each poet, and perhaps for each translator. Page explains his rejection of rhyme as something unnatural to good English dramatic verse; but he also recognizes that he often found it harder to avoid rhyme than to use it, and that unrhymed verse is more difficult than rhymed to write well. I think this last point explains my disappointment at some of his and Bishop’s lines. Against the point that rhymed dramatic verse is not natural in English, I would argue that it seems to me almost necessary for Molière. Wilbur has made the case brilliantly in his introduction to The Misanthrope, pointing to certain specific effects—mock tragedy, “musical” poetic relationships of words, even the redundancy and logic of the argument—which demand rhyme. In my opinion, rhyme affects what Molière says as well as the way he says it enough to make it worthwhile to use it in English, and the loss in precision need not be great.
Fidelity in meter, however, seems clearly to mean putting Molière’s alexandrines into English iambic pentameter, and, although allowing some liberties with syllable-count as natural to English, holding rather closely to the precise count that the practice of Molière’s day demanded. However, this reduction in length, while translating (which normally lengthens) even from French into English (which normally shortens), often forces the translator to choose between Molière’s ever-recurring initial “and’s” (and occasional “but’s”) and some key word in the same line. I have usually chosen to retain the key word; but at times I deliberately have not, for fear of losing too much of Molière’s generally easy flow and making him too constipated and sententious.
Molière’s characteristic language is plain, correct, functional, often argumentative, not slangy but conversational. Since in French—despite many savory archaisms—he does not generally strike the modern reader as at all archaic, he should not in English. For most of his writing, verse and prose, I have sought an English that is familiar and acceptable today but not obviously anachronistic.
However, there is much truth in Mornet’s statement that Molière is one of the few great writers who has no style, but rather all the styles of all his characters. The departures from the norm noted above are as common as the norm itself. The earthy talk of peasants and servants is in constant (and sometimes direct) contrast with the lofty affectation of bluestockings and précieuses and the pomposity of pedants; manner as well as matter distinguish a Don Juan from a Sganarelle, Lucile and Cléonte from Nicole and Covielle; Alceste’s explosiveness colors his language and enhances his opposition to Philinte; Charlotte even speaks better French to Don Juan than to her peasant swain Pierrot. To render this infinite variety the translator must call to his aid all the resources of his language—anachronistic or not—that he can command.
A special problem is that of dialect, as in Don Juan and The Doctor in Spite of Himself. To the dialect of the Île de France that Molière uses, familiar to his audience, I see no satisfactory equivalent in English. Since part of the dialect humor rests on bad grammar (“j’avons” and the like) and rustic oaths, I have tried to suggest this by similar, mainly countrified, lapses and exclamations.
My aim, in short, has been to put Molière as faithfully as I could into modern English, hewing close to his exact meaning and keeping all I could of his form and his verve.
* * *
The edition I have mainly relied on for this translation is that of Molière’s Œuvres by Eugène Despois and Paul Mesnard (Paris: Hachette, 1873–1900, 14 vols.). I have followed the standard stage directions and division of the play into scenes. The stage directions do not normally indicate entrances and exits as such, since in the French tradition these are shown in print by a change of scenes and signalized only in that way.
* * *
I should like to acknowledge three debts: to earlier translators, especially Page, Bishop, and Wilbur; to Sanford R. Kadet for his thorough reading of the Tartuffe and valuable suggestions; and, as always, to my wife, Katharine M. Frame, for her ready and critical ear and her unfailing encouragement.
—Donald M. Frame
Molière is the most popular French playwright in the United States, the most frequently translated and produced. In fact, Molière’s may be the only French plays many Americans will ever read or see performed onstage. Although written more than 325 years ago, his thirty-three farces, comedies, satires, and court entertainments include plays that are not only fresh and funny but marked by trenchant and still relevant observations about human nature and human foibles. His great subjects are the gender and marital wars, middle-class alienation, the gullibility of man faced with disease and death, and—often seen by theater producers as most applicable to us today—the malignancy of religious hypocrisy.
The playwright and actor who was to rename himself Sieur de Molière was baptized Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris on January 15, 1622. Although his father, Jean Poquelin, was a middle-class merchant and member of the guild of upholsterers, Jean-Baptiste was given the education of a young gentleman. He attended the most prestigious school in Paris, the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit institution on the Left Bank where noble and even royal children were sent to learn classical languages and the arts of speaking and writing. From there he may have gone to Orléans to study law—or his father may have bought him a degree. It would seem that the ambitious father wanted something more for his son than an apartment over a shop. Law was the way in which middle-class men prepared themselves for offices in the state bureaucracies, eventually becoming “nobles of the robe.” So, Clermont, the law, and tomorrow the world.
Fate in the guise of a red-haired actress named Madeleine intervened. Madeleine Béjart was four years older than Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. She, too, came from a bourgeois background, but at the age of seventeen, Madeleine had herself “emancipated,” that is, declared free of the control of her parents, and became the mistress of a nobleman, the count of Modène. The novelist Georges de Scudéry described her as an actress as “one of the best of the century who had the power to inspire in reality all the feigned passions that are seen on the stage.” She certainly inspired passion in young Poquelin.
In June 1643, Jean-Baptiste along with Madeleine, her brother, and seven others signed a contract establishing themselves as the Illustrious Theater. According to their agreement, the heroes were to be played by Poquelin, Joseph Béjart, and one other, while Madeleine was to choose whatever roles she wanted. The theater opened on New Year’s Day 1644 in a converted tennis court on the Left Bank. It was not a success. Joseph Béjart stuttered, while Poquelin, who wanted desperately to be a tragic actor, lacked, according to Angelique du Croisy, whose parents were members of the troupe, “those external gifts” required to play princes and heroes. He had a short neck and slightly bowed legs and was, as a later critic noted, categorically comic. Only Madeleine was truly suited to play the tragic repertory that was all that mattered in the 1640s.
After the end of the Wars of Religion in 1594, professional traveling troupes gave public performances in Paris, but the first permanent troupe was established there only in 1629, and theater was still in its early days when the Illustrious Theater tried to make a place for itself. In 1644, there were two “official” troupes approved by Louis XIII: the King’s Actors at the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Royal Troupe at the Théâtre du Marais. The Illustrious Théâtre had the protection of Gaston d’Orléans, Louis XIII’s brother, although his patronage did not extend to the financial assistance that was so desperately needed.
The young actors hung on somehow, falling further and further behind, until July 1645, when Jean-Baptiste Poquelin—now calling himself Molière—found himself in debtors’ prison. Once released, he left Paris with Madeleine and joined a provincial troupe led by Charles Dufresne. The long exile had begun.
Many biographers and critics have suggested that Molière changed his name in order to spare his family the embarrassment of being related to an actor. In fact, most actors adopted stage names, usually taken from nature or from a geographical location—du Parc, de la Grange, de Montfleury, de Brie—all of which allowed the actor or actress to use the particule, the “de” that indicates upper-class origin. No one was fooled by this obvious fiction, but actors, who were mostly from the artisan class or from theatrical families, liked to match their noble names to their noble roles. And perhaps this convention made it easier for them to accept their status as people whose profession meant exclusion from society and excommunication from the Church.
For thirteen years, Molière performed in the provinces of France. By 1653 the company was known as the troupe of Molière and Mlle. Béjart. In that same year, the prince de Conti, fifth in line for the French throne, became Molière’s patron and friend. The stagestruck prince enjoyed strolling in his park at Pézenas with the actor, discussing plays and reading choice passages aloud.
Like most French theatergoers of his time, Molière was entranced by the antics of the Italian actors of the Commedia dell’Arte, whose improvised comic entertainments were seen both in Paris and throughout the country, and his first efforts as a playwright were French versions of several farces from the Italian repertory. In 1655 he wrote his first full-length play, L’Étourdi (The Simpleton). A year later he added Le Dépit amoureux (The Vexation of Love) to his repertory. Both are workmanlike farces based on Italian models with excellent roles for comic actors, especially for Molière himself, who had begun to specialize in playing a clever servant named Mascarille.
In this same year, the prince de Conti, suffering from the symptoms of syphilis, noisily reformed his life. He became zealously pious and dismissed the actors that “used to bear his name.” From that time on, he was an implacable enemy of the theater, part of the devout party at court that would cause his former “friend” such extreme distress. However, the critic Chappeauzeau had written of the troupe that, although itinerant, it was “ordinarily just as good as that of the Hôtel [de Bourgogne].” If this were true, then perhaps it was time for Molière and his companions to test the waters in Paris. On October 24, 1658, a tryout was arranged by Louis XIV’s younger brother, Philippe d’Orleans, known as Monsieur, and although the tragedy was not a success, a little farce by Molière called Le Docteur amoureux (The Amorous Doctor) saved the day.
The king awarded the Troupe of Monsieur the right to share with an Italian Commedia dell’Arte company a royal theater known as the Petit-Bourbon. The troupe of ten that began to play there on November 2, 1658, was celebrated for Molière, its farceur, and for its three beautiful actresses, Madeleine Béjart, Catherine de Brie, and Marquise du Parc, but it lacked a young leading man to play lovers and heroes. Its initial repertory of tragedies by Corneille failed to please, but matters improved when Molière’s two comic plays were introduced.
Paris was ready to laugh. In the late 1630s, farce had been largely driven from the stage by reformers led by Cardinal Richelieu. The most successful comic playwright of the 1640s and 1650s was Paul Scarron, who wrote primarily for an actor named Julian Bedeau, known as Jodelet. Molière announced a new direction for his troupe when he lured Jodelet away from the Marais. To welcome the old farceur, Molière wrote a new afterpiece, a short comic play to follow the main tragedy or comedy. Starring Molière as Mascarille and Bedeau as Jodelet, The Ridiculous Précieuses was accused of being nothing but a trifle, a miserable farce that was all Molière and his troupe were capable of staging. In one sense the attackers were right. The Ridiculous Précieuses is, according to seventeenth-century definitions, a farce in most ways. It is short and written in prose, it has middle-class provincials and servants for its characters, and it ends with indecency and violence. Like the farces performed on the same stage by the Italians, it features stock characters: one played in white face, the other in a black mask. On the other hand, it savagely mocks the language and manners of certain pretentious upper-class Parisian women and members of the complacent literary establishment. Its intention is not just to amuse but to condemn and correct, and its targets were only too aware that that “actor,” that “farceur” had dared to declare himself a serious, satirical voice. It was a solid hit.
Another actor joined the troupe after Easter of 1659. He was a young leading man named Charles Varlet de la Grange, and his presence made it possible to offer comedies with romantic intrigues. Romantic intrigue was also in the offing for Molière. Although he and Madeleine had been together for many years, they had never married. Now Molière was involved with seventeen-year-old Armande Béjart, possibly Madeleine’s younger sister, probably her daughter, whom he would marry in 1662.
La Grange’s presence in the company, and Molière’s own preoccupations, may have influenced the creation of a series of plays dealing with marriage, jealousy, and cuckoldry: The Imaginary Cuckold (1660), Don Garcie of Navarre (1661), The School for Husbands (1661), and The School for Wives (1662). The first was another afterpiece, the second a poetic failure. The third and especially the fourth introduced Molière’s great character comedies. The School for Wives was an enormous success and the cause of a notorious literary quarrel.
Molière had marriage on his mind in the spring of 1661 when he was writing The School for Husbands. His role was Sganarelle, a rich, conservative Parisian bourgeois who is about to marry Isabelle, his much younger ward, whom he keeps in near seclusion. His brother, Ariste, has charge of Isabelle’s sister, Léonor, but is far more liberal in his outlook. In his view, there is nothing wrong with dances and parties; “the school of the world teaches better than any book.” Isabelle has caught the eye of a young neighbor Valère—the first of La Grange’s seductive lovers—and gladly collaborates with him to betray Sganarelle. The two brothers are a study in contrasts: the one attuned to the new society of the young reign of Louis XIV, the other with a precarious hold on a world that is slipping away, where women are property whose value depends on their chastity. The women also differ. Léonor is straightforward and ready to engage in a reasonable marriage with her “good old man,” while Isabelle is a practiced trickster who, seeing her choice narrowed to “Valère or despair,” seizes on a strategy of deceit to escape Sganarelle’s repressive ideal.
The School for Husbands is not a farce. It is in form a regular comedy, set on a Paris street following the Roman model. It is in three acts, not five, but it follows the unities of time and place, is written in verse, and is without any farce interludes or physical action. Its successor, The School for Wives, which opened in December 1662, is similar in form. The action takes place in less than twenty-four hours and is set on a street in a provincial city. It is in five acts and in verse, with farce interludes played by the servants. The School for Wives is, however, a far more complex and subtle play than its predecessor.
Between the two plays a number of important events happened. The company was put out of its theater at the Petit-Bourbon, but its members were granted use of another royal theater at the Palais-Royal. Molière wrote his first play on command, Les Fâcheux, commissioned by Superintendent of Finances Nicolas Fouquet for a festival meant to impress his magnificence on the young king. A disaster for Fouquet, whose career ended when Louis realized the extent of his probable misappropriation of state funds, the fête at Vaux-le-Vicomte put Molière on the road to royal favor. Finally, Molière married Armande Béjart on February 20, 1662, and she, now known as Mlle. Molière, joined the troupe. He was forty; she was about twenty.
The scandal of the marriage—had Molière married his own daughter, as some would claim?—magnified the scandal of the play School for Wives. Opening in time for the Christmas season of 1662 and the carnival of 1663, The School for Wives had thirty-one performances before the Easter break and another thirty-two after it was joined by its Critique on June 1. It was Molière’s first enormous hit and has remained one of his most popular plays. The Comédie-Française, France’s state theater, has played The School for Wives 1,593 times between its founding in 1680 and the turn of the millennium in 1999.
The play introduces Arnolphe, a rich provincial bourgeois, who has an obsessive fear of being betrayed sexually. In order to ensure his piece of mind, Arnolphe has bought a female child and has had her raised in extreme seclusion in a convent. He then brings the innocent Agnès to a second house he owns, away from his normal social activity, and prepares to marry her. Agnès is, of course, soon spotted on the balcony by Horace, an unpracticed seducer whose intentions are more or less honorable. In the end, the young lovers prevail over Arnolphe, whose final strangled “ouf” as he leaves the stage signals the defeat of his elaborate scheme to create for himself a marriage in which he has complete empire over his browbeaten bride.
Arnolphe is a far more complex character than Sganarelle, however. He is a little old-fashioned, to be sure, but he is friendly, generous, and socially ambitious. A bit of a libertine himself, he knows what young men want. And unlike Sganarelle, he makes the mistake of falling deeply in love with his charge, which sends him into a state of extreme sexual jealousy. Agnès is also more interesting than Isabelle. Bitterly aware of her lack of education and social savvy, she, too, learns quickly how to deceive her watchful guardian and, in the end, rejects his idea of marriage as “vexatious” and “painful” and opts for the pleasures offered by Horace, especially that little “je ne sais quoi” deep inside.
It was Molière himself who established the terms of what we call the quarrel of The School for Wives when he wrote an afterpiece, The Critique of the School for Wives. Opening on June 1, 1663, the Critique takes place in a Parisian drawing room where pedants, society women, and one reasonable fellow debate the merits of the play and argue about such lines as the servant Alain’s famous declaration to his wife that “woman is the soup of man.” The Marquis objects that the play cannot be good since the common people in the audience laughed at it, while the writer Lysidas argues that it sins against all the rules of art. It was this afterpiece—which doubled the run of the main piece—that actually prompted a flood of pamphlets and plays. Critics protested the play’s sexual innuendos and irreverent religious references, although the true incentive to attack it may have been its success, which frightened the actors at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Molière also included a rather obvious joke at the expense of Pierre Corneille’s brother, Thomas, and the Corneilles unleashed their protégé Boursault whose personal attack on Molière, The Portrait of the Painter, was staged by the Hôtel.
Molière responded to the barrage with The Impromptu at Versailles, which joined the repertory on October 18. In this fascinating short play, Molière and the members of his troupe play themselves. He burlesques the king’s actors, especially the obese Montfleury, who played kings and noble heroes, tries to rehearse his distracted company, and finally announces the end of the quarrel, responding firmly to the personal attacks mounted in Boursault’s play and slyly suggesting that the real issue was that his play had made too much money.
Within months of the end of the commotion over The School for Wives, Molière was embroiled in another controversy, one that would change him and his work forever. In May 1664, as part of an elaborate festival at Versailles, Molière presented three acts of a new play entitled The Hypocrite, the first of several versions of Tartuffe. Further productions were immediately forbidden by the king. It would be nearly five years before the completed play would become Molière’s most successful and profitable comedy.
The battle for Tartuffe was not fought with pamphlets and plays but with trips to court and petitions to the king. On the one side, Molière insisted that his targets were not the Church and the truly pious but only the hypocrites who used religion to their own advantage; on the other, socially conservative fundamentalists known as les dévots used all their influence to keep the play off the stage. Retitled The Imposter and with the central character, now called Panulphe, recostumed as a fashionable Parisian, the play opened in Paris in August 1667, and was closed by the president of the Parlement after one performance. In addition, the archbishop of Paris promised to excommunicate anyone who saw it or even read it. Why the king finally permitted it to be performed in February 1669 is not clear, but after five years of scandal, all Paris rushed to see it.
In the meantime Molière wrote a second attack on hypocrisy: Don Juan, or The Stone Feast (widely translated as The Stone Guest.) The most baroque of his plays and a modern favorite, Don Juan was allowed to run for fifteen performances between Mardi Gras and the Lenten closing in 1565, although it was censored after the first night and the actors were forced to donate part of their profits to the Capuchin friars. After the Easter break, the play did not reopen. It was not published until the complete works of Molière appeared in 1682, and then it was further censored. Its next appearance on the Paris stage was in 1841.
One would think that Don Juan, who believes only that two and two are four and who chooses hypocrisy as the way to thrive in a noble world of codes and masks, would have been found more offensive than the wily seducer Tartuffe. Perhaps he was, but because Don Juan was done only in Paris and the king never saw it, it was less noticed at court; or perhaps because it was so clearly meant as an indictment of Molière’s former patron, Conti, it found admirers in those who universally disliked the prince and disputed the sincerity of his conversion. In the long run, Don Juan suffered a more extreme fate than Tartuffe, but Molière was apparently less committed to it.
Molière played neither Tartuffe nor Don Juan. In Tartuffe his role was Orgon, the rich bourgeois dupe with the beautiful young wife lusted after by the hypocrite. In Don Juan he played Sganarelle, whose only connection to the Sganarelle of The School for Husbands is the costume. Here he is the valet of the hero, who tries with limited skills and from a worldview distorted by superstition to persuade his master to mend his ways. Sganarelle is a burlesque version of the private directors of conscience many noblemen, including Conti, employed to put them on the high road to salvation.
Molière was, of course, accused of being himself an atheist or, more reasonably, a “libertine,” a free thinker and a free liver. He probably was. His life was irregular, he was deeply sexual, and he had some questionable friends. And his constant protest that he was not targeting the Church is disingenuous. The fundamentalist wing of the Roman Catholic Church represented a danger to the rational and secular state that was developing in France in the early years of the personal reign of Louis XIV. Molière, educated by the more liberal Jesuits, had every reason to fear the power of the dévots and every reason to believe that the king did as well. He was right, eventually, but the struggle cost him. His almost personal relationship with the king was over, as perhaps was his sense of his own power to influence change. He became a cynical survivor.
After 1666 he was ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him. His marriage was troubled; his son was dead. He continued to write entertainments for the court and comedies for the Paris audience. In February 1673, during the fourth performance of his new play, The Imaginary Invalid, Molière had a hemorrhage onstage and died in his apartment on the rue de Richelieu a few hours later. His enemies almost had the last word when the local parish priest refused him Christian burial because he was an actor. The king intervened and Molière was escorted to his grave at night, silently, with torches and a crowd of hundreds. For them it was, as a friend wrote, a “farewell to laughter.”
The Ridiculous Précieuses
THE RIDICULOUS PRÉCIEUSES
A prose comedy in seventeen scenes, first performed November 18, 1659, following Corneille’s tragedy Cinna, at the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon, by Molière’s company, then under the patronage of the King’s brother and known as the Troupe de Monsieur. Molière played Mascarille. In the farce tradition, the characters had either stock names (Mascarille, Gorgibus), or the stage names of the actors who played them (La Grange, Du Croisy, the pale-faced Jodelet), or nicknames—Cathos (pronounced Cat-o) for Catherine de Brie, Magdelon (the g is silent) for Madeleine Béjart, Marotte for Marie Ragueneau. Molière’s success in the role almost led him to adopt “Mascarille” as a new stage name. Although some wounded précieuses succeeded in having the play momentarily banned, the second performance, only two weeks after the first, was triumphant.
This was Molière’s first big success as a writer. He was almost thirty-eight and had made the theater his life for over sixteen years: first in Paris (where he failed), then for over twelve years of growing success in the provinces, then in Paris again. At first mainly director-manager-actor, in the last several years he had written at least four plays. Now for the first time, without abandoning the stock resources of French farce and Italian commedia dell’ arte, he dared to rely mainly on his own gifts of observation, dialogue, and mimicry. The result is still essentially and frankly farce, but also shrewd and delightful caricature. There is a reality to these characters that is new, not only to Molière but to the French comic stage. Preciosity is Protean and timeless: Cathos and Magdelon, their costumes and mannerisms brought up to date, are as alive today as they were three centuries ago.
The preciosity of the time was a natural exaggeration of France’s seventeenth-century quest of elegance and refinement. It is marked already early in the century in Honoré d’Urfé’s best-selling pastoral novel, Astrée, later in the salon of Catherine, marquise de Rambouillet (“the incomparable Arthénice”), and more recently in the bluestocking salon and novels (Le Grand Cyrus, Clélie) of Madeleine de Scudéry. Many sober heads attacked it. Though Molière touches Mlle. de Scudéry in passing, he chooses a surer target, not the great précieuses themselves but two of their silly latter-day provincial imitators. Though there are touches of preciosity here and there in his own work, it was a natural target for his hatred of pretense, his earthiness, his robust love of life. Nothing could kill preciosity; Molière did much to make it a laughingstock.
THE RIDICULOUS PRÉCIEUSES
GORGIBUS, A MEMBER OF A GOOD BOURGEOIS FAMILY
MAGDELON, daughter of Gorgibus, a ridiculous précieuse
CATHOS, NIECE OF GORGIBUS, A RIDICULOUS PRÉCIEUSE
MAROTTE, maid of the ridiculous précieuses
ALMANZOR, LACKEY OF THE RIDICULOUS PRÉCIEUSES
THE MARQUIS DE MASCARILLE, valet of La Grange
THE VISCOUNT DE JODELET, VALET OF DU CROISY
Scene 1. LA GRANGE, DU CROISY
DU CROISY. Seigneur La Grange . . .
LA GRANGE. What?
DU CROISY. Look at me for one moment without laughing.
LA GRANGE. Well?
DU CROISY. What do you think of our visit? Are you quite happy about it?
LA GRANGE. In your opinion, has either of us reason to be?
DU CROISY. Not completely, to tell the truth.
LA GRANGE. For my part, I admit I am thoroughly shocked. Tell me, did anyone ever see two cornfed country wenches put on more exaggerated airs than those two, or two men treated with more disdain than we were? They could hardly prevail upon themselves to have chairs brought for us. I have never seen so much whispering in one another’s ears as they put on, so much yawning, so much rubbing of their eyes, so much asking: “What time is it?” Did they answer any more than yes or no to anything we could say to them? And in short, won’t you admit that even if we had been the lowest people on earth, we couldn’t have been treated worse than we were?
DU CROISY. It seems to me you’re taking the matter much to heart.
LA GRANGE. Indeed I am, and so much so that I mean to take revenge on this impertinence. I know the thing that made them despise us. Preciosity has not merely infected Paris, it has also spread in the provinces, and these ridiculous snobs of ours have inhaled a good dose of it. In short, they are a strange concoction of précieuse and coquette. I see what you have to be in order for them to receive you well; and if you will follow my suggestion, we’ll put on a show for the two of them that will make them see their folly, and may teach them to know their way around a little better.
DU CROISY. And how do we do that?
LA GRANGE. I have a certain valet named Mascarille, who passes in many people’s opinion for a kind of wit; for there’s nothing cheaper than wit nowadays. He’s a real character, who has taken it into his head to insist on playing the man of quality. He has confirmed pretensions to gallantry and to writing poetry, and disdains the other valets to the point of calling them brutes.
DU CROISY. Well, what do you mean to do with him?
LA GRANGE. What do I mean to do? We must . . . But first let’s get out of here.
Scene 2. GORGIBUS, DU CROISY, LA GRANGE
GORGIBUS. Well! You’ve seen my niece and my daughter; how are things coming along? What’s the result of your visit?
LA GRANGE. That is something you can learn from them better than from us. All we can tell you is that we give you thanks for the favor you have done us, and remain your very humble servants.
GORGIBUS. Well, now! They seem to be leaving very dissatisfied. What can be the reason for their discontent? I must get some idea of what’s going on. Hey there!
Scene 3. MAROTTE, GORGIBUS
MAROTTE. What do you wish, sir?
GORGIBUS. Where are your mistresses?
MAROTTE. In their boudoir.
GORGIBUS. What are they doing?
MAROTTE. Making lip cream.
GORGIBUS. That’s too much creamery. Tell them to come down. (Exit MAROTTE.) Those hussies, with their lip cream, I think they want to ruin me. All I see around is whites of eggs, virgin’s milk, and a thousand other kinds of junk that I don’t know anything about. Since we’ve been here they’ve used up the fat of a dozen pigs, at least, and four valets could live every day on the sheep’s trotters they consume.
Scene 4. MAGDELON, CATHOS, GORGIBUS
GORGIBUS. That certainly is a necessary expense, all you put out to grease your snouts! Now you just tell me what you did to those gentlemen, for me to see them leaving so coldly. Didn’t I order you to receive them as persons I wanted to give you as husbands?
MAGDELON. And what esteem, Father, do you expect us to have for the irregular procedure of those individuals?
CATHOS. How in the world, Uncle, could a girl with the slightest sense put up with their persons?
GORGIBUS. And what do you find wrong with them?
MAGDELON. Theirs is fine gallantry indeed! What! Start right out with marriage!
GORGIBUS. And what do you want them to start with? Concubinage? Isn’t their procedure one that you have reason to be gratified with, as well as I? Could anything be more obliging than that? And the holy bond that they seek, isn’t that evidence of their honorable intentions?
MAGDELON. Oh, Father, that kind of talk is utterly bourgeois. It makes me ashamed to hear you speak that way, and you should learn a little about how things are done with an elegant air.
GORGIBUS. I have no use for airs or songs. I tell you that marriage is a simple and a holy thing, and that it is acting honorably to begin with it.
MAGDELON. Good heavens, if everyone were like you, how soon a romance would be ended! A fine thing it would be if Cyrus married Mandane at the start, and if Aronce were wedded to Clélie without any difficulty!*
GORGIBUS (to CATHOS). What’s this one telling me?
MAGDELON. Father, my cousin here will tell you just as well as I that marriage must never come until after the other adventures. A lover, to be agreeable, must know how to utter fine sentiments, breathe from his heart things sweet, tender, and passionate; and his suit must follow the rules. First he must see, in church, or on a walk, or at some public ceremony, the person with whom he falls in love; or else be fatally taken to her house by a relative or friend, and leave there dreamy and melancholy. For a time he hides his passion from the beloved object, and meanwhile pays her several visits, in which some question of gallantry never fails to be brought up to exercise the wits of the company. Comes the day of the declaration, which should ordinarily be made in some garden walk, while the company has moved on a bit; and this declaration is followed by instant wrath, which shows in our blushes, and which, for a time, banishes the lover from our presence. Then he finds a way to appease us, to accustom us imperceptibly to his talk about his passion, and to draw from us that admission that pains us so. After that come the adventures, the rivals that cross an established inclination, the persecutions of fathers, the jealousies conceived over false appearances, the laments, the despairs, the abductions, and what follows. That is how things are done with elegance; and those are the rules that cannot be dispensed with in proper gallantry. But to come point-blank to the conjugal union, to make love only by making the marriage contract, and to take the romance precisely by the tail! I repeat, Father, nothing could be more mercantile than such a procedure; and just the picture it gives me makes me nauseated.
GORGIBUS. What the devil is this jargon I hear? That’s the grand style all right!
CATHOS. Indeed, Uncle, my cousin hits the truth of the matter. How can one receive people well who are completely incongruous in matters of gallantry? I’ll wager they have never seen the map of Tenderland,* and that Sweet-Notes, Small-Attentions, Gallant-Notes, and Pretty-Verses are unknown lands to them. Don’t you see that their whole person shows this, and that they do not have that air that makes a good first impression? To come to pay their court with an unadorned leg, a hat disarmed of feathers, an uncurled head of hair, and a coat that suffers from an indigence of ribbons . . . ! Good heavens, what kind of lovers are these! What frugality in attire and what aridity in conversation! One can’t endure it, one can’t abide it. I also noted that their neckcloths are not of the right make, and that their breeches are a good half a foot short of being wide enough.
GORGIBUS (aside). I think they’re both crazy, and I can’t understand a word of this gibberish. (Aloud) Cathos, and you, Magdelon . . .
MAGDELON. Oh! I beg you, Father, divest yourself of those strange names, and address us otherwise.
GORGIBUS. How’s that? Those strange names? Aren’t they the names you were christened with?
MAGDELON. Good heavens, how vulgar you are! For my part, one thing that astounds me is that you could have a daughter as clever as I. Did anyone, in the grand style, ever speak of Cathos or Magdelon? And won’t you admit that one of those names would be enough to discredit the finest romance in the world?
CATHOS. It is true, Uncle, that even a slightly delicate ear suffers frantically on hearing those words pronounced; and the names Polyxène, which my cousin has chosen, and that of Aminte,* which I have adopted, have a grace that you must acknowledge.
GORGIBUS. Listen: just one word will do it. I don’t intend that you shall have any other names than those that were given you by your godfathers and godmothers. And as for the gentlemen in question, I know their families and their possessions, and it is my firm will that you make ready to receive them as husbands. I’m getting tired of having you on my hands, and taking care of two girls is a little too heavy a load for a man of my age.
CATHOS. As for me, Uncle, all I can tell you is that I consider marriage a very shocking thing. How can one endure the thought of sleeping beside a man who is actually naked?
MAGDELON. Allow us to catch our breath a bit amid the high society of Paris, where we have only just arrived. Let us weave the web of our romance at leisure, and do not push the conclusion so hard.
GORGIBUS (aside). There’s no doubt about it, they’re completely daft. (Aloud) Once more, I don’t understand a thing about all this twaddle; I intend to be absolute master; and, to cut short every kind of talk, either you will both be married before very long, or, my word, you shall be nuns! This I swear to you.
Scene 5. CATHOS, MAGDELON
CATHOS. Good heavens, my dear, how sunk your father’s spiritual form is in matter! How thick is his intelligence, and how dark it is in his soul!
MAGDELON. What can you expect, my dear? I am dismayed for him. I can hardly convince myself that I can really be his daughter, and I think some day some adventure will come and unfold for me a more illustrious birth.
CATHOS. I could well believe it; yes, there is all the likelihood in the world. And as for me, too, when I look at myself . . .
Scene 6. MAROTTE, CATHOS, MAGDELON
MAROTTE. Here is a lackey asking if you’re at home. He says his master wants to come in and see you.
MAGDELON. Stupid girl, learn to pronounce yourself less vulgarly. Say: “Here is a necessity who asks if you might find it commodious to be visible.”
MAROTTE. Mercy me! I don’t know no Latin, and I haven’t learned philophosy like you in The Great Sire.*
MAGDELON. Such impertinence! How can one bear it? And who is this lackey’s master?
MAROTTE. He said his name is the Marquis de Mascarille.
MAGDELON. Ah, my dear, a marquis! (To MAROTTE) Yes, go and say that he may see us. (To CATHOS) No doubt he is some wit who has heard about us.
CATHOS. Assuredly, my dear.
MAGDELON. We must receive him in this downstairs room rather than in our bedroom. Let’s at least arrange our hair a bit and live up to our reputation. (To MAROTTE) Quick, come in here and tender us the counselor of the graces.
MAROTTE. My word, I don’t know what sort of animal that is. You’ve got to talk Christian if you want me to understand you.
CATHOS. Bring us the mirror, you ignoramus, and take good care not to sully the glass by the communication of your image.
Scene 7. MASCARILLE, TWO CARRIERS
MASCARILLE. Hey there, porters, hey! There, there, there, there, there, there! I think these rascals mean to break me in pieces by crashing against the walls and the pavements.
FIRST CARRIER. Well! That’s because the door is narrow. And you had to have us come all the way in here.
MASCARILLE. I should think so. You louts, would you have me expose the portliness of my plumes to the inclemencies of the pluvious season, and imprint my shoes in mud? Come, get your chair out of here.
SECOND CARRIER. Then pay us, please, sir.
SECOND CARRIER. I say, sir, for you to give us our money, please.
MASCARILLE (giving him a slap). What, rascal, ask money of a person of my quality?
SECOND CARRIER. Is that the way you pay poor folk? And your quality—can we eat it for dinner?
MASCARILLE. Aha! Aha! I’ll teach you to know your place! These oafs dare to stand up to me!
FIRST CARRIER (picking up one of the poles of his chair). All right! Pay us real quick.
FIRST CARRIER. I say I want to have some money right away.
MASCARILLE. He is reasonable.
FIRST CARRIER. Make it quick.
MASCARILLE. Yes, of course. Now you speak properly; but the other fellow is a knave who doesn’t know what he is saying. Here: are you satisfied?
FIRST CARRIER. No, I’m not satisfied: you slapped my partner’s face, and . . . (raising the pole again)
MASCARILLE. Gently now. Here, this is for the slap. People get anything they want from me when they go about it in the right way. All right, come back and get me in a while to take me to the Louvre for the King’s petit coucher.*
Scene 8. MAROTTE, MASCARILLE
MAROTTE. Sir, my mistresses will be down right away.
MASCARILLE. Tell them not to hurry; I’m comfortably established here to wait.
MAROTTE. Here they are.
Scene 9. MAGDELON, CATHOS, MASCARILLE, ALMANZOR
MASCARILLE (after bowing). Ladies, you will no doubt be surprised at the audacity of my visit; but your reputation makes you suffer this misadventure, and merit has such potent charms for me that I pursue it everywhere.
MAGDELON. If you pursue merit, it is not on our lands that you should hunt.
CATHOS. If you see merit here with us, you must have brought it here yourself.
MASCARILLE. Ah! Your statement I categorically deny. Renown testifies truly in reporting your worth; and you will score pique, repique, and capot* over all the gallant society of Paris.
MAGDELON. Your complaisance carries the liberality of its praises a little too far; and my cousin and I shall take good care not to let our seriousness fall into the sweet trap of your flattery.
CATHOS. My dear, we should have chairs brought.
MAGDELON. Ho there, Almanzor!
MAGDELON. Quick, carriage us hither the commodities of conversation.
MASCARILLE. But is there at least any security here for me?
CATHOS. What do you fear?
MASCARILLE. Some theft of my heart, some assassination of my freedom. Here I see eyes that look like very dangerous lads, fit for a surprise attack on a person’s liberty and for treating a soul as a Turk treats a Moorish slave. What the devil is this? As soon as one approaches them, they are simply murderously on guard! Ah! Faith, I mistrust them, and I’m getting out of here, or else I want a solid safeconduct to insure that they will do me no harm.
MAGDELON. My dear, he’s the sprightly type.
CATHOS. I see, he’s a regular Amilcar.*
MAGDELON. Have no fear: our eyes have no evil designs, and your heart may sleep assured of their probity.
CATHOS. But have mercy, sir, do not be inexorable toward this chair which has been holding out its arms to you for a quarter of an hour; give some satisfaction to its desire to embrace you.
MASCARILLE (after combing his wig and adjusting his knee ruffles). Well, ladies, what do you say about Paris?
MAGDELON. Alas! What could we say? One must be the antipodes of reason not to confess that Paris is the great bureau of marvels, the center of good taste, wit, and gallantry.
MASCARILLE. For my part, I maintain that outside Paris there is no salvation for people of breeding.
CATHOS. That is an incontestable truth.
MASCARILLE. It is a bit muddy; but we have the sedan chair.
MAGDELON. True, the sedan chair is a marvelous entrenchment against the assaults of mud and bad weather.
MASCARILLE. You receive many visits: what great wit belongs to your circle?
MAGDELON. Alas! We are not yet known; but we are on our way to be, and we have a special friend who has promised to bring with her all the writers for the Collection of Choice Miscellanies.*
CATHOS. And certain other men too whose names we have heard as those of the sovereign arbiters of elegance.
MASCARILLE. I’m the man who will arrange that for you better than anyone. They all come to see me, and I may say that I never rise in the morning without a half-dozen wits in waiting.
MAGDELON. Oh! Heavens! We’ll be obliged to you, but with the utmost obligation, if you will do us that kindness. For after all, one must be acquainted with all those gentlemen if one wants to belong to elegant society. They are the ones who make reputations in Paris, and you know that there is one of them such that mere association with him gives you a name for being in the know, even without any other reason. But for my part, what I particularly consider is that by means of these intellectual visits one keeps informed about a hundred things that one absolutely must know and which are of the essence of wit. Thus one learns every day the gossip of gallantry, the pretty exchanges of prose and verse. One finds out at the right time: “So-and-So has composed the prettiest play in the world on such-and-such a subject; this lady has written words to that tune; this man has done a madrigal about favors enjoyed; that one has composed stanzas about an infidelity; Mr. So-and-So wrote a sextain yesterday evening to Miss Such-and-Such, to which she sent him her answer this morning around eight o’clock; a given author has formed a given project; this one is on the third part of his novel; that other is putting his works through the press.” This is what makes you shine in company; and if you don’t know these things, I wouldn’t give a pin for all the wit you may have.
CATHOS. Indeed, I think it is really too ridiculous for a person to have pretensions to wit and not know every least little quatrain that is composed every day; and for my part, I would fairly die of shame if it came to the point where someone asked me if I had seen something new and I had not seen it.
MASCARILLE. It is shameful, indeed, not to have the first look at everything that is done; but don’t be worried; I mean to establish in your house an Academy of Wits, and I promise you that there won’t be a scrap of verse written in Paris that you will not know by heart before anyone else. I myself, even as you see me, make a bit of a stab at it when I’m in the mood; and in the finest circles in Paris you will find current two hundred songs of my making, as many sonnets, four hundred epigrams, and more than a thousand madrigals, without counting the riddles and the portraits.
MAGDELON. I confess to you I’m frantically fond of portraits; I think nothing is as gallant as that.
MASCARILLE. Portraits are difficult, and require a deep mind. You’ll see some of mine that will not displease you.
CATHOS. For my part, I’m terrifyingly in love with riddles.
MASCARILLE. They exercise the mind, and I made up four just this morning which I’ll give you to guess.
MAGDELON. Madrigals are charming when they’re neatly turned.
MASCARILLE. That is my special talent, and I’m working on putting all Roman history into madrigals.
MAGDELON. Ah! Assuredly, that will be the ultimate in beauty. I reserve at least one copy, if you have it printed.
MASCARILLE. I promise you each one, and in the best binding. It’s beneath my rank, but I do it only to earn money for the booksellers, who simply persecute me.
MAGDELON. I imagine it’s a great pleasure to see oneself in print.
MASCARILLE. To be sure. But by the way, I must tell you an impromptu that I made up yesterday while I was visiting a duchess friend of mine; for I’m devilishly good at impromptus.
CATHOS. Impromptus are the genuine touchstone of wit.
MASCARILLE. Then listen.
MAGDELON. We are all ears.
Oh! Oh! I was caught unaware:
While I was gazing at you, free from care,
Your eye, so sly, did take my heart in fief.
Stop thief, stop thief, stop thief, stop thief, stop thief!
CATHOS. Ah! Heavens above! That is carried to the limits of gallantry.
MASCARILLE. Everything I do seems cavalier; it doesn’t smell of the pedant.
MAGDELON. It’s more than two thousand leagues removed from it.
MASCARILLE. Did you notice that beginning: “Oh! Oh!”? Here’s something extraordinary: “Oh! Oh!” Like a man who suddenly takes note of something: “Oh! Oh!” Surprise: “Oh! Oh!”
MAGDELON. Yes; I think that “Oh! Oh!” is admirable.
MASCARILLE. It seems like nothing at all.
CATHOS. Oh, good Lord! What are you saying? That’s the kind of thing that’s beyond price.
MAGDELON. Beyond a doubt; and I would rather have written that “Oh! Oh!” than an epic poem.
MASCARILLE. Egad! You have good taste.
MAGDELON. Well, it’s not completely bad.
MASCARILLE. But don’t you also admire “I was caught unaware”? “I was caught unaware”: I was not noticing—a natural way of speaking—”I was caught unaware.” “While . . . free from care”: while innocently, without malice, like a poor sheep. “I was gazing at you,” that is to say, I took pleasure considering you, I was observing you, I was contemplating you. “Your eye, so sly” . . . What do you think of that expression “so sly”? Is it not well chosen?
CATHOS. Well indeed.
MASCARILLE. “Sly,” surreptitious. It seems like a cat that has just caught a mouse: “sly.”
MAGDELON. Nothing could be better.
MASCARILLE. “Did take my heart in fief,” snatched it away from me, tore it from me. “Stop thief, stop thief, stop thief, stop thief, stop thief!” Wouldn’t you say it was a man shouting and running after a thief to have him arrested? “Stop thief, stop thief, stop thief, stop thief, stop thief!”
MAGDELON. One must admit that it has a witty and gallant turn.
MASCARILLE. I want to tell you the tune I’ve composed for it.
CATHOS. You have learned music?
MASCARILLE. I? Not at all.
CATHOS. Then how can this be?
MASCARILLE. People of quality know everything without ever having learned anything.
MAGDELON (to CATHOS). Obviously, my dear.
MASCARILLE. Listen and see if you find the tune to your taste. Ahem, ahem! La, la, la, la, la. The brutality of the season has furiously outraged the delicacy of my voice; but no matter, this is still casual and cavalier style. (He sings.)
Oh! Oh! I was caught . . .
CATHOS. Ah! Now that’s a passionate tune! Couldn’t you die listening to it?
MAGDELON. There’s chromatics in it.
MASCARILLE. Don’t you find the thought well expressed by the song? “Stop thief! . . .” And then, like someone shouting really loud: “stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop thief!” And suddenly, like a person out of breath: “stop thief!”
MAGDELON. There you see knowledge of the sublety of things, the height of sublety, the sublety of subleties. It is all marvelous, I assure you; I am ecstatic over the tune and the words.
CATHOS. I have never yet seen anything of such power.
MASCARILLE. Everything I do comes to me naturally, without study.
MAGDELON. Nature has treated you as a truly impassioned mother, and you are her spoiled child.
MASCARILLE. Now, how do you spend your time?
CATHOS. On nothing at all.
MAGDELON. Up to now, we have been frightfully starved for amusements.
MASCARILLE. I am at your disposal to take you to the theater one of these days, if you like; as a matter of fact they are due to put on a new play that I would very much like for us to see together.
MAGDELON. That cannot be refused.
MASCARILLE. But I ask you to applaud in the right way when we’re there; for I’ve pledged myself to play up the show, and the author came to ask me just this morning. It’s the custom here for authors to come and read their new plays to us people of quality, so as to pledge us to think they are excellent and give them a reputation; and I leave you to imagine whether, when we say anything, the pit dares to contradict us. For my part, I am very scrupulous about it; and when I have given my promise to some poet, I always shout “That is beautiful!” before the candles are lit.
MAGDELON. You don’t need to tell me: Paris is a wonderful place. A hundred things happen here every day that you don’t know in the provinces, however clever you may be.
CATHOS. Enough: now that we are informed, we will make it our duty to cry out properly at everything that is said.
MASCARILLE. I may be mistaken, but you certainly look like a person who has written a comedy.
MAGDELON. Well, there might be something in what you say.
MASCARILLE. Ah! My word, we shall have to see it. Between ourselves, I have completed one which I want to have performed.
CATHOS. Oh! What troupe will you give it to?
MASCARILLE. A fine question! To the Grands Comédiens.* They are the only ones who know how to bring things out. The others are ignoramuses who recite the way people speak; they don’t know how to make the verses boom out, and to stop at the fine passage; and how is one to know which is the fine line if the actor doesn’t pause and thus inform you that it’s time to make a racket?
CATHOS. Indeed, there is a way of making the audience feel the beauties of a work; and things have no value but that which is given them in performance.
MASCARILLE. How do you like my trimmings? Do you find them congruent with the coat?
MASCARILLE. The ribbon is well chosen.
MAGDELON. Frantically well. It’s pure Perdrigeon.*
MASCARILLE. What do you say of my knee ruffles?
MAGDELON. They are in exactly the right style.
MASCARILLE. I can at least boast that they are a good quarter-ell wider than any that are made.
MAGDELON. I must admit I have never seen elegance of attire carried to such a height.
MASCARILLE. Just apply a moment to these gloves the operation of your olfactory sense.
MAGDELON. They smell terrifyingly good.
CATHOS. I have never breathed an aroma of loftier quality.
MASCARILLE (offering his powdered wig). And this?
MAGDELON. It is utterly uppercrust; the sublimity of the brain is deliciously touched by it.
MASCARILLE. You say nothing of my plumes. How do you like them?
CATHOS. Frightfully handsome.
MASCARILLE. Do you know that each feather costs me a louis d’or? For my part, I have a mania for wanting to go in for all the most beautiful things.
MAGDELON. I assure you that you and I are in sympathy: I have a frenzied delicacy about everything I wear; and even to my stockings, I cannot abide anything that is not of the best make.
MASCARILLE (crying out suddenly). Ouch, ouch, ouch, gently! Damme, ladies, you are treating me very badly; I have cause to complain of your conduct; it is not honorable.
CATHOS. Why, what is it? What’s the matter?
MASCARILLE. What? Both of you against my heart at the same time? Attack me right and left! Ah! It’s against the law of nations; the match is unfair; and I’m going to cry “Murder.”
CATHOS. One must admit he says things in a very special way.
MAGDELON. He has an admirable turn of wit.
CATHOS. You are more afraid than hurt, and your heart cries out before it’s skinned.
MASCARILLE. The devil you say! It’s skinned from head to foot.
Scene 10. MAROTTE, MASCARILLE, CATHOS, MAGDELON
MAROTTE. Madame, someone is asking to see you.
MAROTTE. The Viscount de Jodelet.
MASCARILLE. The Viscount de Jodelet?
MAROTTE. Yes, sir.
CATHOS. Do you know him?
MASCARILLE. He’s my best friend.
MAGDELON. Show him right in.
MASCARILLE. We haven’t seen each other for some time, and I am delighted at this encounter.
CATHOS. Here he is.
Scene 11. JODELET, MASCARILLE, CATHOS,
MASCARILLE. Ah! Viscount!
JODELET. Ah! Marquis!
MASCARILLE. How happy I am to meet you!
JODELET. What a joy for me to see you here!
MASCARILLE. Kiss me a bit more, please.
MAGDELON (to CATHOS). My dear, we are beginning to be known; see, high society is finding its way to our door.
MASCARILLE. Ladies, allow me to present this gentleman. Upon my word, he is worthy of your acquaintance.
JODELET. It is only just that I should come and render unto you your due; your attractions assert their seigniorial rights over every sort of person.
MAGDELON. This is carrying your civilities to the uttermost confines of flattery.
CATHOS. This day must be marked in our calendar as a most happy one.
MAGDELON (to ALMANZOR). Come, boy, must I always tell you things twice? Don’t you see we need the increment of one chair?
MASCARILLE. Don’t be surprised to see the Viscount look as he does. He’s just getting over an illness that has left his face as pale as you see.*
JODELET. This is the fruit of vigils at court and the fatigues of war.
MASCARILLE. Do you know, ladies, that you see in the Viscount one of the most valiant men of our century? He’s a dyed-in-the-wool hero.
JODELET. You’re not a bit behind me, Marquis; and we know what you’re capable of too.
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Meet the Author
Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in1622, began his career as an actor before becoming a playwright who specialized in satirizing the institutions and morals of his day. In 1658, his theater company settled in Paris in the Théâter du Petit-Bourbon. The object of fierce attack because of such masterpieces as Tartuffe and Don Juan, Molière nonetheless won the favor of the public. In 1665, his company became the King’s Troupe, and the following year saw the staging of The Misanthrope, as well as The Doctor in Spite of Himself. In 1668, he produced his bitterly comic The Miser and, in the remaining years before his death, created such plays as The Would-Be Gentleman, The Mischievous Machinations of Scapin, and The Learned Women. In 1673, Molière collapsed onstage while performing his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, and died shortly thereafter.
Donald M. Frame was Moore Professor of French at Columbia University and an acclaimed scholar and translator of French literature. Among his notable works of translation are The Complete Essays of Montaigne, The Complete Works of Rabelais, and the Signet Classics Tartuffe & Other Plays and Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories.
Virginia Scott is Professor Emerita in the Department of Theater of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the author of Moliére: A Theatrical Life, The Commedia Dell’Arte in Paris, and Performance, Poetry and Politics on the Queen’s Day: Catherine de Medici and Pierre de Ronsard at Fontainebleau (with Sara Sturm-Maddox).
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wish it came in a nookbook format