Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in 1622, Molière was a renowned French playwright and actor, still celebrated today as one of the greatest French comedy writers of all time. Despite his relatively short life, living only to the age of 51, Molière had a fascinating career that included the creation of celebrated works—all written after his 35th birthday. Some of these notable works are “Les Précieuses Ridicules” (“The Pretentious Young Ladies”), “L’École des Femmes” (“The School for Wives”), “Les Femmes Savantes” (“The Learned Ladies”), “Le Misanthrope” (“The Misanthrope”), and “Le Tartuffe; ou, L’imposteur” (“Tartuffe; or, The Impostor”).
How did Molière embark on his journey, and what fueled his motivation to persist in his creative pursuits? Explore the intriguing life of Molière below.
Birth and Early Life
Molière was born in 1622 in Paris to Jean Poquelin and Marie Cressé, who were solidly middle-class French people. His mother passed away when he was just ten years old. His father served as a tapissier, one of the appointed furnishers of the royal household. He worked hard to provide his son with a good education at the Collège de Clermont (the school that trained many well-known French artists, including Voltaire).
Initially, Molière’s father intended for him to take over his position. However, the actor and playwright had different plans. After completing his studies in civil law at the University of Orléans in 1643, he collaborated with nine other artists, including his girlfriend, actress Madeleine Béjart, to produce comedic plays under the company name “Illustre Théâtre.”
The stage name “Molière” first appeared in a document dated a year after the formation of Illustre Théâtre on June 28, 1644. From this point forward, Molière dedicated his entire life to the theater.
The Illustre Théâtre lasted 18 months before succumbing to debt, severe rivalries, and an insufficient number of leading men. In 1645, Molière went to prison twice for building and property-related debts. The group also faced attacks from the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, a fundamentalist religious organization that discouraged parishioners from attending theatrical performances.
Eventually, after Molière was twice imprisoned, he and Madeleine fled their debts by joining another touring acting troupe. Several years later, in 1653, the pair took over and started managing the troupe. At this point, Molière had also begun to write and star in full-length plays, discovering that his talents lay solidly in the comedic sphere.
A few years later, in 1658, Madeleine and Molière returned to Paris, as Madeleine had saved enough money to sublease the Théâtre du Marais. Molière had also found a patron, the brother of King Louis XIV. That year, the troupe performed a tragedy by Corneille for the royal court. However, Louis actually preferred the absurd one-act play that followed, as did other Parisian audiences who viewed the performance.
Molière’s First Plays
Molière’s first great comedy emerged after he resettled in Paris. The play, “The Pretentious Young Ladies,” was written in 1659, mocking upper-class, pretentious Parisian women. While many were unsurprisingly offended by Molière’s work, it didn’t deter him from continuing to write. Throughout his life and career, he consistently managed to provoke numerous theater patrons.
Two years after the release of “The Pretentious Young Ladies,” Molière’s initial major success, “The School for Husbands,” hit the stage. This play humorously satirized elderly men who pursued attention from younger women.
Scandals and Successes
Many experts suggest that “The School for Husbands” was somewhat autobiographical. A year after its release, Molière separated from Madeleine and married her daughter Armande (although he claimed she was actually Madeleine’s sister). Naturally, this marriage was quite scandalous and became the subject of many whispers throughout the community, particularly among Molière’s numerous enemies.
Building on the idea that Molière’s plays were semi-autobiographical, many historians also argue that the one-act comedy, “The Versailles Impromptu,” indicated that Molière’s marriage to Armande was filled with struggle and strife.
The scandals didn’t end there for Molière, either.
The initial version of Molière’s play, “Tartuffe,” was easily his most scandalous production. Despite being well-received by the public and Louis XIV himself, it offended many others who were put off by the portrayal of a hypocritical man—outwardly pious but inwardly anything but, using his profession to prey on others.
Some of the groups that opposed Tartuffe included the French Roman Catholic Church, the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, and many members of upper-class French society. The Archbishop of Paris, Péréfixe, even issued an edict threatening to excommunicate anyone who watched, performed in, or read Molière’s play.
Molière rewrote his play to make it more secular and less critical of religion. However, the archbishop and other leading officials could not be appeased.
The revised play was called “L’Imposteur,” and its main character was named Panulphe rather than Tartuffe. However, it only had one performance on August 5, 1667, at the Palais-Royal Theatre. The next day, the first president of the Paris Parlement responded by censoring public performances.
Despite its controversial release—or perhaps because of it—today, the characters of Tartuffe, Elmire, and Orgon are considered some of the most significant classical theater roles in which one can be cast.
Molière didn’t cease writing controversial plays after the kerfuffle surrounding Tartuffe/L’Imposteur. Instead, he doubled down and, a year later, produced a new version of “Dom Juan; ou, le festin de pierre” (“Don Juan; or, The Feast of Stone”). At the end of this play, a character who is an atheist is condemned to hell, but not before profoundly scandalizing the audience.
The goal behind Dom Juan was to generate funds for future works, but it was never performed again after its initial 15 performances, nor did Molière publish it.
The Artist’s Last Works
After all the drama surrounding “Tartuffe” and “Dom Juan,” Molière’s health took a turn for the worse. He lived for only four more years, passing away in 1673.
Despite his ill health, Molière continued his work. In 1669, he presented “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac” for the king at Chambord. Then, in 1670, he created “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” also known as “The Middle Class Gentleman.” Molière went on to produce “Psyché” and “Les Fourberies de Scapin” (The Cheats of Scapin) in 1671, “Les Femmes savantes” (The Learned Ladies or The Blue-Stockings) in 1672, and his final work, “Le Malade imaginaire” (The Imaginary Invalid) in 1673.
A true artist, Molière worked until the very end of his life, more than proving his commitment to the theatre. Molière’s death occurred shortly after collapsing on stage while performing the lead role in his play “Le Malade imaginaire.”
Molière’s Modern Influence
Last year, drama enthusiasts celebrated Molière’s 400th birthday, and many noted the lasting impact the playwright and actor have had on the theater to this day.
For example, Florent Masse wrote in a piece published by Quillette that Molière is often the first playwright aspiring thespians encounter and perform in academic settings. Masse also noted that Molière’s enduring success is primarily attributed to the fact that he “touches upon the universal” and created a “gallery of unforgettable characters.” Masse praised Molière for showing actors and viewers the “ridiculousness” of their behaviors and compared him to modern-day stand-up comedians.
To say Molière was an influential playwright would be an understatement. He continues to inspire actors and playwrights today, and his works are sure to remain prolific for years to come.