A generalized statement on Moliere's theatre

2024-05-12 @Literature

I knew next to null of Moliere’s work or background prior to a series of frenetic reading sessions in the sole occupancy and stuffiness of Salvador’s French library. Moliere (1622-1673), in direct contrast to the other contemporary Racine (both baptised Jean-Baptiste) - the tragedian and the other major act of that sphere (next to also Pierre Corneille), catered to the comedy niche. Around thirty-five plays over fourteen years produced in total, the output continued to the very edge of death’s sickle following a fit during the fourth performance of 1673 Le Malade imaginaire.

That is, Moliere tended to also act a major role (of usually the most deranged, detestable type) across a good portion of the oeuvre, at least of the ten or so plays I’d read.

A bit on the Comedy dynamic. Comedies don’t have to strictly ridicule nor offend. But it appears Moliere preferred them such.

Per tradition, per Aristotle, a comedy (one not a genre-crosser, modernist or some contemporary absurdity) demands not but a fortuitous ending and some adequately jolly demeanor.

Shakespeare’s comedies weren’t the type to rattle cages in any clearly evident sense. But Shakespeare excelled in language, poetry and theatrical polyphony, compelled perhaps not by the need to criticise society but through subtle allegories and innuendoes, which he did. However troublesome or superficial the underlying narrative of some of those plays, they hardly disappoint for the ingenious, nonparallel employ of language.

A comedy can also aspire to a less poetic, but a stricter, harsher social commentary, yet otherwise follow tradition. That’s closer to Moliere.

I identify similar satirical makeup across Baudelaire’s poems, Gogol’s prose, Cervantes' Quijote, Swift’s allegories and essays, Aristophanes and my understanding of Horace’s work- though lacking any personal exposure to the latter. Some expressed views more transparently. Some more subtly through clever literary manoeuvre.

One could argue that Moliere was almost rambunctious in his satirical form of expression. Yet Moliere had the benefit of the King’s (Louis XIV) protection, the troupe actually titled La Troupe du Roy, in the old spelling. And the King appears to have loved most of Moliere’s work, even as the playwright was being smashed and battered for overstepping both the civil and theological boundaries, interpret as you will. Though the King also placed severe time demands on the troupe’s production timeline.

To put it succinctly and probably a bit naïvely, Moliere had the freedom to effectively ridicule any sector of society save for the King and his policies. And that’s ample room for freedom of expression - more than most had to work with in the sensitive loins of the satirical genre.

That’s not to say that numerous of Moliere’s plays didn’t fail or avoid interdiction. After all, it wasn’t the King determining their reception. Moliere played with fire, but made for a brilliant pyromaniac. Dom Juan, Tartuffe, Le Médecin malgré lui, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Le Malade imaginaire, these were ferocious, jostling statements.

Much of Moliere’s theatre, to soothe my earlier implication, wasn’t strictly wanting of the poetic element. A part of those plays were written in Alexandrine verse, a part in prose. Though one didn’t warrant beyond lyricism, while the other didn’t confine to verbal diatribe.

Plenty of texture to be felt among those plays: a particularly interesting feature involving the dance/ballet/choral preludes/interludes/epilogues (across some) to the extent of shaping the comedy-ballet category. In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme I’m informed danced the very Louis XIV!

Some of these make for a play within a play, in verse, within the prosaic main feature. (Whereas Shakespeare intermingled verse and prose more liberally and with certain emphatic stratagem, which added yet another dimension to the oeuvre.)

Concerning Moliere’s language. From an étranger standpoint, I was extremely surprised to find the French this accessible: far more than the 19th/20th century symbolist authors. They call it the language of Moliere. Seems fitting, insofar that I couldn’t think of anyone better to impute. Whereas language of Shakespeare, concerning English, I always found bizarre to reconcile, assuming I didn’t downright imagine the notion.

Though I’m hardly qualified to judge, Moliere’s language appears a healthy range of vulgar vernacular precisely suitable for the comedy, in heavy contrast to Racine’s brooding and more challenging baroque. I even felt more fluidity in it than much of Shakespeare, despite my better familiarity with the English. Multiple inferences to be drawn, but let’s leave the point aside.

Overall this makes for some of the better theatre I’ve read over the last four years, after Shakespeare, whose like quality I struggle to assert elsewhere. But stronger than Marlowe or Webster. More intimate, more immortal than Shaw. Preferable to the translations of ancient Greeks, though doubtfully the originals. Better than Pushkin’s drama. (Unfamiliar with Chekov, to my regret.) No worse than Gogol’s Revisor, his preeminent comedy and absolutely the closest to Moliere in spirit that I’ve identified.

You get the idea. Meanwhile, I expect to write of a specific play or a handful, severally.

Questions, comments? Connect.