« PreviousContinue »
JEAN BAPTISTE POQUELIN (Molière is an assumed name) was born at Paris in January 1622. His father was a well-to-do upholsterer. Molière was educated at the Jesuit college of Clermont, attended law-lectures and was called to the Bar. In 1643 he gave up his prospect of succeeding his father in the charge of “Tapissier du Roi” and took to the stage, whither an irresistible inclination impelled him. After unsuccessful attempts at theatrical management, Molière, with the relics of his troupe, left Paris for the Provinces (1646). After a nomad existence of twelve years he obtained permission to play before the Court. His success was complete (24th October 1658), and the company were authorised to settle at Paris under royal patronage. In the following year was acted the Précieuses Ridicules, Molière's first great work. In 1661 he took the title of Groom of the Bedchamber to King Louis XIV., whose friendship and favour he continued to enjoy till his death. In 1662 he married Armande Béjart, an actress in his company, his junior by more than twenty years. The union was not happy. Meanwhile he put upon the stage a series of masterpieces. Among others, the Ecole des Femmes appeared in 1661 ; the three first acts of the Tartuffe were privately acted in 1664, in 1665 he gave Don Juan; in 1666 the Misanthrope and the Médecin malgré lui ; in 1670 the Bourgeois Gentilhomme; in 1671 the Fourberies de Scapin. His last piece was the Malade Imaginaire. On the day of the fourth performance of this play he was taken ill on the stage and carried home. There he burst a blood-vessel and died (17th February 1673). His delicate constitution had been worn out by work, excitement, and domestic unhappiness. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Joseph, the burial-place of persons who had committed suicide and of unbaptized infants. His interment was conducted with “maimed rites," and his widow had to petition the King and the Archbishop of Paris before ecclesiastical rules could be relaxed and a religious funeral granted to the remains of the great “comédien.” He had died in harness. The most striking point in his personal character was a thoughtful and unselfish earnestness, which left its mark upon his work and upon his life.
The Avare was acted for the first time on the 9th of September 1668. It belongs therefore to the maturity of Molière's genius. Like the Misanthrope, it is a "comédie de caractère.”
The Bourgeois Gentilhomme and the Précieuses Ridicules, satirising the manias and weaknesses of contemporary society are "comédies de mours.” Monsieur de Pourceaugnac and the Fourberies de Scapin are "comédies d'intrigue,” and depend for their interest upon a series of comic situations. A “character-comedy" is one in which everything is subordinated to the development of one central character or type, to which purpose the plot is merely subsidiary.
The Avare may be called a classical play. The classical style, in the sense in which the word is used here, neglects everything special or realistic, in order to dwell on what is general and typical. A character becomes a representative of a class, a mouthpiece to utter sentiments, an abstraction moving in a conventional world. Naturally the drawbacks of the classical spirit are less felt in a comedy, which, after all, must aim at reproducing contemporary society. But what is Harpagon ? To what class in society does he belong? Where does he live? To some extent he is intended to be a representative of the old-fashioned, money-making bourgeoisie of Paris, a conservative in dress and manners. Still there is something unreal and conventional about him. He is “l'Avare," as Cléante is "le Prodigue," Valère “l'Amant” and Frosine “l'Intrigante.” Compare the play, in this connection, with one of Shakspeare's ; contrast, for instance, Harpagon with Shylock, Lorenzo with Valère, and Jessica with Elise.
The "dénouement” of the Avare in its conventional improbability verges upon the ridiculous. The humour and comic interest of the play are to be found in the incidents which draw out the central character. Sometimes a scene of a few lines is introduced for this purpose (cp. III. xiii. xiv.), sometimes a mere piece of by-play, as when Harpagon, seeing two candles burning, blows one of them out. Sometimes the situation is powerful and dramatic, as when Cléante recognises in his own father the usurer from whom he intends to borrow. Whole scenes, such as that between Harpagon and La Flèche (I. iii.), and that between Harpagon,
Maître Jacques, and Valère, are cleverly worked up to bring out in strong relief the main idea-the avarice of Harpagon and its effects.
III. -THE CHARACTERS. Everything centres then in the miser himself. Harpagon's ? character is chiefly drawn out by means of contrasts. There is, first, the contrast between his position and his tastes. He is obliged to some extent to observe "les convenances. His usuries are secret ; he keeps servants and horses, though, it is true, he starves them. Again, he prizes his gold above children and family, and yet he is in love, and that too with a poor girl. This touch of nature helps to increase the ridicule and therefore the comic interest of his position, and redeems him from being a mere skinflint, like Balzac's Gobseck. Nor is he without sense of humour or capability of passion. The absolute miser would be devoid of human interest. Shylock when he laments the loss of his ring, remembers that Leah gave it him when he was a bachelor. The contrast between Harpagon and his son is still more striking. “A père avare fils prodigue” says the proverb, and Cléante, insolent and reckless, represents the "fast youth" of the day compared with the bourgeois of the old school, the “horrida senectus,” stiff and oldfashioned in language, dress, and ideas. Valère is the ordinary conventional lover, the "jeune premier” of the stage. Anselme is the “père noble," a walking gentleman, coming in the finish
“deus ex machina.” Mariane and Élise are the two "jeunes ingénues.” The former is the more amiable, though the weaker of the two. Élise's impertinence to her father puts her in an unpleasant light. They neither of them inspire more than a languid interest. Frosine is a disagreeable type of character, probably borrowed from the Italian comedy, a kind of Scapin in petticoats. Maître Jacques, the coachman-cook, is an amusing character with a good deal of naïve and humorous rascality. La Flèche, the cunning, unscrupulous valet, devoted to his master's interest, belongs to the same tribe as the Scapins and Mascarilles. The rest of the characters are mere supers.
IV.-THE STYLE. There is good reason to doubt whether the success of the Avare was really, as Voltaire asserts, hampered by the fact that it was
1 The name. Harpagon (connected with the Greek ápráğw, I snatch, grab), is borrowed from the supplement to the Aulularia of Plautus, by Codrus Urcieus.