Comedie Moderne

Tartuffe (1664), The Misanthrope (1666) and The Miser (1668)
by Moliere (Jean Baptiste Pouquelin) 1622-1673

The business of comedy is to represent in general all the defects of mankind.
Moliere in The Impromptu of Versailles (1662)

The “defects of mankind” can make for great entertainment but great theatre also points the way out of the human drama that is ultimately a tragedy. No playwright intuitively grasped the power of the theatre to reveal the absurdities of human behavior more than did Moliere. Nor have many playwrights put characters on the stage portraying as many profound insights revealing humankind’s potential for transformation.

Since Plato up to the time of Moliere dramatists had been staging two basic types of plays. Tragedies told stories portraying the experience of the nobility. The play was expected to teach moral lessons where the wicked were punished the good behavior was rewarded. The endings were unhappy after depicting the problems of the affairs of state and the downfall of its rulers and or the upper classes.

Comedies dealt with the private affairs of the lower classes. The plays ended happily with the audience experiencing ordinary speech in realistic situations. Moliere began to deviate from the norms of his day which was dangerous. “By writing biting social commentary in an ironic, satirical and comical style, he constantly risked both artistic failure and personal harm.”  That “personal harm” could have come from two sources of power, political or religious, the king and the aristocracy or the offended church hierarchy.

Moliere’s timing was impeccable because he was protected by the young King Louis XIV, who was amused by the biting satire aimed at the hypocrisy of the Church, the immorality and foppish manners of the aristocracy and the greed of the professional and upper classes.  “His writing ability elevated the farce to great literature and gained him the favor of Louis XIV, who, in 1661, installed him in the premier theater of the kingdom, the Theatre du Palais Royal.”  

The Parisian bourgeoisie offered virtual false-self archetypes of comical characters in the theatre thanks to Moliere. This group “provided comedy with a clearly defined type endowed characteristic faults and foibles: avarice, cowardliness, jealousy, the oft-foiled inclination toward domestic tyranny egotism and naivete.”

It is not hard to see Moliere’s comic stereotypes representing an unconscious humanity divorced from reality. “Moliere’s bourgeoisie had difficulties with communication, with problems of authority and identity and with the illusions people hide behind to protect themselves from reality.”

P-B is based on the denial of truth and the acceptance of illusion. “Moliere’s plays adhered to many of the standards of French Neoclassic drama. These standards were a synthesis of ideas expressed through centuries of dramatic writing. The concept of verisimilitude or ‘the appearance of truth’ was a key standard.” In today’s world as in Moliere’s world things are not what they seem.

Continuing the tradition of commedia del’ arte, Moliere’s plots were usually based on intrigues involving people of all ages. “Each actor would specialize in a particular role: the aged, avaricious and amorous Pantalon; the fat and pedantic black-clad Doctor; the vainglorious and cowardly Spanish Captain with the bristling mustache; the shy and acrobatic servant Arlecchino; the deceitful crooked-nosed, artistic Grighella; the young, unmasked, handsome lovers and a variety of zanni or servant figures, instantly recognizable to the audience.”

Moliere capitalized on his intuitive understanding of the P-B context and the universal false self to portray the farcical aspects of life in the human community. Although he exaggerated self-destructive human behavior many of us today understand the underlying absurdity of these behaviors and experience them as painfully close to the truth.

Many of us spend a lot of energy trying to escape from or distract ourselves from the unsatisfying and unsuccessful pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. Sadly, our false-self identity tends to remain in control of our lives operating in the context of P-B. “Moliere’s protagonists are thus absolute egotists who invent generally illusory values to satisfy their appetites. Hence the humor occurs as they dupe themselves and become prisoners of their own natures.”

How does a perceptive and compassionate playwright address the distressing realities of an unconscious society? Moliere in The Misanthrope created Alceste, an outspoken and honest young lawyer. “Protesting against injustice, self-interest, deceit, roguery, he wants honesty, truthfulness, and sincerity. He hates all men because they are wicked, mischievous, hypocritic[al], and generally so odious to him that he has no desire to appear rational in their eyes.”

Moliere attacks the absurdity of P-B through the indignant Alceste. The hypocrisy of the church, the bribing of judges in a lawsuit, the fawning fops of royal court, the ridiculous poetry of aspiring gentlemen and the ubiquitous gossip intended to injure and defame. Moliere remained throughout his career relentless in his attacks on conformity to the self-destructive behavior of the false self.

“However, his most controversial play, Tartuffe, infuriated the Church, although the King enjoyed the relentless attack on religious hypocrisy.” Originally subtitled the Hypocrite this comedy was meant to satirize false piety, not authentic devotion. Moliere was foreshadowing similar character types found in Dickens’ Mr. Pecksniff and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. The king banned the play for five years.

In Tartuffe Moliere reveals his ability to distinguish between unhealthy human behavior and less destructive human expression, that is to say, between reactions and responses. In the character Cleante he makes the distinction between the hypocrite and the truly pious. Cleante cautions Orgon, his brother-in-law to distinguish between “artifice and sincerity … appearance and reality … false and true.”

“The characters of farce often have a curious childlike innocence, a lack of awareness of other people’s concerns and a total obsession with their own. Moliere’s protagonists are thus absolute egotists who invent generally illusory values [false-self survival strategies] to satisfy their appetites. Hence the humor occurs as they dupe themselves and become prisoners of their own natures.” No wonder Moliere’s plays still seem relevant today.

Moliere’s plays undoubtedly influenced subsequent French auteurs. “The 1820s were a confused time, but they did witness the rise of the mercantile class, the bourgeoisie. Paris was the perfect place ‘where the bourgeoisie could now acquire high status and where appearances were not the opposite of reality, but the precursor.’”

“The ambitious young men wore shiny leather boots, glamorous waistcoats and properly colored ties. This sort of display created a confidence of class. It was the time when money became the most important factor governing people’s lives and their place in society. It was also the time of the writer Honore de Balzac and his novels about the evil force of money and money-driven social climbing. As the unsurpassed historian of the French middle class during the first half of the 19th century, he wrote of stereotypes: the snob, the provincial, the prude, the miser, the lecher and others.”

Today we have our Moliere’s and our Balzacs but are we really hearing what they are trying to say?

_________________________________________________________

References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.