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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

With an indignant rebuke from Gorgibus


Their

general character is extravagance of resources in the plot, extravagance of conception in the characters. Yet in both intrigue and characters there is a certain monotony. The same incidents, romantic and humorous, are variously mingled to produce the imbroglio; the same typical characters--the braggart, the parasite, the pedant, the extravagant poet, the amorous old man, the designing woman, the knavish valet, the garrulous nurse--play their mirthful parts. If the types are studied from real life rather than adopted from Italian or Spanish models, they are exaggerated to absurdity. Corneille alone is distinguished by delicacy of imagination and the finer touch of a dexterous artist.

JEAN-BAPTISTE POQUELIN, who, when connected with the stage, named himself MOLIERE, was born in January 1622, in Paris, the son of a prosperous upholsterer, Jean Poquelin, and Marie Cresse, his wife. Educated at the College de Clermont, he had among his fellow-pupils the Prince de Conti, Chapelle, the future poet Hesnault, the future traveller Bernier. There seems to be no sufficient reason to doubt that he and some of his friends afterwards received lessons in philosophy from Gassendi, whose influence must have tended to loosen him from the traditional doctrines, and to encourage independence of thought. A translation by Moliere of the great poem of Lucretius has been lost, but a possible citation from it appears in the second act of the _Misanthrope_. Legal studies

followed those of philosophy. But Moliere had other ends in view than either those of an advocate or of the hereditary office of upholsterer to the King. In 1643, at the age of twenty-one, he decided to throw in his lot with the theatrical company in which Madeleine Bejart and her brothers were leading members. The _Illustre Theatre_ was constituted, but Paris looked askance at the illustrious actors; debt, imprisonment, and release through friendly aid, formed the net result of Moliere's first experiment.

The troupe decided at the close of 1645 or in the early days of the following year to try their fortune in the provinces. It is needless to follow in detail their movements during twelve years--twelve years fruitful in experience for one who observed life with keenest eyes, years of toil, in which the foundations of his art were laid. At Lyons, probably in 1655, possibly in 1653, a comedy, founded on the Italian of Nicolo Barbieri, _L'Etourdi_, saw the light, and Moliere revealed himself as a poet. Young Lelie, the _Etourdi_, is enamoured of the beautiful Celie, whom the merchant Trufaldin, old and rich, has purchased from corsairs. Lelie's valet Mascarille, who is the life of the play, invents stratagem on stratagem to aid the lover, and is for ever foiled by his master's indiscretions, until the inevitable happy denouement arrives. The romantic intrigue is conventional; the charm is in the vivacity and colour of the style. In 1656 _Le Depit Amoureux_ was given with applause at Beziers; much is derived from the Italian of Secchi, something perhaps from Terence; the tender scenes of lovers' quarrels and lovers' reconciliation, contrasting with the franker comedy of the loves of waiting-maid and valet, still live, if the rest of the play be little remembered.

The years of apprenticeship were over when, in 1658, Moliere and his company once more in Paris presented, by command, before the King, Corneille's _Nicomede_, and, leave being granted, gave his farce in the Italian style, the _Docteur Amoureux_, before pleased spectators. The company was now the troupe of Monsieur, the King's brother, with the Petit-Bourbon as theatre, and there, in November 1659, was enacted Moliere's first satiric play on contemporary manners, _Les Precieuses Ridicules_. We do not need the legendary old man crying from the pit "Courage, Moliere! voila la bonne comedie" to assure us that the comic stage possessed at length a masterpiece. The dramatist had himself known the precieuses of the provinces; through them he might with less danger exhibit the follies of the Hotel de Rambouillet and the _ruelles_ of the capital. The good bourgeois Gorgibus is induced by his niece and daughter, two precieuses, to establish himself in Paris. Their aspirant lovers, unversed in the affectations of the salon, are slighted and repelled; in revenge they employ their valets, Mascarille and Jodelet, to play the parts of men of fashion and of taste. The exposure and confusion of the ladies, with an indignant rebuke from Gorgibus, close the piece. It was a farce raised to the dignity of comedy. Moliere's triumph was the triumph of good sense.


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