Seven plays by the genius of French theater.
Including The Ridiculous Precieuses, The School for Husbands, The School for Wives, Don Juan, The Versailles Impromptu, and The Critique of the School for Wives, this collection showcases the talent of perhaps the greatest and best-loved French playwright.
Translated and with an Introduction by Donald M. Frame
With a Foreword by Virginia Scott
And a New Afterword by Charles Newell
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Moliere was the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673). His plays achieved great success, especially his masterpiece, The Misanthrope, and elicited enormous controversy with their religious irreverence.
Donald M. Frame was Moore Professor of French at Columbia University and an acclaimed scholar and translator of French literature. Among his notable works of translation are The Complete Essays of Montaigne, The Complete Works of Rabelais, and the Signet Classics Tartuffe and Other Plays, and Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories.
Virginia Scott is Professor Emerita in the Department of Theater of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the author of Moliére: A Theatrical Life, The Commedia Dell’Arte in Paris, and Performance, Poetry and Politics on the Queen’s Day: Catherine de Medici and Pierre de Ronsard at Fontainebleau (with Sara Sturm-Maddox).
Since 1994, Charles Newell has been Artistic Director of Chicago’s Court Theatre, where he has directed more than fifty productions. He has also directed at Goodman Theatre, Guthrie Theater, Arena Stage, the Acting Company, Glimmerglass Festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and Chicago Opera Theatre. Among his many honors are four Joseph Jefferson Director Awards and the 2012 Artistic Achievement Award given by the League of Chicago Theatres.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Molière is probably the greatest and best-loved French author, and comic author, who ever lived. To the reader as well as the spectator, today as well as three centuries ago, the appeal of his plays is immediate and durable; they are both instantly accessible and inexhaustible. His rich resources make it hard to decide, much less to agree, on the secret of his greatness. After generations had seen him mainly as a moralist, many critics today have shifted the stress to the director and actor whose life was the comic stage; but all ages have rejoiced in three somewhat overlapping qualities of his: comic inventiveness, richness of fabric, and insight.
His inventiveness is extraordinary. An actor-manager-director-playwright all in one, he knew and loved the stage as few have done, and wrote with it and his playgoing public always in mind. In a medium in which sustained power is one of the rarest virtues, he drew on the widest imaginable range, from the broadest slapstick to the subtlest irony, to carry out the arduous and underrated task of keeping an audience amused for five whole acts. Working usually under great pressure of time, he took his materials where he found them, yet always made them his own.
The fabric of his plays is rich in many ways: in the intense life he infuses into his characters; in his constant preoccupation with the comic mask, which makes most of his protagonists themselves—consciously or unconsciously—play a part, and leads to rich comedy when their nature forces them to drop the mask; and in the weight of seriousness and even poignancy that he dares to include in his comic vision. Again and again he leads us from the enjoyable but shallow reaction of laughing at a fool to recognizing in that fool others whom we know, and ultimately ourselves; which is surely the truest and deepest comic catharsis.
Molière’s insight makes his characters understandable and gives a memorable inevitability to his comic effects. He is seldom completely realistic, of course; his characters, for example, tend to give themselves away more generously and laughably than is customary in life; but it is their true selves they give away. It is an obvious trick, and not very realistic, to have Orgon in Tartuffe (Act I, scene 4) reply four times to the account of his wife’s illness with the question “And Tartuffe?” and reply, again four times, to each report of Tartuffe’s gross health and appetite, “Poor fellow!” But it shows us, rapidly and comically, that Orgon’s obsession has closed his mind and his ears to anything but what he wants to see and hear. In the following scene, it may be unrealistic to have him in one speech (ll. 276–79) boast of learning from Tartuffe such detachment from worldly things that he could see his whole family die without concern, and in the very next speech (ll. 306–10) praise Tartuffe for the scrupulousness that led him to reproach himself for killing a flea in too much anger. But—again apart from the sheer comedy—it is a telling commentary on the distortion of values that can come from extreme points of view. One of Molière’s favorite authors, Montaigne, had written about victims of moral hubris: “They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts.” Molière is presenting the same idea dramatically, as he does with even more power later (Act IV, scene 3, l. 1293), when Orgon’s daughter has implored him not to force her to marry the repulsive Tartuffe, and he summons his will to resist her with these words:
Be firm, my heart! No human weakness now!
These moments of truth, these flashes of unconscious self-revelation that plunge us into the very center of an obsession, abound in Molière, adding to our insight even as they reveal his. And even as he caricatures aspects of himself in the reforming Alceste or in the jealous older lover in Arnolphe, so he imparts to his moments of truth not only the individuality of the particular obsession but also the universality of our common share in it.
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Molière is one of those widely known public figures whose private life remains veiled. In his own time gossip was rife, but much of it comes from his enemies and is suspect. Our chief other source is his plays; but while these hint at his major concerns and lines of meditation, we must beware of reading them like avowals or his roles like disguised autobiography.*
He was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris early in 1622 and baptized on January 15, the first son of a well-to-do bourgeois dealer in tapestry and upholstery. In 1631 his father bought the position of valet de chambre tapissier ordinaire du roi, and six years later obtained the right to pass it on at his own death to his oldest son, who took the appropriate “oath of office” at the age of fifteen. Together with many sons of the best families, Jean-Baptiste received an excellent education from the Jesuit Fathers of the Collège de Clermont. He probably continued beyond the basic course in rhetoric to two years of philosophy and then law school, presumably at Orléans.
Suddenly, as it appears to us, just as he was reaching twenty-one, he resigned his survival rights to his father’s court position, and with them the whole future that lay ahead of him; drew his share in the estate of his dead mother and a part of his own prospective inheritance; and six months later joined in forming, with and around Madeleine Béjart, a dramatic company, the Illustre-Théâtre. In September 1643 they rented a court-tennis court to perform in; in October they played in Rouen; in January 1644 they opened in Paris; in June young Poquelin was named head of the troupe, and signed himself, for the first time we know of, “de Molière.”
Molière’s was an extraordinary decision. Apart from the financial hazards, his new profession stood little above pimping or stealing in the public eye and automatically involved minor excommunication from the Church. To write for the theater, especially tragedy, carried no great onus; to be an actor, especially in comedy and farce, was a proof of immorality. Though Richelieu’s passion for the stage had improved its prestige somewhat, this meant only that a few voices were raised to maintain its possible innocence against the condemnation of the vast majority.
Obviously young Molière was in love with the theater, and had to act. He may also have been already in love with Madeleine Béjart; their contemporaries were probably right in thinking them lovers, though all we actually know is that they were stanch colleagues and business partners. Their loyalty was tested from the first. Although the Béjarts raised all the money they could, after a year and a half in Paris the company failed and had to break up; Molière was twice imprisoned in the Châtelet for debt; he and the Béjarts left Paris to try their luck in the provinces. For twelve years they were on the road, mainly in the south.
For the first five of these they joined the company, headed by Du Fresne, of the Duc d’Épernon in Guyenne. When d’Épernon dropped them, Molière became head of the troupe. From 1653 to 1657 they were in the service of a great prince of the blood, the Prince de Conti, until his conversion. Even with a noble patron, the life was nomadic and precarious, and engagements hard to get. However, the company gradually made a name for itself and prospered. Molière gained a rich firsthand knowledge of life on many levels. In the last few years of their wanderings he tried his hand as a playwright with such plays as L’Étourdi and Le Dépit amoureux.
At last in 1658 they obtained another chance to play in the capital. On October 24 they appeared before young Louis XIV, his brother, and the court, in the guard room of the old Louvre, in a performance of Corneille’s tragedy Nicomède, which Molière followed with his own comedy The Doctor in Love. Soon they became the Troupe de Monsieur (the King’s brother) and were installed by royal order in the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon. Though they still performed tragedies, they succeeded more and more in comedy, in which Molière was on his way to recognition as the greatest actor of his time.
Within a year he made his mark also as a playwright with The Ridiculous Précieuses (November 18, 1659), which, though little more than a sketch, bore the stamp of his originality, keen observation, and rich comic inventiveness.* Nearly thirty-eight, Molière was to have thirteen more years to live, and was to live them as though he knew this was all. To his responsibilities as director and actor he added a hectic but glorious career as a very productive playwright, author of thirty-two comedies that we know, of which a good third are among the comic masterpieces of world literature. The stress of his many roles, of deadlines, and of controversy is well depicted in The Versailles Impromptu. Success led to success—and often to more controversy—but never to respite. He was to be carried off the stage to his deathbed. No doubt he wanted it that way, or almost that way; for probably no man has ever been more possessed by the theater.
On February 20, 1662, at the age of forty, he married the twenty-year-old Armande Béjart, a daughter (according to the mostly spiteful contemporaries) or sister (according to the official documents) of Madeleine. Though what we know of their domestic life is almost nothing, contemporary gossip, a friend’s letter, and Molière’s own preoccupation in several plays with a jealous older man in love with a flighty young charmer, combine to suggest an uneasy relationship. They had two sons who died in infancy and a daughter who survived. The King himself and his sister-in-law (Madame) were godfather and godmother to the first boy—no doubt to defend Molière against a charge, or rumor, that he had married his own daughter.
When the Petit-Bourbon theater was torn down in October 1660 to make way for the new façade of the Louvre, things looked bad; but the King granted the company the use of Richelieu’s great theater, the Palais-Royal, which remained Molière’s until his death. An early success there was his regular, elaborate verse comedy, The School for Husbands. Within a year of his marriage he wrote his first great play and one of his most popular, The School for Wives. It aroused much controversy; when Molière published it, he dedicated it to Madame; the King gave him the support he sought in the form of a pension of one thousand francs for this “excellent comic poet.” The Critique of the School for Wives and The Versailles Impromptu (June and October 1663) completed Molière’s victory in the eyes of the public.
However, his attack on extreme piety and hypocrisy in Tartuffe showed him the strength of his enemies. The first three-act version, performed in May 1664, was promptly banned. For the next five years much of his time and energy went into the fight to get it played: petitions, private readings, revisions, private performances. In August 1667 a five-act version entitled The Impostor was allowed a second public performance—then also banned. Only in February 1669 was the version that we know put on, with enormous success; and this time it was on the program to stay.
Meanwhile Molière had hit back at his enemies in 1665 in Don Juan, which he soon withdrew. In August of that year his company became The King’s Troupe, and his pension was raised to six thousand francs. A year later he completed his greatest and most complex play, The Misanthrope, which met only a modest success, and the light but brilliant farce that often served as a companion piece, The Doctor in Spite of Himself. In 1668 he displayed the bitter comic profundities of The Miser; and in the last four years of his life—still to mention only his finest plays—The Would-Be Gentleman, The Mischievous Machinations of Scapin, The Learned Women, and The Imaginary Invalid.
Molière’s last seven years were dogged by pulmonary illness. A bad bout in early 1666 and another in 1667 led him to accept a milk diet and spend much of the next four years apart from his wife in his house in Auteuil. The year before his own death saw those of his old friend Madeleine Béjart and later of his second son. As his health grew worse, he composed—characteristically—his final gay comedy about a healthy hypochondriac. Before its fourth performance, on February 17, 1673, he felt very ill; his wife and one of his actors urged him not to play that evening; he replied that the whole company depended a lot on him and that it was a point of honor to go on. He got through his part, in spite of one violent fit of coughing. A few hours later he was dead. Since he had not been able, while dying, to get a priest to come and receive his formal renunciation of his profession, a regular religious burial was denied at first, and later grudgingly granted—at night, with no notice, ceremony, or service—only after his widow’s plea to the King. He died and was buried as he had lived—as an actor.
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Translations of Molière abound. Two of the most available, both complete, are by H. Baker and J. Miller (1739) and Henri Van Laun (1875–76). The former is satisfactory, but its eighteenth-century flavor is not always Molière’s; the latter is dull. Better for the modern reader are the versions of selected plays by John Wood (1953 and 1959), George Graveley (1956), and especially three others.
Curtis Hidden Page has translated eight well-chosen plays (Putnam, 1908, 2 vols.) which include three verse comedies done into unrhymed verse. Though it sometimes lacks sparkle, his version is always intelligent and responsible.
Morris Bishop’s recent translation of nine plays (one for Crofts Classics, 1950, eight for Modern Library, 1957) is much the best we have for all but two. His excellent selection includes six in prose (Précieuses, Critique, Impromptu, Physician in Spite of Himself, Would-Be Gentleman, Would-Be Invalid) and three done into unrhymed verse (School for Wives, Tartuffe, Misanthrope). His knowledge of Molière and talent for comic verse make his translation lively and racy, and his occasional liberties are usually well taken.
Richard Wilbur has translated Molière’s two greatest verse plays, The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, into rhymed verse (Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1955 and 1963). They are the best Molière we have in English. My sense of their excellence is perhaps best stated personally. I have long wanted to try my hand at translating Molière. When the Wilbur Misanthrope appeared, I decided not to attempt it unless I thought I would do that play either better or at least quite differently. When I finally tried it, I was surprised to find how different I wanted to make it. Wilbur’s end product is superb; but in his Misanthrope I sometimes miss the accents of Molière.* His Tartuffe seems to me clearly better, since it follows the original closely even in detail. Both are...
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Book Description Signet Classics, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0451530330
Book Description Signet, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0451530330
Book Description Signet, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110451530330