A building at 96 Rue St.-Honoré in Paris bears an inscription in letters of gold:
Cette maison a été construite sur l’emplacement
de celle où est né
le 15 janvier 1622
_______“This house was built on the site of that where Molière was born January 15, 1622.” It was the home of Jean Baptiste Coquelin III, upholsterer and decorator. His wife Marie Cressé had brought him a dowry of 2,200 livres. She gave him six children, and then died, after ten years of marriage. Jean Baptiste Coquelin IV, her first child, remembered her only vaguely, and never mentioned her in his plays. The father married again (1633), but, as this stepmother died in 1637, it was the father who bore the brunt of his son’s genius, directed his education, and thought to mold his career. In 1631 Jean Coquelin III became valet tapissier de chambre du roi—superintendent of the royal upholstery, with the privilege of making the royal bed and of living in the King’s household, at an annual salary of three hundred livres; a modest sum, but only three months of attendance were required in any year. The father had bought the office from his brother, and planned to transmit it to his son. In 1637 Louis XIII recognized Jean Coquelin IV as rightful heir to the position; and if the father’s aspirations had been realized Molière might have been known to history—if at all—as the man who made the King’s bed. However, a grandfather had a liking for the theater, and took the boy with him now and then to the performances.
To fit him for making the King’s bed, Jean IV was sent to the Jesuit Collège de Clermont, the alma mater of heretics. He learned considerable Latin, read Terence profitably, and doubtless took interest, perhaps part, in the dramas staged by the Jesuits as a device for educating their students in Latin, literature, and speech. According to Voltaire, Jean also received instruction from the philosopher Gassendi, who had been engaged as tutor for a rich classmate; in any case Jean learned much about Epicurus, and translated a considerable portion of Lucretius’ Epicurean epic, De rerum natura. (Some lines in Le Misanthrope4 are almost a translation of a passage in Lucretius. 5) It is probable that Jean, before ending his youth, had lost his faith. 6
After five years at college Jean studied law; he appears to have practiced briefly in the courts. For some months he followed his father’s profession (1642). In that year he met Madeleine Béjart, then a gay lady of twenty-four. Five years earlier she had been the mistress of the Comte de Modène; he graciously acknowledged the child she bore him, and let his son act as godfather at the christening. Jean, now twenty, was attracted by her beauty, her cheerful and kindly disposition. In all probability she accepted him as a lover. Her passion for the theater joined with other factors in deciding him to turn his back upon upholstery, to sign away, for 630 livres, his right to succeed his father as a valet tapissier to the King, and to plunge into the profession of an actor (1643). He left his father, and went to live in the home of Madeleine Béjart. 7 With her, her two brothers, and some others, he entered into a formal contract establishing the Illustre Théâtre (June 30, 1643). The Comédie-Française regards that contract as the beginning of its long and distinguished career. As was the custom with actors, Jean now took a stage name, and became Molière.
The new company hired a tennis court for its theater, presented a variety of plays, and went bankrupt; in the year 1645 Molière was thrice arrested for debt. His father, hoping that the youth had been cured of stage fever, paid his debts and secured his release. But Molière reorganized the Illustre Théâtre, and went off on a tour of the provinces. The Duc d’Épernon, governor of Guienne, gave the company his support. In a wearing series of successes and failures, the troupe passed from Narbonne to Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne, Nantes, Agen, Grenoble, Lyons, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Béziers, Dijon, Avignon, Rouen. Molière rose to be manager (1650), and by a hundred expedients kept the company solvent and fed. In 1653 the Prince de Conti, his old schoolfellow, lent his name and support to the players, probably because his secretary admired the actress Mlle, du Parc. But in 1655 the Prince had a religious stroke, and informed the company that his conscience forbade his connection with the theater. Later he publicly denounced the stage, and Molière in particular, as a corrupter of youth, an enemy to morality and Christianity.
Gradually, amid these vicissitudes, the troupe improved its competence, income, and repertoire. Molière learned the art and tricks of the theater. By 1655 he was writing as well as acting plays. By 1658 he felt strong enough to challenge the pre-emption of the Paris stage by the King’s players at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and a private troupe that was operating the Théâtre du Marais. From Rouen he and Madeleine Béjart came to Paris to prepare the ground. He visited his father, and won forgiveness for his sins and his career. He persuaded Philippe I Duc d’Orléans, to take the company under his protection, and to secure for it a hearing at the court.
On October 24, 1658, this “Troupe de Monsieur” presented before the King, in the guardroom of the Louvre, Corneille’s tragedy Nicomède. Molière played the main part, not very successfully, for he suffered, Voltaire tells us, “from a kind of hiccup which was quite unsuited to serious roles,” but which “served only to make his acting in comedy the more enjoyable.” 8 He saved the day by following the tragedy with a comedy now lost; he acted it with a verve and gaiety, a rising eyebrow and babbling mouth, that made the audience wonder why he had ever played tragedy at all. The King was young enough to enjoy the fun, and man enough to appreciate Molière’s courage. He issued instructions that the Troupe de Monsieur should share the Salle du Petit Bourbon with the Italian company of Scaramouche. There too the newcomers failed when they attempted tragedies, in which they fell short of the royal players at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and they succeeded in comedies, above all in those that Molière composed. They continued nevertheless to produce tragedies. The leading ladies felt that they shone better in serious drama, and Molière himself was never content to be a comedian. The struggles and absurdities of life had developed in him a vein of melancholy, and he found it tragical to be always comical. Moreover, he had tired of the comedies of amorous intrigue, of the old stock characters and whipping boys, mostly echoes of Italy. Looking about him in Paris, he saw things that seemed to him quite as laughable as Polichinelle and Scaramouche.“No longer need I take Plautus and Terence for my masters, or despoil Menander,” he was quoted as saying; “I have only to study the world.” 9