There was, for example, the Hôtel de Rambouillet, where men and women were making a fetish of delicate manners and perfumed speech. Molière wrote Les Précieuses ridicules; its production (November 18, 1659) began the French comedy of manners and Molière’s fortune and fame. The Laughable Exquisites was brief enough to be absorbed in an hour, and sharp enough to leave a lasting sting. Two cousins, Magdalon and Cathos, enveloped in seven veils of refinement, protest against their matter-of-fact short-of-francs elders’ anxiety to have them marry.
GORGIBUS. What see you in them to find fault with?
MAGDALON. Fine gallantry of theirs, indeed! What, to begin immediately with matrimony! . . . Were the whole world like you, romance would be ended at once. . . . Matrimony should never be brought about till after other adventures. A lover, to be agreeable, must understand how to utter fine sentiments, to sigh forth the soft, the tender, the passionate, and his address must be according to the rules. In the first place he should behold, either at church or in the park, or at some public ceremony, the person of whom he becomes enamored, or else he should be fatally introduced to her by a relation or friend, and go from her melancholy and pensive. He conceals his passion for some time from the beloved object, but pays her several visits, at which some discourse about gallantry never fails to be brought upon the carpet to exercise the wits of all the company. . . . The day comes for him to declare himself, which usually should be done in the walk of some garden, while the company is at a distance. This declaration is met by immediate resentment, which appears by our coloring, and which, for a while, banishes the lover from our presence. He finds afterwards the way to pacify us, to accustom us insensibly to hear his passion, and to draw from us that confession which causes so much trouble. Then follow the adventures: the rivals that thwart an established inclination, the persecutions of fathers, the jealousies arising from false appearances, the complainings, the despair, the running off with, and its consequences. Thus are things carried on in a handsome manner, and these are the rules that cannot be dispensed with in a genteel piece of gallantry. But to come point blank to the conjugal union!—to make no love but by the marriage contract, and to take a romance by the tail—once more, dear father, nothing can be more mechanic than such a proceeding, and I’m sick at heart with merely the idea that it gives me. . . .
CATHOS. For myself, uncle, all I can say is that I think matrimony a mighty shocking thing. How can one endure the thought of lying by a man that’s really naked? 10
Two valets borrow their masters’ raiment, disguise themselves as a marquis and a general, and court the two ladies with all the paraphernalia of gallantry and persiflage. Their masters break in upon them, tear off their plumage, and leave the young women faced with the almost naked truth. As in most of Molière’s comedies of sex, there are some rough passages, and some horseplay, but so keen a satire of social follies that the effect became an event in the history of manners. An uncertain tradition credits a woman in the audience with rising amid the audience and crying out, “Courage! Courage! Molière, this is good comedy.” 11 One habitué of Mme. de Rambouillet’s salon, emerging from the performance, was reported to have said, “Yesterday we admired all the absurdities which have been so delicately and sensibly criticized; but, in the words of St. Remy to Clovis, we must now burn what we have adored, and adore what we have burned.” 12 The Marquise de Rambouillet met the attack with genius by arranging with Molière to give a special performance of the play for the benefit of her salon; he repaid her courtesy with a preface in which he claimed to have satirized not her circle but its imitators. In any case the reign of the précieuses ended. Boileau, in his tenth satire, referred to “those beaux esprits, yesterday so renowned, whom Molière has deflated with one blow of his art.”
The play succeeded so well that the price of admission was doubled after the première. In its first year it was performed forty-four times. The King commanded three performances for the court, attended all three, and gave the company three thousand livres. By February of 1660 the grateful company had paid the author 999 livres in royalties. But he had made a mistake by inserting into the play a satirical reference to
the actors of the Théâtre Royal [Troupe Royalel: none but they are capable of gaining things a reputation; the rest are ignorant creatures who speak their parts just as one talks; these don’t understand how to make the verses roar, or to pause at a beautiful passage. How can it be known where the fine lines are if the actor does not stop at them, and apprize you thereby to applaud? 13
The troupe at the Hôtel de Bourgogne expressed open contempt of Molière as unable to produce tragedy, and as capable only of coarse comedy. Molière strengthened their case by writing and presenting a middling farce, Le Cocu imaginaire—The Imaginary Cuckold—though the King was pleased to see this nine times.
Meanwhile the old Louvre was undergoing alterations; the Salle du Petit Bourbon was incontinently demolished, and for a time it seemed that Molière’s Troupe de Monsieur would be stageless. The King, always friendly, came to his rescue by assigning to him, in the Palais-Royal, the salle in which Richelieu had had plays performed. There, as an almost physical part of the court, Molière’s company remained till his death. His first production in this new home was his last attempt at tragedy, Don Garcie. He thought, with some reason, that the pompous rhetorical style of tragedy as developed by Corneille and played at the Hôtel de Bourgogne was unnatural; he aspired to a simpler and more natural style. Had the classical dominance (and his hiccup) allowed him he might have produced successful combinations of tragedy with comedy, as in Shakespeare; and, indeed, his greatest comedies have a touch of tragedy. But Don Garcie failed, despite the efforts of the King to buttress it by attending three performances. Molière was designed to suffer tragedy, not to play it.
So he returned to comedy. L’École des maris—The School for Husbands—had a solacing success, playing daily from June 24 to September 11, 1661. It foreshadowed the marriage of Molière, then thirty-nine, with Armande Béjart, then eighteen; its problem was, How should a young woman be trained to be a good and faithful wife? The brothers Ariste and Sganarelle are fortunate in being the guardians of the girls they plan to marry. Ariste, who is sixty, treats his eighteen-year-old ward, Léonor, quite leniently:
I’ve not made crimes of little liberties. I’ve continually complied with her youthful desires; and, thank Heaven, I don’t repent it. I’ve given her leave to see good company, diversions, plays, and balls; these are things which, for my part, I always judge very proper to form the minds of young people; and the world is a school which, in my opinion, teaches the way of living better than any book. She likes to spend money on clothes, linen, and new fashions. . . . I try to gratify her wishes; these are pleasures we should allow young women when our circumstances can afford it. 14
Sganarelle, the younger brother, derides Ariste as a fool seduced by the latest fancies. He laments the passing of the old morality, the looseness of the new, the insolence of liberated youth. He proposes a stern discipline to train his ward Isabelle to be an obedient wife:
She shall be dressed in becoming clothes . . . Staying at home like a discreet person, she shall apply herself entirely to affairs of housewifery, darning linen in her leisure hours, or knitting stockings for her diversion. She . . . shall not stir abroad without someone to watch her. . . . I will not wear horns if I can help it.
After an incredible intrigue (imitated from a Spanish comedy) Isabelle runs away with an ingenious lover, while Léonor marries Ariste and remains faithful to him to the end of the play.
Molière was evidently debating with himself. On February 20, 1662, now forty, he married a woman less than half his age. Moreover, Armande Béjart was the daughter of Madeleine Béjart, with whom Molière had cohabited twenty years before. His enemies accused him of marrying his own illegitimate daughter. Montfleury, leader of the rival troupe at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, wrote to Louis XIV to this effect in 1663; Louis replied by standing godfather to Molière’s first child by Armande. Madeleine, when Molière met her, had been too lavish of her person to give us any certainty of Armande’s parentage. Molière apparently did not think himself her father; and we may allow that he was slightly better informed on the point than we can be.
Armande had grown up as the spoiled pet of the troupe; Molière had seen her almost every day; he had loved her as a child long before he had known her as a woman. She was by this time an accomplished actress. With such a background she was not made for monogamy, least of all with a man who had outworn the spirit of youth. She loved the pleasures of life, and indulged in flirtations that were widely interpreted as infidelities. Molière suffered, his friends and foes gossiped. Ten months after his marriage he tried to salve his wounds by criticizing male jealousy and defending female emancipation. He tried to be Ariste, but Armande could not be Léonor. Perhaps he failed to be Ariste, for he was as impatient as any theatrical producer. In the Impromptu of Versailles(October, 1663) he described himself as saying to his wife, “Hold your peace, wife; you are an ass”; whereto she replies, “Thank you, good husband. See how it is: matrimony alters people strangely; you would not have said this a year and a half ago.” 15
He continued his meditations on jealousy and liberty in L’École des femmes, which had its première on December 26, 1662. Almost the opening lines struck the theme of cuckoldry. Arnolphe, played by Molière, is again the old-fashioned tyrant who believes that a woman loosed is a loose woman, and that the only means of guaranteeing a wife’s fidelity is to train her to modest servitude, keep her under strict watch, and skimp her education. Agnès, his ward and prospective bride, grows up in such delectable innocence that she asks Arnolphe, in a line that echoed through France, “si les enfants . . . se faisoient par l’oreille”—if children are begotten through the ear. 16 As Arnolphe has told her nothing about love, she accepts with guileless pleasure the attentions of Horace, who finds his way to her during her guardian’s brief absence. When Arnolphe returns she gives him an objective account of Horace’s procedure:
ARNOLPHE. Well, but what did he do when he was alone with you?
AGNÈS. He said he loved me with an unequalled passion, and told me, in the finest language in the world, things that nothing ever can come up to; the agreeableness whereof delighted me every time I heard him speak, and raised within me a certain, I know not what, emotion which entirely charmed me.
ARNOLPHE (aside). O tormenting inquiry into a fatal secret, where the inquirer only suffers all the pain! (Aloud.) Besides all this talk, all these pretty ways, didn’t he bestow some kisses on you, too?
AGNÈS. Oh, to that degree! He took my hands and arms, and was never weary of kissing ’em.
ARNOLPHE. Did he take nothing else from you, Agnès? (Seeing her at a loss.) Hah?
AGNÈS. Why, he did—
ARNOLPHE. What d’ye mean?
AGNÈS. I durst not tell you; for, maybe, you’ll be angry wi’ me.
AGNÈS. Yes, but you will.
ARNOLPHE. Lack-a-day, I won’t.
AGNÈS. Swear faith, then.
ARNOLPHE. Well, faith.
AGNÈS. He took—You’ll be in a passion.
ARNOLPHE. No, no, no, no. What the deuce is this mystery? What did he take from you.
ARNOLPHE (aside). I suffer damnation.
AGNÈS. He took away the ribbon you gave me; to tell you the truth, I could not help it.
ARNOLPHE (recovering himself). No matter for the ribbon. But I want to know whether he did nothing but kiss your hands.
AGNÈS. Why! do people do other things?
ARNOLPHE. No, no. . . . But in short I must tell you, that to accept caskets and hearken to the idle stories of these powdered fops, to permit ‘em, in a languishing way, to kiss your hands and charm your heart in this manner, is a mortal sin, the greatest that can be committed.
AGNÈS. A sin, d’ye say! The reason, pray?
ARNOLPHE. The reason? Why, the reason is, because it’s declared that Heaven is offended at such doings.
AGNÈS. Offended! But wherefore should it be offended? Lack-a-day! ’tis so sweet, so pleasant! 1 admire at the delight one finds in’t, and didn’t know these things before.
ARNOLPHE. Ay, there’s a great deal of pleasure in all these tendernesses, these complaisant discourses, these fond embraces; but they should be tasted in an honest manner, and the sin should be taken away by marrying.
AGNÈS. Is it no more a sin when a body’s married?
AGNÈS. Then marry me out of hand, I pray. 17
Of course Agnès soon runs off to Horace. Arnolphe recaptures her, and is about to beat her when her sweet voice and form unnerve him; and perhaps when Molière wrote Arnolphe’s lines he was thinking of Armande:
That speech and that look disarm my fury, and produce a return of tenderness which effaces all her guilt. How strange it is to be in love! and that men should be subject to such weakness for these traitresses! Everybody knows their imperfection; they’re nothing but extravagance and indiscretion; their mind is wicked and their understanding weak; nothing is more frail, nothing more unsteady, nothing more false, and yet, for all that, one does everything in the world for the sake of these animals. 18
In the end she eludes him and marries Horace; and Arnolphe’s friend Chrysalde consoles him with the thought that abstention from marriage is the only sure way of avoiding the growth of horns.
The play delighted the audience; it was performed thirty-one times in its first ten weeks, and the King was young enough to enjoy its laxity. But the more conservative elements at the court condemned the comedy as immoral; procreation through the ear proved unpopular with the ladies; the Prince de Conti denounced, as the most scandalous thing ever staged, the second-act scene between Arnolphe and Agnès quoted above; Bossuet anathematized the entire play; some magistrates called for its suppression as a threat to morality and religion. The rival troupe laughed at the vulgarities of the dialogue, the contradictions in characterization, and the hasty incredibilities of the plot. For a time the play “made the conversation of every house in Paris.” 19
Molière was too much of a fighter to let these criticisms go unnoticed. In a one-act piece presented at the Palais-Royal June I, 1663, La Critique de l’École des femmes, he pictured a gathering of his critics, allowed them to voice their objections forcefully, and made hardly any answer except to let the critique weaken itself through exaggeration, and be voiced by ridiculous characters. The Hôtel de Bourgogne kept up this guerre comique by producing a skit called The Counter critic; and Molière satirized the royal troupe in L’Impromptu de Versailles (October 18, 1663). The King stood loyally by Molière, invited him to dinner, 20 and now gave him an annual pension of a thousand livres, not as comédien, but as excellent poète. 21 Time also gave the victory to Molière, and today,L’École des femmes is rated as the first great comedy of the French theater.