Not content with the enemies that he had made, Molière proceeded to attack the medical profession. He had pictured Don Juan as being “impious in medicine” and rating medicine “one of the greatest errors of mankind.” 32 He had discovered in person the deficiencies and pretenses of seventeenth-century physicians. He thought that doctors had killed his son by prescribing antimony, and he saw that they were helpless against his own advancing tuberculosis. 33 The King too was rebelling against weekly purges and bleedings; according to Molière it was Louis who prompted him to put the doctors on the grill. So, borrowing from old comedies on this ancient theme, he wrote in five days L’Amour médecin. It was produced at Versailles on September 15, 1665, before the King, who “was heartily amused”; and it met with an hilarious reception when it was staged a week later at the Palais-Royal. A woman is ill; four doctors are called in; they enter into private consultation, but discuss only their own affairs. When the father insists upon a decision and a remedy, one prescribes an enema, another swears that an enema will kill the patient. She gets better without medicine, which infuriates the doctors. “It is better to die according to the rules,” cries Dr. Bahys, “than to recover contrary to them.” 34
On August 6, 1666, Molière presented another short piece, Le Médecin malgré lui, as a merry prelude to Le Misanthrope, designed to offset the gloom of that paean to pessimism. It does not repay reading today. Molière hardly intended these satires on medicine to be taken seriously. We note that he kept on excellent terms with his own physician, M. de Mauvilain, and that he interceded with the King to get a sinecure for the doctor’s son (1669). He once explained how it was that he and Mauvilain got along so well: “We reason with one another; he prescribes remedies; I omit to take them, and I recover.” 35
Still amid the battle over Tartuffe, Molière presented, on June 4, 1666, another satire hardly calculated to please either the public or the court. If action is the soul of drama, Le Misanthrope is rather a philosophical dialogue than a play. One sentence can tell the story: Alceste, who demands a strict morality and complete honesty from himself and all, loves Célimène, who favors him but relishes a multiplicity of suitors and compliments. To Molière this is but a scaffolding for a study of morality. Should we always speak the truth, or should we substitute courtesy for truth in order to get along in the world? Alceste resents the compromises that society makes with the truth; he condemns the hypocrisy of the court, where everyone pretends to the loftiest sentiments and the “warmest regards,” while at heart each one is scheming for himself, is critical of all the rest, and uses flattery as a lever to position or power. Alceste scorns all this, and proposes to be honest even to the point of suicide. Orontes, a scribbling courtier, insists on reading his verses to Alceste and asks for sincere criticism; he gets it, and vows revenge. Célimène flirts; Alceste reproves her; she calls him a prig; we almost hear Molière rebuking his gay wife, and indeed it was he who played Alceste, and she Célimène.
ALCESTE. Madame, will you have me be plain with you? I am very much dissatisfied with your ways of behavior. . . . I don’t quarrel with you, but your disposition, madame, opens to the first comer too ready an access to your heart. You have too many lovers whom we see besieging you; and my soul cannot reconcile itself to this.
CÉLIMÈNE. Do you blame me for attracting lovers? Can I help it if people find me lovable? And when they make delectable efforts to see me should I take a stick and drive them out?
ALCESTE. No, it is not a stick that you must use, but a spirit less yielding and melting before their vows. I know that your beauty follows you everywhere, but your welcome holds further those whom your eyes attract; and your sweetness to all who surrender to you completes in their hearts the work of your charms. 36
The philosophical foil to Alceste is his friend Philinte, who advises him to adjust himself amiably to the natural defects of mankind, and to recognize politeness as the lubrication of life. The zest of the play lies in Molière’s division of his sentiments between Alceste and Philinte. Alceste is Molière the husband who fears that he is a cuckold, and the valet tapissier du roi who, to make the King’s bed, has to run the gantlet of a hundred nobles as proud of their pedigree as he of his genius. Philinte is Molière the philosopher, bidding himself be reasonable and lenient in judging humanity. Says Philinte-Molière to Molière-Alceste, in a passage which we may take as a sample of Molière the poet:
Mon Dieu, des moeurs du temps mettons-nous moins en peine,
Et faisons un peu grâce à la nature humaine;
Ne l’examinons point dans la grande rigueur,
Et voyons ses défauts avec quelque douceur.
Il faut, parmi le monde, une vertu traitable;
A force de sagesse on peut être blâmable;
La parfaite raison fuit toute extrémité
Et veut que l’on soit sage avec sobriété.
Cette grande raideur des vertus des vieux âges
Heurte trop notre siècle et les communs usages;
Elle veut aux mortels trop de perfection:
Il faut fléchir au temps sans obstination,
Et c’est une folie à nulle autre seconde
De vouloir se mêler de corriger le monde.
J’observe, comme vous, cent choses tous les jours,
Qui pourraient mieux aller, prenant un autre cours;
Mais quoi qu’à chaque pas je puisse voir paraître,
En courroux, comme vous, on ne me voit point être;
Je prends tout doucement les hommes comme ils sont,
J’accoutume mon âme à souffrir ce qu’ils font,
Et je crois qu’à la cour, de même qu’à la ville,
Mon flegme est philosophe autant que votre bile.* 37
Napoleon thought that Philinte had the better of the argument; Jean Jacques Rousseau thought Philinte a liar, and approved Alceste’s rigorous morality. 38 In the end Alceste, like Jean Jacques, renounces the world and retires to a sterilized solitude.
The play had only a moderate success. The courtiers did not relish the satire of their fine manners, and the pit could hardly enthuse over an Alceste who frankly despised everybody but himself. The critics, however, being neither of the pit nor of the court, applauded the play as a brave attempt to write a drama of ideas; and later pundits judge it the most perfect of Molière’s works. In the course of time, when its pilloried generation was dead, it won public acceptance; between 1680 and 1954 it had 1,571 performances at the Comédie-Française—only less than Tartuffe and L’Avare.
Unable to live in peace with a young wife to whom monogamy and beauty seemed a contradiction in terms, Molière left her (August, 1667), and went to live with his friend Chapelain at Auteuil, in the western end of Paris. Chapelain gently derided him for taking love so seriously; but Molière was more poet than philosopher, and (if we may believe one poet reporting another) confessed:
“I have determined to live with her as if she were not my wife; but if you knew what I suffer you would pity me. My passion has reached such a point that it even enters with compassion into all her interests. When I consider how impossible it is for me to conquer what I feel for her, I tell myself that she may have the same difficulty in conquering her inclination to be coquettish, and I find myself more disposed to pity her than to blame her. You will tell me, no doubt, that a man must be a poet to feel this; but for my part I feel that there is but one kind of love, and that those who have not felt these delicacies of sentiment have never truly loved. All things in the world are connected with her in my heart . . . When I see her, an emotion, transports that may be felt but not described, take from me all power of reflection; I have no longer any eyes for her defects; I can see only all that she has that is lovable. Is not that the last degree of madness?” 39
He tried to forget her by losing himself in his work. In 1667 he busied himself arranging entertainment for the King at St.-Germain. His comedy Amphitryon (January 13, 1668) celebrated again the amours of Jupiter, who seduces Amphitryon’s wife Alcmène. When Jupiter explains to her that
Un partage avec Jupiter
N’a rien du tout qui déshonore
—i.e., for a lady to share her bed with Jove is not at all dishonorable—the lines were interpreted by many auditors as condoning the royal liaison with Mme. de Montespan; if so, it was a very generous sycophancy, for Molière was in no mood to sympathize with seducers. Like everybody else he buttered the King with flattery, as at the end of Tartuffe. In another comedy, produced before the court on July 15, George Dandin, ou le Mari confondu, we have again the story of the husband confounded, suspecting his wife of adultery, unable to prove it, and eating his heart out with suspicion and jealousy; Molière was pouring salt into his wounds.
It was a busy year, for only a few months later (September 9) he produced one of his most famous plays. L’Avare (The Miser) took its theme, and part of its plot, from Plautus’ Aulularia; but Plautus had taken that from the New Comedy of the Greeks; the miser, and satire of him, are probably as old as money. No one has ever handled the subject with more vivacity and power than Molière. Harpagon so loves his hoard that he lets his horses starve and go without hoofs; he has such an aversion to giving that he does not “give you good day,” but prête le bonjour—“lends you good day.” Seeing two candles lit for dinner, he blows one out. He refuses a dowry to his daughter, and trusts that his children will predecease him. 40 The satire, as usual in Molière, verges on caricature. The audience found the picture distasteful, and after eight performances the play was withdrawn. But Boileau’s praise helped to revive it; it was shown forty-seven times in its first four years, and is second only to Tartuffe in frequency of presentation.
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme had less merit and more success. In December, 1669, a Turkish ambassador came to France. The court put on all its splendor to impress him; he responded with haughty stolidity; after his departure Louis invited Molière and Lully to compose a comedy-ballet in which the ambassador would be parodied in a turquerie. Molière enlarged the scheme into a satire on the increasing number of middle-class Frenchmen who were struggling to dress and speak like born aristocrats. The comedy had its première before King and court at Chambord, October 14, 1670. When presented at the Palais-Royal in November it atoned financially for the losses of L’Avare. Molière played M. Jourdain; Lully played the Mufti. To invest himself with nobility, M. Jourdain hires a music master, a dancing master, a fencing master, a philosophy master. They come to blows over the relative importance of their arts—whether it is more vital to achieve harmony, to be in step, to be able to kill neatly, or to speak elegant French. In the claims of the music master we suspect a sly dig at pompous, climbing Lully. Half the world knows the scene in which M. Jourdain learns that all language is either prose or verse.
M. JOURDAIN. What? When I say, “Nicole, bring me my slippers, and give me my night bonnet”—this is prose?
PHILOSOPHY MASTER. Yes, Monsieur.
M. JOURDAIN. By my faith! for over forty years I’ve been speaking prose without knowing anything about it. I am for all the world most obliged to you for informing me of this. 41
Some courtiers, who had not long since graduated from commerce into lace, felt that the satire was aimed at them, and they pooh-poohed the play as nonsense; but the King assured Molière, “You have never written anything yet which has amused me so much.” Hearing this, says Guizot, “the court was at once seized with a fit of admiration.” 42
Molière and Lully collaborated again to produce before the court (January, 1671), a tragedy-ballet, Psyché, to which Pierre Corneille and Quinault contributed most of the verse. Lully was winning the battle against Molière: comedy was giving way to opera, dialogue to machinery; gods and goddesses had to be lowered from heaven or hoisted from hell. The stage at the Palais-Royal had to be rebuilt for Psyché, at a cost of 1,980 livres. But the production was a financial success.
Romance, however, was not Molière’s forte; he was more at home when roasting the absurdities of the age on the point of his wit. It seemed to him that a learned woman was an uncomfortable anomaly and an impediment to marriage. He had heard such women pruning vocabularies, debating niceties of grammar, quoting the classics, and talking philosophy; this, to Molière’s ears, sounded like a sexual perversion. Moreover two men, the Abbé Cotin and the poet Ménage, had been inveighing against Molière’s plays; here was a chance to prick them. So, on March 11, 1672, he offered Les Femmes savantes. Philaminte discharges a maid for using a word condemned by the Academy; her daughter Armande rejects matrimony as a disgusting contact of bodies rather than a fusion of minds; Trissotin reads his awful poetry to these admiring prudes; Vadius riddles the poetry and presents more of his own and the same. Against all these Molière defends Henriette, who abominates alexandrines and wants a husband who can give her children instead of epigrams. Had Armande Béjart become a précieuse? Or was Molière showing his age?