French playwright Molière's satire still resonates after 400 years

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  • Molière
    French playwright and actor (1622–1673)

Molière, France’s most famous playwright, turns 400 this year. Anniversary celebrations in France and around the world shine a light on an author who poked fun at authority, and whose work is said to embody a certain idea of France.

French is called "la langue de Molière", or the language of Molière, the playwright whose works are read by all French children in school and continue to be performed regularly on stage, 400 years later.

Molière is embraced – and appropriated – across the political spectrum. President Emmanuel Macron, a fan of his work, has memorably recited passages by heart.

Far-right pundit-turned-presidential candidate Eric Zemmour evoked Molière in a video launching his campaign, evoking a nostalgia for the glory of Louis XIV’s France.

Theatre for the king

Molière led a theatre troupe for over 20 years, eventually under the patronage of Louis XIV, when he started writing and performing his own work.

He wrote about 30 plays, which have been translated into dozens of languages and performed around the world. But despite being under the king's protection, Molière still ran up against critics and saw some of his plays banned.

He was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris in early January 1622, and christened on 15 January.

Early on he wanted to act, and rejected his family's bourgeois life, refusing to take the title of royal upholsterer that his father had secured.

In 1643, he started the Illustre Théâtre, or Illustrious theatre company, with several other actors, including Madeleine Béjart.

During this time, Poquelin started using the stage name Molière, though he never explained why he chose the name.

The company went bankrupt in 1645 after two seasons. However, Molière and Béjart then joined a touring company and spent 13 years performing around France.

That is when Molière started writing some short plays, and his two first big comedies, including Le Docteur Amoureux (The Doctor in Love), though the bulk of the works that we know today were written after he started performing in Paris.

Molière in Paris

In 1658, Molière’s company performed for Louis XIV at The Louvre and secured the king’s approval, which was the only way to perform in the capital.

As he started writing his own plays, Molière developed his own style at a time when theatre was defined by a set of rules regarding language and characters that were influenced by the stock figures in Italian Commedia del’arte.

Molière’s plays, set in the contemporary 17th century, took aim at human faults like greed. He also did not hold back on social criticism, denouncing the bourgeoisie in The Bourgeois Gentleman and religious hypocrisy in Tartuffe.

But even though this often got him into trouble with religious authorities and other critics, he continued to enjoy protection from the King, who appreciated the entertainment.

Molière embraced in the US

Often comic, with physical and farcical acting, Molière’s plays could be seen as frivolous. However, he brought everyday issues to the stage, which is part of his enduring appeal.

“What is interesting, in particular in the United States, is the early embrace of a popular Molière, a Molière of farce, of circus, of acrobats, of hucksters – the primitive Molière that in France was ignored for a long time,” Martial Poirson, a cultural historian and curator of an upcoming exhibit on Moliere, told RFI.

“There is a pop version of Molière that is quite specific to North America,” he says, adding that France took a while to embrace the popular, burlesque aspects of Molière’s work.

Molière’s chair

After his death in 1673, Molière’s troupe stayed together, merging with other companies to eventually found the Comédie-Française in 1680, which still performs at the Palais Royal theatre in Paris.

The chair he used in a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) hours before he died at home is displayed in a glass case in the theatre's foyer.

It was still used in some plays until 1879, and since then, only Charlie Chaplin was allowed to sit in it.

RFI’s language services are marking the 400th anniversary of Molière with a series of reports, videos and articles throughout the year showing his influence around the globe.

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