Historical Figures

Molière and the king, a formidable political and artistic duo

In this special year, we celebrate the 400 years of Molière ! A perfect opportunity for me to complete this month of March dedicated to theater in the Secret Cabinet of Plume d'histoire with a free article entirely dedicated to this great figure of dramatic art, and more particularly to the close relationships that Molière and the King Louis XIV . It's also time to tell you about the beautiful exhibition mounted at Espace Richaud Versailles , which retraces with originality the life of our famous author and actor, and then focuses on his astonishing "post-mortem" glory.

An exhibition organized by the Town Hall of the city of Versailles with the collaboration of the teams of the Lambinet museum, under the direction of Martial Poirson, professor at the University of Paris 8 and specialist in Molière.

Celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of Molière at Versailles seemed obvious to me […] Denouncer of the vices of his time, of a stammering medicine, of a sclerotic religion, of ridiculous noble and cultural ambitions, the work of Molière cannot be understood without enlightenment and knowledge of the manners of the Court of Versailles. And it was in this same city that […] his meeting with the young Louis XIV, this all-powerful monarch, allowed him to establish a strong personal bond, the genius of one serving the glory of the other and reciprocally.

François de Mazières, Mayor of Versailles – Catalog of the exhibition Molière:The Making of National Glory )

From Jean-Baptiste Poquelin to Molière

Jean Poquelin (Baptiste will be joined later) was born on January 15, 1622 in Paris into a family of upholsterers. From birth, his destiny seemed linked to the Court:his father held the very prestigious position of "upholsterer valet to the king" Louis XIII , a title that gives direct access to the monarch and requires only three months of work per year:he takes care of the maintenance of the furniture, fabrics and tapestries of the royal bedroom.

The Poquelin son grew up between the Louvre and Les Halles. He benefited from a careful education, undoubtedly the best of the time, given by the Jesuits of the College of Clermont, today Lycée Louis-le-Grand. It was there that he first encountered theatrical art, seen as training in rhetoric.

However, the Catholic Church […] condemns all profane practice of the theater and anathematizes actors, imposing excommunication on them, in the name of morality:the latter, by expressing for remuneration, through their body and their voice , a feigned situation, do they not compete with the Creator?

Molière:The Making of National Glory

While he already has a foot in the stirrup to become a cultivated court man and play it to climb the hierarchy, it is another type of game that interests Jean-Baptiste. “In defiance of any social success strategy “, he chooses to embrace the acting career. A new status that gives her as few rights as a prostitute!

On June 30, 1643, aged 21, the young Poquelin signed an association contract with ten actors, including three brothers and sisters, Joseph, Geneviève and Madeleine Béjart, who would give birth to a veritable "dynasty" of actors. The talented young troupe, called the Illustre-Théâtre, embarked with ambition on Parisian performances of “serious plays” which were a real success. The troupe attracts the attention of Gaston d'Orléans, brother of Louis XIII, who takes it under his protection and opens the doors of the most prestigious aristocratic residences to the actors.

Unfortunately, the troupe of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (who at that time took the name of Molière, fictitious seigneury of his place of birth) experienced its first setbacks.

Despite this brilliant launch and immediate recognition, the troupe struggled financially. The heavy investments in equipment for two performance halls in just two years (le Jeu de paix des Métayers, then the Jeu de paix de la Coix-Noire), the costs incurred for sumptuous performances, the reimbursement of debts contracted and the weakness of ticketing revenue leads to inevitable bankruptcy.

Molière:The Making of National Glory

Too daring in a capital where competition is fierce (the theaters of the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Hôtel du Marais have royal privilege), the company of the Illustre-Théâtre went bankrupt two years after its creation. Molière assumes full financial responsibility and spends two months in Châtelet prison at the beginning of August 1645. His father gets him out by agreeing to pay his son's colossal debts, which he will take many years to to reimburse.

Travelling theater then triumph in Paris!

Disillusioned by these disappointing Parisian beginnings, Molière set off to criss-cross the provinces with Joseph, Geneviève and above all Madeleine Béjart), protected by powerful lords and already famous for his exceptional playing. And during these thirteen years of performances and travels throughout France, success is there!

Enjoying strong family support, numerous support among the regional elites, a dense distribution network in castles, residences and cities such as Lyon […], the actors of the troupe live in a certain opulence. Molière quickly occupies the leading roles in the repertoire, including tragic ones.

Molière:The Making of National Glory

The most powerful protector of the troupe, with whom Molière personally had excellent relations, was Armand de Bourbon-Conti who “reigned” over a large part of the south of France. The prince opens the strings of his purse very widely to Molière and the Béjarts, inviting them to ensure the entertainment of major public events and provincial aristocratic stays, in particular in his castle of Grange-des-Prés.

In 1656, the Prince of Conti converted to Catholicism. Here he is forced to detach himself completely from the theater. Money, again, will be hard to come by. But the troupe is now famous throughout France. Molière, above all, distinguished himself more than the others. Without having a precise plan of struggle in mind, Molière now feels that to acquire a certain freedom in the exercise of his genius, he needs support in high places. Bursting with ardour, projects and talents, he returned to Paris. To hell with the Catholics who stole Conti from him! He found other protectors, starting with Philippe d'Anjou, the future Philip I of Orléans . The prince gives Molière and his troupe free access to the Petit-Bourbon theater which belongs to him.

We are in 1658 and Molière is 36 years old. This is where his dazzling career as an author began. If he wrote only two comedies since his debut in 1643, during the next fifteen (and last fifteen) years of his life, he put on 95 plays and wrote around thirty comedies! Often ambitious works which quickly conquered the Parisian public after having seduced the provinces. The Ridiculous Precious (1659) is a huge success!

Forcing the line of a form of snobbery, he secures the conniving laughter of the literate elite, quick to disassociate themselves from this affectation of preciousness. Distinguishing himself from the success recipe of farce, Molière carried out a veritable literary revolution which amazed his contemporaries:he invented a burlesque comedy based on the clash of language registers, the discrepancy between gesture and speech, while drawing on the gallant culture a vast metaphorical field on which he goes one better, multiplying incongruous neologisms and grandiloquent periphrases in order to make ridiculous the false pretensions and pretences.

Molière:The Making of National Glory

The troupe is now invited to produce plays by Molière in the mansions of ministers, financiers and fashionable artists. The beginnings of royal favour, the playwright was requested by Nicolas Fouquet at Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661. For the great evening given in honor of the monarch by the Superintendent of Finances (who was close to disgrace), Molière imagined The Annoying , a "biting critique of courtiers" written and edited in a fortnight!

Molière becomes master of the royal festivities

From the year 1660, Molière recovers his position as "upholsterer of the king's chamber". The king is Louis XIV, a young and fiery monarch eager to prove himself. As the historian Pascal Torres wonderfully points out, Louis XIV experienced, during the first years of his personal reign, “a veritable complex of Alexander the Great. He wants to impose his authority by marveling the Court with festivities and grandiose entertainments that will be talked about around the world.

At the heart of this "aesthetics of the great spectacle aimed at the astonishment of the public », the theater holds a dominating place. Subject to the tutelage of the monarch who uses it to convey messages consistent with his political strategy, it is an art essential to the influence of the Sun King.

The understanding between Louis XIV and Molière is instinctive. The king in search of legitimacy finds in the playwright (whom he generously supports) all the imagination and audacity necessary for his policy of grandeur. It was not long before he made Jean-Baptiste his new master of ceremonies for royal celebrations. Molière thus invents, in collusion with Lully, the concept of comedy-ballet! This combination of theatre, dance and music allowed the king to deploy his talents (Louis XIV was an excellent dancer ) and to modulate the staging and choreography as desired according to the messages he wishes to convey to dazzle courtiers and ambassadors.

Over the years, the "Molièresque" creations follow one another:Forced Marriage (1664), The Princess of Elis (1664), The Magnificent Lovers (1670), The Bourgeois Gentleman (1670), Psyche (1671), The Countess of Escabagnas (1672)… This world “mixing mythological wonder, biblical magic, gallant intrigue, romantic adventures, machines and special effects offered Molière a unique opportunity to deploy his creative genius while satisfying the thirst for the extraordinary that tormented Louis XIV more and more intensely during the 1660s and 1670s.

Protected by this monarch on the way to becoming the most powerful king in the world, Molière is inhabited by an intense feeling of deliverance. A form of appeasement… which is akin to freedom! Louis XIV, whose sincere sensitivity to the arts brings him personally closer to his artist, does he not offer him the right to remain himself, with all the frankness of tone that characterizes him?

The protection of the Sun King becomes decisive when Molière suddenly has to fight "the pedants, the pedants, the precious and the cockroaches ". In short, when he must rise up against “the powerful cohort of his detractors !

Women's School (1662) launches hostilities

At the forefront of the most virulent detractors of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin are the devotees. It is they, moreover, that the playwright takes the most pleasure in humiliating. Not showing his jubilation too openly, Louis XIV nevertheless revels in the blows struck at these unbearable parasites who oppose his desire for magnificence and sensuality!

Because in the theater that is the Court, two conceptions of power clash. The moral rigidity of the devout party, which clung to Queen Mother Anne of Austria, who was increasingly turned towards God, collided head-on with the personality of the young Louis XIV, his artistic tastes, his desires for grandeur and his desires for personal enjoyment.

After the School for Women (1662), the real hostilities begin. The great success of this comedy in five acts with the king and the public ignites concerns. “Black specters begin to throb in the dark ”, being indignant at this thinly veiled criticism of the education that devotees lavish on women and the excessively rigorous morality that they impose on any Christian marriage.

The Critique of the School for Women that Molière wrote in August 1663 for his defense is dedicated to Queen Mother Anne of Austria. He hopes to convince her of the innocence of his plays and put her on his side:

I rejoice that I can still obtain the honor of entertaining Your Majesty; She, Madame, who proves so well that true devotion is not contrary to honest diversions; who, from her lofty thoughts and her important occupations, descends so humanely into the pleasure of our spectacles and does not disdain to laugh at this mouth from which She prays so well to God.

Alas! Having become excessively bigoted and suffering from breast cancer which was soon to be fatal to her, Anne of Austria was a heavy disappointment for the playwright:she did not support him and chose the camp of the devout.

Molière is not discouraged. On the contrary. He relishes the increase in popularity brought to him by this scandal. We talk about him in all the salons and the authors publish their own reviews of the School for Women . So, for or against? Rival troupes go so far as to mount plays attacking the private life of Molière, deemed immoral. The playwright then responds with a brilliant piece:Impromptu de Versailles offers “a mise en abyme of his own theatrical activity . »

He skilfully involves his patron, since the play is performed before the king as if awaiting his imminent arrival while Louis XIV sits among the spectators and observes the room, in the middle of his Court, with a benevolent eye.

Detached from a controversy from which he grew up, Molière continued his writing work and soon let himself be caught up again by the demon of satire! However, he is far from anticipating the stir his new play will cause.

Louis XIV, Molière and the devotees:the battle of Tartuffe (1664)

The Women's School Scandal Barely appeased, Molière finishes his Tartuffe. This piece denounces the impostures of this character named Tartuffe, a devotee who feeds on hypocrisy and pretense. Playing with good grace the role of confidant at the same time as that of patron, Louis XIV had the first insight into the work of Jean-Baptiste. After carefully reading the best passages of the work, the king gives permission for the performance.

Immediately, even before seeing her perform, the devotees cast a ban on the piece and prevented its public performance. Louis XIV decides to ignore it. The first three acts of the play were performed on May 12, 1664. This was the penultimate day of the Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée , festivities offered in the park of Versailles and unofficially dedicated to Louise de La Vallière (I have largely traced the splendours of it in a large-format account reserved for members of the Secret Cabinet!) Louis XIV had to be ready for anything to to satisfy his impatient artist and offer him the opportunity to play his play, because nothing is more absurd than bringing out the characters of Tartuffe in the middle of cavalcades of dancers in mythological costumes!

If the first and second acts have nothing reprehensible, the third pours out a cascade of anticlerical criticism. In Scene II of Act III, Tartuffe says to Dorine:

Ah, my God, please,

Before speaking take me this handkerchief

[…] Cover this breast that I cannot see:

By such objects souls are hurt,

And it brings up guilty thoughts.

Dorine then repels Tartuffe “in a few verses whose humor pierces the heart of the devotee like a murderous dagger » :

“Certainly I don't know how hot you are:

But to covet, I'm not so quick,

And I'll see you naked from top to bottom,

That all your skin wouldn't tempt me.

Yet Molière and Louis XIV wanted to limit the scandal by sparing the ears of devotees these few verses from Act IV which are not played:

Heaven forbids, in truth, certain consents;

But we find accommodations with him.

According to various needs it is a science

To expand the bonds of our consciousness

And rectify the evil of action

With the purity of our intention

Despite the absence of the fourth act, the assault is immediately launched. The next day a violent pamphlet appeared entitled:The Glorious King of the World . Molière is described as "demon of flesh dressed as a man and suggests the idea of ​​burning him alive! Shocked by remarks of such darkness, Molière runs to Fontainebleau to complain to the monarch. The coterie of devotees, led by Queen Mother Anne of Austria and the Archbishop of Paris, is a bottomless pit of indignation and contempt.

Molière not letting himself go, the quarrel escalates. Jean-Baptiste does not understand that the performance of the play is still delayed. He then allows himself to write to the king:

Sire, the duty of comedy being to correct men by entertaining them, I believed that, in the position I find myself in, I had nothing better to do than to attack the vices of of my century; and, as hypocrisy, without doubt, is one of the most common, the most inconvenient and the most dangerous, I had had the thought, Sire, that I would not be rendering a small service to all the honest people of your kingdom, if I made a comedy which decried the hypocrites, and brought into view, as it should, all the studied grimaces of these excessively good people, all the covered swindles of these devout counterfeiters, who want to catch men with counterfeit zeal and sophisticated charity. […] However, all my precautions were useless. They have taken advantage, Sire, of the delicacy of your soul in matters of religion, and they have been able to take you by the only place that you can be taken, I mean by respect for holy things. The tartuffes, underhand, have had the skill to find favor with Your Majesty; and finally the originals had the copy suppressed, however innocent it was, and however resembling it was found.

In truth, Louis XIV did not abandon his playwright and could hardly do better than the attitude he then adopted. Without silencing his feelings towards the rigorists whom he still despised at this time of his life, clashing head-on and publicly with the Catholic Church on which the Monarchy by divine right rests is not an option. But by not denying his support for Molière, whom he continues to honor with his protection, he clearly shows where his favor leans.

From theater man to myth

Between the first truncated performance of Tartuffe in Versailles in 1664 and the first public performance, almost five years passed, from May 12, 1664 to February 5, 1669. However, strong in the privileged relationship he maintained with Louis XIV, Molière always kept his head held high and his fertile imagination continues to produce masterpieces during all these years of combat.

In 1665, an extraordinary staging of sixty painted canvases and six sets in perspective on the stage of the Palais-Royal inaugurated with great pomp Le Festin de Pierre or the thunderstruck Atheist . This apology for inconstancy, which rejects any form of submission to any authority, was immediately attacked by the Church. Despite the triumphant success of its first, it was not until 1682, long after the death of its author, that it was printed under the title Don Juan .

Molière is not yet dead, however. The Misanthrope (1666) and The Miser (1668) continue the series inaugurated by Tartuffe . It is then the doctors, the second favorite target of the playwright, who become his favorite theme. In ever more accomplished pieces, he makes fun of the ignorant medical profession of his time:L’Amour Médecin (1665), The Doctor in spite of himself (1666), Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669) then the apotheosis with Le Malade imaginaire (1673). An effective shield and infallible protector, Louis XIV commissioned most of the playwright's works.

During Molière's lifetime, Psyché remains one of the greatest successes of the troupe (and of the century) with thirty-eight performances in July 1671. As good at recruiting artists and directing rehearsals as at negotiating places for invitations or tours and retaining categories very diverse spectators, Molière died at the height of glory on February 17, 1673, carried away by a chest injury.

In 1680, Louis XIV ordered the rest of Molière's troupe, known as the Hôtel de Guénégaud troupe, to merge with that of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This is the birth of the Comédie-Française! Already, the legend is in motion.

The relationship between Louis XIV and Molière quickly gave food for thought to history painting, which became one of the powerful vectors of this "Molièresque myth" dissected by the exhibition at the Espace Richaud in Versailles.

The man of the theater protected by the patron king is one of the great obsessions of the 19th century. The artists produce large-format paintings with evocative titles:Louis XIV giving Molière permission to have Tartuffe represented (1819) by Jacques-Augustin Pajou, Molière honored by Louis XIV (1824) by François-Jean Garnerey, Molière at the table of Louis XIV (1857) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Molière received by Louis XIV by Jean-Hégésippe Vetter, presented at the Salon of 1864, or even Louis XIV and Molière (1862) by the Republican painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.

This face-to-face lunch, with all the splendor of court, is unthinkable with regard to court protocol and the rules of etiquette. It is therefore a pure pictorial fiction, whose iconic scope suggests a personal, even intimate relationship between the creator and his protector. It is a double-edged sword for the recognition and legitimacy of the artist, since it accredits both the image of the favorite of a king known for his sure taste and his policy of artistic excellence and that of the courtier with misguided talent. , subservient to the glory of the monarch.

Molière:The Making of National Glory

Many voids punctuate the life of Molière. The absence of descendants, the impossibility of unquestionably tracing certain parts of his existence due to a lack of material archives, paved the way for a veritable cult of personality and a fantasized vision of the artist as of the man. It is this fascinating factory of national glory that the exhibition desired by the city of Versailles invites you to retrace, from the 17th century until today! An unprecedented analysis and an understudied vision of one of the most famous artists of all time. On view until April 17, 2022!

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Molière:the making of a national glory (exhibition catalog)

The secrets of Versailles by Pascal Torres

The five years of Tartuffe by Pierre Brisson, biographer of Molière