One October afternoon in 1658 a small theatre company, headed by Molière, performs a Corneille tragedy for the 20-year-old Louis XIV and his brother Philippe, two years younger. The players follow the tragedy with a farce, written by Molière, about an amorous doctor. It greatly appeals to the two young men. The company is granted the patronage of Philippe, who two years later becomes the duke of Orlèans.
This is a turning point in Molière's career. For the past thirteen years he and his company have led a difficult existence touring the provinces. But the experiences of those years enable Molière, as both actor-manager and author, to make the most of the new opportunities in Paris.
Until his death Moliére writes on average two or three plays each year for his company, with leading roles for himself. Since his central theme is ridicule of the pretensions and falsities of contemporary society, the plays involve him in almost permanent controversy.
The first play to cause both delight and offence (a promising blend in any period) is Les Précieuses Ridicules in 1659. A modern translation of the title might be 'Ridiculous Trendies'. The play makes fun of two provincial ladies, arriving in Paris, who are so delighted by the affected manners of the capital that they lose all sense of reality.
Tartuffe (1664) is even more controversial, featuring a religious hypocrite who by an oily display of mock piety persuades a nobleman to entrust him with both his daughter and his property. The play is first performed before the king at Versailles, but opposition from the establishment delays the first public performance by several years.
To some extent Molière's comedy depends on breathing new life into stock comic characters such as L'Avare ('The Miser', 1668, based on a play of Plautus) or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) about a man so eager to climh in society that he falls prey to every charlatan offering to help him. But Molière's dramatic skill makes the character, Monsieur Jourdain, sympathetic as well as ridiculous.
From 1666 Molière becomes increasingly ill, and his experience of doctors provides him with a new vein of comedy. In that year Le médicin malgré lui ('The doctor in spite of himself') features a character who is forced by the plot to masquerade as a doctor and then finds that he likes the role.
Sganarelle, the amateur medic, has perhaps the most famous line in the whole of Molière. Holding forth about the heart, and its position on the right side of a patient's body, he receives a mild note of dissent from someone who thought it was supposed to be on the left. 'Yes,' he replies, 'but we've changed all that'.
In February 1673 Molière plays the central role in the first performance of Le malade imaginaire. Because Argan imagines himself to be ill, he is willing to submit to all the outrageous treatments proposed by his doctors - providing ample scope for satire on the medical profession. But during the fourth performance, a week later, illusion and reality become tragically blurred. Molière falls ill on the stage and dies later that night.
All his life Molière has written words to be acted rather than read. He shows little concern for the publication of his plays. But their texts (some in prose, some in verse) guarantee him a place, with Corneille and Racine, in France's great trio of classic dramatists.
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