The Creativity of Molière

Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mign...
Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mignard en 1671 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am always a little wary of statements beginning ‘we writers’, as I feel it is wrong to believe that my sentiments and bad habits are universal.  So let me revise that to: ‘this particular writer is sometimes plagued by self-indulgent behaviour, laziness and self-pity’. When I am in the mood to whinge about how busy I am and how I have no time to write, I remind myself of the amazing creativity in the face of adversity of French playwright Molière.  Then I shut up about my own minor niggles…


What is so amazing about Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière? He was born in 1622 in a rather wealthy bourgeois family and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in a career in public service. Instead, he chose to become an actor and join a wandering troupe of players – the equivalent of running away to join the circus.  Back then, actors were considered somewhat disreputable – in fact, they were not even allowed a decent burial in church grounds. Yet Molière chose to face this public and family disapproval to follow his passion.

Here are some other things I have learnt from him:

1) Writing is hard work – you need to be disciplined and persevere. Never complain about lack of time.  Molière overcame bankruptcy, censorship, fickle court fashions, disapproval by powerful clerics, ill health, an unhappy marriage, and still wrote more than 30 plays in 14 years, whilst also holding down a full-time job as a theatre director and performer.  He also had to please his royal patron, the Sun King Louis XIV, and make himself available for the daily formal ‘waking up’ ceremonies. The King occasionally demanded a new play in less than 48 hours and the public would not offer any applause or feedback until the King himself showed his pleasure for a certain performance.

2) You may reach the height of glory and still descend to the pits of despair and end up forgotten. In other words, you’ve got to do art for art’s sake, not just for money or glory. Although the King backed  Molière for many years, and even was the godfather of the firstborn son of the playwright, his support could never be taken for granted and he withdrew it on several occasions, which meant works such as ‘Tartuffe’ or ‘Don Juan’ were banned. In the end, the King abandoned him and never attended a performance of Molière’s final play, ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’.

3) You love your art to the death.  Molière is notorious for being so dedicated to his art that it actually killed him. During a performance of ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’, he suffered a coughing fit and haemorrhage (it appears he was suffering from tuberculosis). He insisted on finishing his performance, but died a few hours later as a result of these superhuman exertions.

Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard...
Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard, 1658. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) You play to your strengths. Personally, Molière appears to have been fonder of playing tragedy and would have liked to write tragedy as well.  However, he very quickly realised that his real talent lay with satire, mockery and comedy, and that this was what his public wanted from him.

5) You can have depth in any genre. Despite having to please a difficult courtly audience, who liked their comedy broad and farcical, Molière proved that, if you are a good enough writer, you can be funny and still layer in universal and profound questions about hypocrisy, falseness in human relationships, pretentiousness and truth.

6)  You don’t have to be perfect.  French language purists argue that there are lots of  errors, padding, grammatical inconsistencies and mixed metaphors in Molière’s work (much like the criticism made of Shakespeare). Yet French is known nowadays as the ‘language of Molière’. Corneille is the greater writer, Racine has the more profound tragic sentiment, but Molière is the most performed and the most quoted French dramatist. His plays have been continuously performed for the past 350 years and the public has always loved him, even when critics, philosophers, religious leaders etc. tried to diss him.

7) Learn from others. In the early years, Molière met with Corneille and even collaborated with him on a play.  He also encouraged Racine in his artistic endeavours, although the troupe never performed a play by the younger writer. His most famous collaboration, however, was with Jean-Baptiste Lully, the founding father of French opera and ballet.  Together they created a new genre known as the comédie-ballet, perhaps the forerunner of today’s musicals.

8) We don’t care about his private life. Yes, he was a bit of a ladies’ man. Yes, he married the illegitimate daughter of his lover. Yes, he wrote extremely well about being cuckolded, so it might have been based on personal experience. Do we care? No. His work stands on his own merit, much like Shakespeare’s, about whom we know even less.

As an interesting footnote, there are some who doubt the authenticity of Molière’s work and attribute at least some of his plays to another playwright (in this case Corneille, in Shakespeare’s case Christopher Marlowe).  It seems that readers will always need to invent complicated theories to fill in the gaps.  So perhaps I should rephrase again from the ‘we’ to the ‘me’.  Do I care about Molière’s private life and his failings as a human being? No. He still has so much to teach me.




31 thoughts on “The Creativity of Molière”

  1. Great post Marina! I especially like the thoughts about achieving depth in any genre. I’ve started the workshopping term of my MA this month, and so far my fellow students are showing a reluctance to consider contemporary women’s fiction as anything worthy of attention. (We haven’t workshopped one of my offerings yet – bet you can tell I’m really looking forward to that!)

    But I maintain that women’s fiction, whether historical, romance or chicklit, can be layered with serious or thought-provoking issues and insights. No one ever complains that ‘men’s fiction’ (whatever that is) is shallow, but when I think about yet another book about soldiers, or espionage, or mystery codes, I wonder why women’s fiction gets given such a hard time. Anyway, I’m digressing now … 🙂 Great to have you back. x

    1. Yes, that’s a pet peeve of mine too. Although, if I am perfectly honest, about a year or two ago, I used to be just a teeeny bit disdainful of chick lit. (All this, while absolutely adoring women’s fiction, Virago Press and other writers who might be dubbed ‘chick lit’) But now I’ve realised that under that all-encompassing and misleading title, there lie all manner of things: good, bad, ugly and some with more than a shade of depth! Thanks to you and Nicky and a few other writer friends for making me see the light…

  2. Marina Sofia – I’ve always liked the work of Molière, and the lessons you’ve learned from him are important. I’m especially drawn to what you say about loving art for its own sake and being content with not being perfect. Of course, the rest of this is really helpful too…

    1. Thank you, Margot. I think I can live with imperfection (or have to, at any rate). And if you don’t love writing for its own sake, why would you ever put yourself through it?

      1. Relatively well. About to have snow here this morning. (which is not normal for southern United States so everyone is going crazy) Question for you. How do you find literature from different continents? When I saw your book post the other day, I was thinking I wanted to try and read some different things, but have no idea how to go about finding it. Thanks.

        1. For crime fiction, there are some good suggestions on Mysteries in Paradise website. For general reading (even obscure countries), I recommend the blog A Year of Reading the World.

    1. LOL, I got so excited, I hit ‘post’ by accident!! Outstanding post, Marina. Absolutely loved it and feel 100 per cent inspired. I hadn’t given Moliere a thought in years, but used to adore Le Malade (especially Le Malade). Your points are fabulous reminders to all of us, especially ‘art for art’s sake.’ Moliere’s plight makes my own authorly life seem quite cushy, I have to confess. I obviously have to strive for greater adversity! Fabulous post, must be off to share. Rock on!

      1. Ah, bless you, so sweet you got all excited! I hadn’t thought about Moliere in ages either, then saw this documentary about him on French TV and it really helped to put my own petty concerns into perspective.

  3. This is absurdly clever! Great idea to tie in Moliere with writing tips.

    I liked your closing sentence about his private life. It’s amazing how often people get caught up in scandals to try to downplay somebody’s genius. Maybe they should take a look at their own scandals…I’m sure they have a few skeletons in the closet. ; )

    1. I recently read Orwell’s biography and discovered he was quite an unpleasant man. So what, does that make his work any less important? And probably the ones that are too nice never get any writing done (no more Ms. Nice Lady, I vow to myself!).

  4. Thank you for this post. It was 1/3 inspirational, 1/3 educational, 1/3 kick in the pants. It’s just what I needed on a gloomy Thursday full of work and language class.

    I suspect if Moliere had my life he’d be writing twice the number of plays he’s known for AND have a bundle of time to write the darker plays (going by point #4) and still have time to romance the ladies.

    From now on, no more self-pity parties, no more excuses and more effort into rediscovering why it is I love writing so much.

  5. Your last paragraph captures the essence of my own attitude towards famous people, who have left a major footprint in human history. I truly don’t want to read conspiracy theories, produced by people with their own agenda! I just want to be able to enjoy the words, the music, the performance of whoever it is we are talking about. Q.E.D. Well written.

    1. Thanks for visiting and for your comment – so perhaps I do speak for at least a minority of readers (or audience members) who say: ‘Can we please just focus on the work itself?’

      1. Yes you do and I for one understand that. It is perhaps a symptom of a society obsessed with celebrity and a media, which is overly keen to publish insubstantial stories about the private lives of celebs; perhaps a disinterest in literature and reading… who knows

  6. F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.Q.U.E. – I am way behind in reading my favourite blogs and just found this now. I would love to reblog it next Friday, with your permission. The comment that this post in thirds is education, inspirational, and a kick in the pants, sums it up very well. I have enjoyed seeing Moliere’s plays through the years and love his ‘staying power’. Thank you for this!

  7. I never got on with Moliere or Corneille, but love Racine. I didn’t know that Moliere aspired to write tragedy, but it’s interesting, and a little sad, that even he thought that tragedy was the greater art. Its a shame that the elements of French theatre were so separated. Where would the English language be if Shakespeare had only been able to write tragedies or comedies or histories?

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.