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.
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.