Monday, October 21, 2019

Molière and the short French 17th century

I have one point I want to make here about French literature of the 17th century.

Molière and his company played in Paris for only fifteen years, 1658 to 1673, before he died, not onstage but almost, at the age of 51.  Almost all of his surviving comedies were written in Paris.  Some are masterpieces, some are blatant rip-offs of Italian farces; some are prose, some verse.  They form a kind of backbone of the study of literature by French children who start with one of the Italian farces, Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671, Scapin’s Pranks gets the idea across), and move towards the complex verse masterpieces like Tartuffe (1664) and The Misanthrope (1666).

I will testify that this makes a lot of sense.  I have, myself, more or less followed the French youngsters, reading through most of the prose plays.  The verse plays are next.  You do not need much French, a year of college French, to read Les Fourberies de Scapin.  Then you have read – then I had read – Molière in French!  A triumph.

That exact period, when Molière was in Paris, is a miracle in French literature.  It includes the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld (1665), the first half of the Fables of La Fontaine (1668), Pascal’s Pensées (1670), and most of Jean Racine’s plays.  By 1678, just five more years – poor Molière, dead so young – I can add Racine’s Phèdre (1677), Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678), and a couple more books of the Fables.  I can add a lot more than that, but these are just the big ones, the core of the 17th century, heck, of French literature, as it is read and taught now.

Twenty years.  Corneille’s plays precede Molière, and a number of important works, like Perrault’s Contes, are later.  But, I mean, wow, that one amazing stretch, 1659 (when Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules, his first important play, was produced) to 1678.  It includes so much.

In 1659, Louis XIV was 21.  He and his court were not installed at Versailles.  This is exactly the period when the old hunting lodge was being renovated, and the Versailles as we know it, with its gardens and mirrors, was created.

It was a culturally energetic period.

My impression is that, over a long period, for example the 20th century, there has been a shift in French culture and education and theater performance from Racine to Molière.   Molière seems more alive, not that there are not plenty of performances of Racine and Corneille.  Not that the poor French students do not still have to read Racine.

There were other playwrights of the period, too.  I have seen the names of some of them.  I have no idea what they wrote.  I remember reading that French playwrights commonly stole from the Spanish stage as well as the Italian, but Molière just stole from the Italians, so I don’t know who was pilfering from Lope de Vega.  English playwrights freely looted all of them.

Next I want to write about 17th century French novels, a subject about which I know almost nothing.


  1. As you know, I love Molière.

    I think that his most difficult play is Don Juan. (studied in lycée, usually)

  2. That is my impression from the English, that Don Juan is the difficult Molière play. I will save it for last.