Some 350 years after his plays were the most popular in Paris, Moliere’s witticisms spice the French language*, a tribute to his enduring relevance as a social critic. Moliere’s art was, if not an antidote, than at least an anodyne for the denizens of 17th century France, whose social lives were constrained by authorities of every kind. In the field of medicine, there was a sense of resignation. The inevitability of illness was to be feared—but so too was the noxious assault on disease and patient alike by doctors more invested in process than results.
Church, Academy and King
17th century France was ruled by the Catholic Church, Academicians, and most of all, the Absolute Monarchy of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Of these, the Church was always Moliere’s enemy, Academicians were his quarry, and the King (almost) always—his friend.
One critic put it this way: “Corneille [Le Cid] was the best author of his time. But Moliere was better.” The reason that Moliere was better is that he was actor, not just a playwright. He spent decades being the people about whom he wrote—characters drawn from those met during a remarkably exploratory life. Born into the bourgeoisie, (his father was the royal upholster), he could have turned out a foppish hanger-on at court.
But, he declined the family business and went off to Clermont, a prestigious Jesuit college where he was classmates with other famous-authors-to-be and a number of physicians-to-be, some of whom became his friends. Importantly, to the training of a sceptic, he was exposed to Professor Gassendi, who was a predominant advocate for critical thinking.
As AM Brown MD put it in his 1897 treatise Moliere and his Medical Associations:
“What Moliere imbibed directly from Gassendi was…a contempt for…useless classification and ready-made formulae—a horror for the erudition that usurped the place of common sense—subtleties that confused and mystified under pretence of explaining, and above all a profound aversion for pedants and talkers—the Tartuffes of science…”
Affairs of the Heart
But his heart belonged to acting, an affinity probably formed early on, when at ten, his mother died and his father moved to the entertainment district of Paris. Sometime after college, while training to be a notary, he was exposed to Italian farce, and to an actress named Madeleine Bejart. Together they formed the Illustre Theatre. They went broke, regrouped and went on tour in the provinces—for 13 years. During this time, patrons came and went, he learned more of Italian farce from other touring performers, and eventually returned to the scandal-rich and power-mad environs of Paris.
Paris was also the playground of the Royal Court. Moliere performed The Doctor in Spite of Himself at the Louvre, before the King, who was pleasantly amused. In the mean time, the Church and holier-than-thou courtiers condemn him as godless for plays such as Tartuffe and Don Juan. His talent engendered bitter rivalry and he became an easy target when, at 40, he married the 20 year old daughter of Madeleine, some accusing him of incest, others of simple lechery. Her infidelity becomes a scorn-worthy open secret. Theater permits got withdrawn and his collaborator, the composer Lully, broke with him over rights to do ‘musicals’.
Moliere enjoyed the friendship of the King. Louis XIV would become his patron, dinner host and even godfather to one of Moliere’s sons. The most powerful monarch in Europe, Louis XIV vanquished enemies on the battlefield, patronized great artists on the stage and said, without dispute, “I am the state”. But, even the King was a subject to Mother Nature. A.M.Brown reports:
“Though young in years, the King…had already been as much the victim of the ignorance and blundering of the doctors as any of his subjects.” The King would say, "Why should we not sometimes be permitted to laugh at those who so often make us weep?"
Montaigne and Scaramouches
It’s hard to contrive two more disparate characters than the philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne and the comic actor ’Scaramouche’. Montaigne, along with Gassendi, was instrumental in the evolution of Moliere’s spirit; and Scaramouche in sharpening his skill.
Moliere’s life in Paris remained turbulent right up until his last play, The Imaginary Invalid. From this milieu of fame and misfortune comes a talent which Goethe deemed
“…so great that we are always newly astonished whenever we read him. He is a man apart. His plays border on the tragic. They show intuitive understanding…”.
Harold Bloom, the esteemed academic, expounds on Moliere and the influence upon him of the essayist Montaigne. The two together he offers as a composite ‘equivalent’ to Shakespeare.
There were a number of congruences between the world views of Montaigne and Moliere, distant as they were in time. They mocked vanity, regarded experience as the true teacher, and were well aware of the limits of human knowledge. And they both held in disdain the practice of medicine . Montaigne:
“And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump.”" It is from my experience that I affirm human ignorance, which is, in my opinion, the most certain fact in the school of the world.”“…as for bodily health…experience is really on its own dunghill in the subject of medicine, where reason yields it the whole field.”
Bloom says of Montaigne “He fears his melancholy and ours, and offers his wisdom as antidote for both.” We might say of Moliere, he offers comedy as the antidote. One may read The Imaginary Invalid this way. There is a certain tragedy there, and a real-life tragedy to accompany the story, which we explore next time.
Scaramouche (‘little skirmisher’) was a stock character in the Italian Comedia d’el Arte, and the appellation given to Tibere Fiorilli, renowned throughout Europe for his portrayal of that mischievous character. He removed the traditional mask and perfected the art of facial expressions in inciting laughter.
Moliere crossed paths with the actors of Comedia d’el Arte during his time touring the provinces. They would meet again in Paris, where the troupes of Moliere and Scaramouche would, for years, share, on alternate nights, the same stage at Petit Bourbon and Palais Royal. Moliere would form a great friendship with the older actor, giving him ready access to the ins-and-outs of world-class comedic acting— a veritable graduate school in farce.
Show, Don’t Tell
But for now, the comedy issued from Moliere’s mind and spirit is best presented by ‘showing, not telling’. I can’t define ‘funny’ but I know it when I see it.
To follow: examples of what your author found, as a medical student, so hilarious at the Ontario Shakespeare festival in 1974 (The Doctor In Spite of Himself)—and even more so today. See an accompanying post (s00n to follow) for excerpts and comments on six plays wherein Moliere turned his wit on the doctors of his, and I would argue, any age.
After that we will be on to Le Médecin Moliéresque: Act III. Tragedy.
* A ‘tartuffe’ (Tartuffe) is a moral hypocrite, and a ‘harpagon’ (The Miser) is a greedy and stingy man. One may be ‘as rigid as the Commander’s statue’ (Don Juan). Needlessly seeking difficulties is ‘going to the galley’ (Les Fourberies de Scapin). Effusive nonsensical explanations may be mocked by comparing it to ‘and so that is why your daughter is mute’ (Le médecin malgré lui).
Molière and His Medical Associations: Glimpses of the Court and Stage—the Faculties and Physicians of the Grand Siecle. Alexander Menzies Brown. The Cotton Press. 1897.
The Western Canon. Harold Bloom. 1994. Harcourt Brace. Chapter 6. Montaigne and Moliere: The Canonical Elusiveness of the Truth.
Moliere. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Tiberio Fiorilli. Wikipedia.
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