The Would-Be Gentleman
Monsieur Jourdain, the "would-be gentleman", is by no means an ideal pupil. What prompts him is not really an urge to learn, but the vain desire to be recognized as a "gentleman". Nor would the various teachers that he uses to further his ambitions receive our approbation; they are satisfied to exploit his naive obsession to serve their own ends. Why, then, are we including this extract? Perhaps we could say that even about serious matters it is sometimes good to laugh. And Moliere presents Mr. Jourdain and his many teachers in a way that, while making us laugh, communicates powerfully his deep aversion to whatever smacks of false science, of infatuation with pseudo-knowledge, of mercenary attitudes in teachers.
Mr. Jourdain, in fact, despite all his foolishness, seems to genuinely regret not having been educated. When the so-called philosopher gives him a nonsensical lesson in spelling, the naive Mr. Jourdain exclaims repeatedly over the wonders of science. "Oh, father and mother, " he cries, "why didn't you teach me this?" The ynius of Moliere lies partly in this ability to manifest the complexity of a human being even while caricaturing him. Moliere was a master observer of human nature. A contemporary writer once wryly labeled him "The Contemplator".
What was Moliere contemplating? His was the world of theatre, a world of theatere, a world of fiction. Yet from the seventeenth century until today audiences of all ages and walks of life have been able to identify with Moliere's world. The names of a number of his heroes have become part of the French language. To call someone a miser, a French speaker may say, "He is a Harpagon". A hypocrite can be called a "Tartuffe ".
Someone who has difficulties adjusting to the superficial ways of society may be called an "Alceste".
What has endeared Moliere to so many people, particularly in France, is the deep sense of humanity that pervades his plays. Harpagon, for instance, is above all a miser, but he is also a father, a man in love, a man torn between the fear of spending and the necessity of maintaining his social status. Moliere s heroes truly possess all the complexity of living beings. "It is not incompatible, " he wrote, "that a person be ridiculous in certain things and an honest man in others. " Such a wide understanding of human nature has created a tender bond between Moliere and his audiences. Moliere never judges. Rather there is a deep compassion in his acute observation of man and society and a sorrow that humanity is as it is. Moliere s way of expressing all this is through comedy.
Born in Paris in 1622, Jean-Baptiste Pocquelin (Moliere was his stage name) belonged to a bourgeois family. His future was planned: an office at the court purchased by his father with a right of reversion for his son. He received a noble's education without being a noble. But at the age of 21, he decided to become an actor, a rather unsavoury profession at the time. From then on, Moliere s life was a constant battle until, exhausted, he died on stage at the age of 51, having sacrificed,, everything, including his health, to his consuming passion for theatre.
The Would-be Gentleman (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) is one of Moliere's last plays. There is a strong element of farce in it, and the comical effects are not assubtle as in his other plays. Obsessed with the idea of being recognized as gentleman, Monsieur Jourdain falls prey to a penniless nobleman who abuses his credulity and leads him to expect an introduction into high society. Playing the role of mentor, the nobleman provides him with various teachers who are supposed to give him the necessary knowledge and savoir-faire to hold his own. Mr. Jourdain wants to marry his daughter into the nobility, contrary to her wishes. A trick is played upon him in which the girl's real lover is introduced to him as the son of the "Great Turk", and Mr. Jourdain is only too pleased to accept him as his son-in-law. This occasions a hilarious mixture of ballet and farce in a mock ceremony during which Mr. Jourdain becomes a "Mamamouchi", a supposedly exalted rank of Turkish nobility. But the fact is that Mr. Jourdain, the would-be gentleman, is not changed at all; at the end of the play he is even more foolish than ever.
This is true of most of Moliere's central characters: they are not intrinsically changed by the end of the plays. Indeed, if more credible endings were to be given to Moliere's comedies, they would end in tragedy. Moliere makes us laugh about
situations that are essentially tragic, and there lies one of his greatest achievements. Despite all the farce and the frequent exaggerations of human foibles, his characters ring true, and that is what makes us laugh — a laughter tinged with other emotions, for Moliere is holding a mirror to us.
Although we may not be obsessed with vanity in the same way as Mr. Jourdain, we all have enough of it to feel that Moliere is in fact talking about us, with a suppressed sorrow at the usual ways of society. It is not rare to find in great artists a strong element of purity, and in Moliere there seems to be something of an offended purity. Look at Moliere's face in the beautiful painting by Mignard [see p. 178]: the eternal child is there in those dreamy eyes. Despite his difficult position as a courtier, Moliere took many risks in the expression of his feelings, and remained a controversial figure all his life. Did he believe that people could change for the better? It does not appear so in his plays. He may exalt such qualities as common sense, simplicity, true love, disinterestedness, straightforwardness and true devotion, but Moliere's way is not to sermonize —it is to make us laugh, to involve us deeply through emotion and laughter. Is that not, after all, the way of a very good teacher?
Moliere was indeed a teacher of a kind. He taught his fellow actors, introducing an element of precision into acting that did not exist before. This is specialized teaching, no doubt, but one that requires the greatest qualities of a teacher. To be able to direct an actor well, one must be able to understand him deeply enough to help him find ways of manifesting a different personality. It requires also a capacity to instill confidence, to fill actors with enthusiasm, to help them understand every subtle meaning in the plays and to manifest this meaning in their acting.
To be a gentleman is a desirable goal of education. In European civilization, the truly cultured gentleman has been greatly valued and honoured, just as in ancient India the ideal of Arya or Shreshtha was a most high and valued aim. Often, however, people look at the superficial aspects of the ideal and think that it can be reached by cultivating external mannerisms and styles. The truth that it requires a life-long education demanding patience, hard work and intensive internal culture to become a true gentleman is the serious message in the following extracts from this hilarious play by Moliere.
CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY
The overture is played by a great assemblage of instruments and the music pupil is discovered composing the air which MR JOURDAIN has commissioned for his concert. As the song ends the MUSIC MASTER and the DANCING MASTER enter with their attendant musicians, singers, and dancers.
MUSIC MASTER [to musicians]. Come in here and wait until he comes.
DANCING MASTER [to dancers}. And you can stay on this side.
MUSIC MASTER [to his pupil]. Well, is it finished?
MUSIC PUPIL. Yes.
MUSIC MASTER [taking manuscript]. Let me see.... Very good!
DANCING MASTER. Is it something new?
MUSIC MASTER. It is an air for a serenade I set him to compose while we were waiting for our friend to awake.
DANCING MASTER. May one see what it is?
MUSIC MASTER. You will hear it when he comes. He can't be long now.
DANCING MASTER. We are both being kept pretty busy at present.
MUSIC MASTER. Yes. We have found here the very man we both needed. This fellow Jourdain with the fantastic notions of gentility and gallantry he
has got into his head means quite a nice thing for us. I only wish, both for my music and your dancing, that there were more people like him.
DANCING MASTER. I can't altogether agree. For his own sake I would like him
to have a little more understanding of the things we provide for him.
MUSIC MASTER. It's true that he understands little — but he pays well, and, after
all, that's the great need in our line of business just now.
DANCING MASTER. Yes — though for my own part I must confess that what I long for most is applause; it is appreciation I live for. To my way of
thinking there is no fate more distressing for an artist than to have to show himself off before fools, to see his work exposed to the criticism of the vulgar
and ignorant. You can say what you like but there is no joy like that of working for people who have a feeling for the fine points of one's art, who can appreciate the
beauties of a work and repay all one's trouble by praise which is really discerning. There is no reward so delightful, no pleasure so exquisite, as having
one's work known and acclaimed by those whose applause confers honour.
MUSIC MASTER. I agree. My feelings exactly. There is nothing more pleasing than the recognition you speak of, but you can't live on applause. Praise a one doesn't keep a man going. One needs something more substantial than that, and, to my mind, there's no praise to beat the sort you can put in your
pocket. It's true that this fellow here has no great share of enlightenment: he usually gets hold of the wrong end of the stick and applauds all the wrong things, but his money makes up for his lack of discernment. His praise has cash value. Vulgar and ignorant he may be but he's more use to us, you know, than your fine cultured gentleman who put us in touch with him.
DANCING MASTER. There's something in what you say, but I still think you set too much value on money. Cultivated people should be superior to any consideration so sordid as a mercenary interest.
MUSIC MASTER. All the same you don't refuse to take our friend's pay.
DANCING MASTER. Of course not. But I don't find that it entirely contents me. 1 still wish that with all his great wealth he had a little more taste.
MUSIC MASTER. So do I, and isn't that just where we are both trying to help him so far as we can? In any case, he is giving us a chance to make a name in the world and he will make up for the others by paying while they do the praising.
DANCING MASTER. Hush! Here he comes.
Enter MR JOURDAIN in dressing-gown and night-cap attended by two lackeys.
MR JOURDAIN. Well, gentlemen, what is it to be to-day? Are you going to show me your bit of tomfoolery?
DANCING MASTER. Tomfoolery? What bit of tomfoolery?
MR JOURDAIN. You know — your what ye may call it — your prologue or dialogue or whatever it is — your singing and dancing.
DANCING MASTER. Oh! That's what you mean!
MUSIC MASTER. You find us quite ready.
MR JOURDAIN. I had to keep you waiting a while because I'm getting dressed up to-day like one of the quality and my tailor had sent me a pair of
silk stockings so tight I thought I should never get into them.
MUSIC MASTER. We are entirely at your disposal, sir.
MR JOURDAIN. I don't want you to go, either of you, until they've brought me my suit. I want you to see how I look in it.
DANCING MASTER. Whatever you please.
MR JOURDAIN. You'll see me turned out in style — head to foot, everything just
as it should be.
MUSIC MASTER. We don't doubt that at all.
MR JOURDAIN. [showing his dressing-gown]. I had this Indian stuff made up for
DANCING MASTER. Very fine indeed.
MR JOURDAIN. My tailor tells me the quality wear this sort of thing on a morning.
MUSIC MASTER. It suits you splendidly
MR JOURDAIN. Lackey! Hello there! Both my lackeys!
FIRST LACKEY. Your wishes, sir?
MR JOURDAIN. Nothing. I just wanted to be sure you could hear me. [To the others] What d'ye think of my liveries, eh?
DANCING MASTER. Magnificent. MR JOURDAIN opens his dressing-gown and shows his tight breeches of red velvet and his green velvet jacket.
MR JOURDAIN. This is a little rig-out to do my morning exercises in.
DANCING MASTER. Most elegant.
MR JOURDAIN. Lackey!
MR JOURDAIN. T'other lackey!
SECOND LACKEY. Sir!
MR JOURDAIN. Take my dressing-gown. [To the others] What d'ye think of me now?
DANCING MASTER. Excellent. Nothing could be finer.
MR JOURDAIN. Right then. Let us have a look at your show.
MUSIC MASTER. I would like you to hear first an air which this young man [indicating the pupil] has just composed for the serenade that you asked for. He is a pupil of mine who has quite a gift for this kind of thing.
MR JOURDAIN. Very well — but it shouldn't have been left to a pupil. You shouldn't have been above doing this job yourself.
MUSIC MASTER. Ah, don't be misled, sir, by my use of the word 'pupil'. Pupils like him know as much as the great masters, and the air itself couldn't be bettered. Do but listen.
MR JOURDAIN. Here. [As the singer is about to begin] Give me my dressing-gown so that I can listen better. Stop — I think perhaps I shall do
better without it.
No — give it me back. I can do best with it on.
SINGER. I languish night and day and sad must be my lay,
Till consenting to their sway I give your eyes their way,
If thus you treat your friends — fair Iris,
If thus you treat your friends,
Alas! Alas! How will you treat,
How will your treat your enemies ?
MR JOURDAIN. It sounds a bit dismal to me. It makes me feel sleepy. Can't you liven it up a bit here and there?
MUSIC MASTER. But the tune must suit the words, sir!
MR JOURDAIN. I learned a song once — a really pretty one it was — wait a minute — la — la la — how does it go?
DANCING MASTER. I've not the remotest idea.
MR JOURDAIN. It had something about sheep in it.
DANCING MASTER. Sheep?
MR JOURDAIN. Yes — or lambs. Now I've got it!
[Singing] I thought my Janey dear
As sweet as she was pretty, oh!
I thought my Janey dear as gentle as a baa-lamb, oh!
Alas, alas! She is a thousand times more cruel
Than any savage tiger — oh!
Isn't that nice?
MUSIC MASTER. Very nice indeed.
DANCING MASTER. And you sing it very well.
MR JOURDAIN. And yet I never learned music.
MUSIC MASTER. You ought to learn, sir, just as you are learning to dance. The two arts are closely allied.
DANCING MASTER. And develop one's appreciation of beauty.
MR JOURDAIN. What do the quality do? Do they learn music as well?
MUSIC MASTER. Of Course.
MR JOURDAlN.Then I'll learn it. But I don't know how I'm to find time. I already have a fencing master giving me lessons and now I've taken on a
teacher of philosophy and he's supposed to be making a start this morning.
MUSIC MASTER. Well, there is something in philosophy, but music, sir, music —
DANCING MASTER. And dancing, music and dancing, what more can one need?
MUSIC MASTER. There's nothing so valuable in the life of the nation as music.
DANCING MASTER. And nothing so necessary to mankind as dancing.
MUSIC MASTER. Without music — the country couldn't go on.
DANCING MASTER. Without dancing — one can achieve nothing at all.
MUSIC MASTER. All the disorders, all the wars, that we see in the world to-day,
come from not learning music.
DANCING MASTER. All the troubles of mankind, all the miseries which make up
history, the blunders of politicians, the failures of great captains — they all
come from not having learned dancing.
MR JOURDAIN. How d'ye make that out?
MUSIC MASTER. What is war but discord among nations?
MR JOURDAIN. True. MUSIC MASTER. If all men studied music wouldn't it be a means of bringing them
to harmony and universal peace?
MR JOURDAIN. That seems sound enough.
DANCING MASTER. And what do we say when a man has committed some
mistake in his private life or in public affairs? Don't we say he made a false
MR JOURDAIN. We certainly do.
DANCING MASTER. And making a false step — doesn't that come from not
knowing how to dance?
MR JOURDAIN. True enough. You are both in the right.
DANCING MASTER. We want to make you realize the importance, the usefulness
of music and dancing.
MR JOURDAIN. Yes. I quite see that now.
MUSIC MASTER. Would you like to see our performances?
MR JOURDAIN. Yes.
MUSIC MASTER. As I have told you already, the first is a little exercise I devised
a short time ago in the expression of various emotions through music.
MR JOURDAIN. Very good.
MUSIC MASTER [to singers]. Come forward, [to MR JOURDAIN ] You must
imagine them dressed as shepherds.
MR JOURDAIN. But why shepherds again? It always seems to be shepherds.
MUSIC MASTER. Because, if you are to have people discoursing in song, you must for verisimilitude conform to the pastoral convention. Singing has
always been associated with shepherds. It would not seem natural for princes or ordinary folk for that matter, to be indulging their passions in song.
MR JOURDAIN. Very well. Let's hear them.
FIRST SINGER [woman]. Who gives her heart in loving
To a thousand cares is bound;
Men speak of love and wooing
As one continual round
Of rapture. — Not for me!
No, not for me!
I keep my fancy free,
I keep my fancy free. SECOND SINGER [man]. Could I succeed in proving
The ardour of my heart,
Could I succeed in moving
You to that better part —
Surrender — then for me,
Oh then for me,
How happy life would be,
How happy life would be!
THIRD SINGER [man]. If one could find in loving
But one true faithful heart,
Could one succeed in proving
Faith were the better part
Of woman's heart — alas for me!
Alas for me!
None such there be,
None such there be!
SECOND SINGER. Oh rarest rapture.
FIRST SINGER. Would I could capture!
THIRD SINGER. Deceivers ever.
SECOND SINGER. Love, leave me never.
FIRST SINGER. Happy surrender —
THIRD SINGER. Faithless pretender —
SECOND SINGER. Change, change to love that scorn disdainful!
FIRST SINGER. Behold, behold, one lover faithful!
THIRD SINGER. Alas! where can one such a lover find?
FIRST SINGER. To vindicate my sex's part
I offer you — I offer you my heart.
SECOND SINGER. Oh, shepherdess how can I trust —
My heart you'll ne'er deceive?
FIRST SINGER. That time shall prove,
Ah, time shall prove
Who truest loves — who truest loves.
ALL THREE SINGERS. To love's tender ardours
Our hearts then we plight,
For whate'er can compare
With love's tender delights?
With love's tender delights?
Whate'er can compare with love's tender delights?
MR JOURDATN. Is that all?
MUSIC MASTER. It is.
MR JOURDAIN. Well I thought it was very nicely worked out and there were some quite pretty sayings in it.
DANCING MASTER. Well now, in my show you will see a small demonstration of the most beautiful movements and attitudes which the dance can
MR JOURDAIN. They aren't going to be shepherds again?
DANCING MASTER. They are whatever you please. [To the dancers] Come along!
The dancers at the command of the DANCING MASTER perform successively minuet, saraband, coranto, galliard, and canaries. The dance
forms the First Interlude.
MR JOURDAIN, MUSIC MASTER, DANCING MASTER, LACKEYS.
MR JOURDAIN. Well that wasn't too bad. Those fellows can certainly shake a leg.
DANCING MASTER. When the dancing and music are fully coordinated it will be still more effective and you will find that the little ballet we have
arranged for you is a very pretty thing indeed.
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, but that's for later, when the lady I am doing all this for is going to do me the honour of dining here.
DANCING MASTER. Everything is arranged.
MUSIC MASTER. There is just one other thing, sir. A gentleman like you, sir, living in style, with a taste for fine things, ought to have a little musical
at-home, say every Wednesday or Thursday.
MR JOURDAIN. Is that what the quality do?
MUSIC MASTER. It is, sir.
MR JOURDAIN. Then IT1 do it too. Will it be really fine?
MUSIC MASTER. Beyond question! You will need three singers, a treble, a counter tenor, and a bass accompanied by a bass viol, a theorbo, a
harpsichord for the thorough-bass, and two violins for the ritornellos.
MR JOURDAIN. I'd like a marine trumpet' as well. It's an instrument I'm fond of, it's really harmonious.
MUSIC MASTER. Eeave these things in our hands.
MR JOURDAIN. Well, don't forget to arrange for people to sing during the meal.
MUSIC MASTER. You shall have everything as it should be.
MR JOURDAIN. And above all make sure that the ballet is really fine.
MUSIC MASTER. You will be pleased with it, particularly with some of the minuets.
MR JOURDAIN. Ah! Minuets! The minuet is my dance. You must see me dance a minuet. Come along, Mr Dancing Master.
DANCING MASTER. A hat, sir if you please. [MR JOURDAIN takes the EACKEY'S hat and puts it over his night-cap.
The DANCING MASTER takes his hand and makes him dance to the tune which he sings.] Ea, la, la la la la la etc.... once again ... keep time
if you ple-ease ... la-la lala — now the right leg ... la la ... don't move ... your shoulders so much ... la la la ... la la ... your arms ... are hanging too limply
... la la la ... up with your head, point your toes outward ... point your toes out-ward ... la la la... keep your body... e... rect.
MR JOURDAIN. Phew! What about that?
MUSIC MASTER. Well done! Well done!
MR JOURDAIN. And that reminds me. Just show me how to make a bow to a countess. I shall need to know that before long.
DANCING MASTER. How to make a bow to a countess?
MR JOURDAIN. Yes. A countess named Dorimene.
DANCING MASTER. Give me your hand.
Parry, sir, parry!
MR JOURDAIN. No. Just do it yourself. I shall remember.
DANCING MASTER. If you wish to show great respect you must make your bow first stepping backwards and then advance towards her bowing
three times, the third time going down right to the level of her knee.
MR JOURDAIN. Let me see you do it. Good!
LACKEY. Sir, your fencing master is here.
MR JOURDAIN. Tell him to come in and give me my lesson here. [To the MUSIC MASTER and DANCING MASTER] Don't go! I'd like you to
see me perform.
Enter FENCING MASTER with LACKEY carrying the foils.
FENCING MASTER, [after presenting a foil to MR JOURDAIN]. Come, sir, your salute! Hold yourself straight. Take the weight of your body a
little on your left thigh. Legs not so far apart. Feet more in line. Wrist in line with your hip. Point of the foil level with your shoulder. Arm not quite so far
extended. Left hand level with your eye. Left shoulder squared a little more. Head up. Firm glance. Advance! Keep your body steady. Engage my point
in quart and lunge. One,
two. As you were. Once again, repeat! Do keep your feet firm. One, two, and recover! When you make a pass, sir, it is important that the foil should he withdrawn first — so — keeping the body well covered. One, two. Come along. Engage my foil in tierce and hold it. Advance! Keep your body steady. Advance and lunge from there! One, two, and recover. As you were. Once again. One, two. Back you go. Parry, sir, parry! [The FENCING MASTER scores two or three hits crying as he does so, Parry! Parry!]
MR JOURDAIN. Phew!
MUSIC MASTER. You do splendidly.
FENCING MASTER. I have told you before that the whole art of sword-play lies in two things only — in giving and not receiving. And, as I showed you the other day by logical demonstration, it is impossible for you to receive a hit if you know how to turn your opponent's sword from the line of your body, for which all that is needed is the slightest turn of the wrist — inward or outward.
MR JOURDAIN. At that rate, then, a fellow can be sure of killing his man and not being killed himself— without need of courage.
FENCING MASTER. Exactly! Didn't you follow my demonstration?
MR JOURDAIN. Oh yes.
FENCING MASTER. Well then, you see what respect should be paid to men of my profession and how much more important is skill in arms than such futile pursuits as dancing and music —
DANCING MASTER. Go easy, Mr Scabbard Scraper. Mind what you say about dancing.
MUSIC MASTER. And try to treat music with a little more respect if you please.
FENCING MASTER. A fine lot of jokers you are, to think of comparing your professions with mine.
MUSIC MASTER. Just listen who's talking.
DANCING MASTER. The ridiculous creature, with his leather upholstered belly!
FENCING MASTER. My little dancing master, I could make you skip if I had a mind to, and as for you, Mr Music Master, I could make you sing to some tune!
DANCING MASTER. Mr Sabre-rattler, I shall have to teach you your trade.
MR JOURDAIN. [to DANCING MASTER]. You must be mad to quarrel with a man who knows all about tierce and quart and can kill a man by logical demonstration.
DANCING MASTER. I don't give a rap for his logical demonstration, his tierce, or his quart.
MR JOURDAIN [to DANCING MASTER]. Do be careful I tell you.
FENCING MASTER [to DANCING MASTER]. You impertinent jackanapes!
MR JOURDAIN. Oh, Mr Fencing Master!
DANCING MASTER. You great cart horse!
MR JOURDAIN. Oh, Mr Dancing Master!
FENCING MASTER. If I once set about you —
MR JOURDAIN [to DANCING MASTER]. Gently there — gently!
DANCING MASTER. If I once get my hands on you —
MR JOURDAIN. Easy now! Easy!
FENCING MASTER. I'll let a little daylight into you.
MR JOURDAIN [to FENCING MASTER]. Please — please —if— you please.
DANCING MASTER. I'll give you such a drubbing.
MR JOURDAIN [to DANCING MASTER]. I ask you — I —
MUSIC MASTER. Just give us a chance and we'll teach him how to talk to —
MR JOURDAIN [to MUSIC MASTER]. Do for goodness sake — stop!
Enter the PHILOSOPHER
MR JOURDAIN. Ah, Mr Philosopher. You've arrived in the nick of time with your
philosophy. Come and make peace between these fellows. PHILOSOPHER. What is it? What is it all about, gentleman? MR JOURDAIN. They've got
so worked up about which of their professions is the most important that they've started slanging each other and very nearly come to blows.
PHILOSOPHER. Come, come, gentlemen! Why let yourselves be carried away like
this? Have you not read Seneca On Anger Believe me there is nothing so base
and contemptible as a passion which reduces men to the level of animals!
Surely, surely, reason should control all our actions!
DANCING MASTER. But, my good sir, he's just blackguarding the pair of us and disparaging music, which is this gentleman's profession, and dancing
which is mine.
PHILOSOPHER. A wise man is superior to any insults which can be put upon him, and the best reply to unseemly behaviour is patience and
FENCING MASTER. They had the impudence to compare their professions with mine.
PHILOSOPHER. Well, friend, why should that move you? We should never
compete in vainglory or precedence. What really distinguishes men one from
another is wisdom and virtue.
DANCING MASTER. I maintain that dancing is a form of skill, a science, to which
sufficient honour can never be paid.
MUSIC MASTER. And I that music has been held in foremost esteem all down the ages.
FENCING MASTER. And I still stick to my point against the pair of them that skill in arms is the finest and most necessary of all the sciences.
PHIEOSOPHER. In that case where does philosophy come in? I consider you are all three presumptuous to speak with such assurance before me
and impudently give the title of sciences to a set of mere accomplishments which don't even deserve the name of arts and can only be adequately
described under their wretched trades of gladiator, ballad singer, and mountebank!
FENCING MASTER. Oh get out! You dog of a philosopher!
MUSIC MASTER. Get out! You miserable pedant!
DANCING MASTER. Get out! You beggarly usher!
PHILOSOPHER. What! Rascals like you dare to — [He hurls himself upon them and all three set about him.]
MR JOURDAIN. Mr Philosopher!
PHILOSOPHER. Scoundrels, rogues, insolent —
MR JOURDAIN. Mr Philosopher!
FENCING MASTER. Confound the brute!
MR JOURDAIN. Gentlemen!
PHILOSOPHER. Insolent scoundrels!
MR JOURDAIN. Oh, Mr Philosopher!
DANCING MASTER. The devil take the ignorant blockhead!
MR JOURDAIN. Gentlemen!
MR JOURDAIN. Mr Philosopher!
MUSIC MASTER. Down with him!
MR JOURDAIN. Gentlemen!
PHILOSOPHER. Rogues! Traitors! Impostors! Mountebanks!
MR JOURDAIN. Mr Philosopher, Gentlemen, Mr Philosopher, Gentlemen, Mr Philosopher, Gentlemen.
They rush out still fighting.
MR JOURDAIN. Go on then! Knock yourselves about as much as you like. I can do
nothing about it and I'm not going to spoil my new dressing-gown in trying to separate you! I should look a fool shoving in among them and getting knocked . about myself for my pains!
MR PHILOSOPHER returns, straightening his neck-band.
PHILOSOPHER. Let us come to our lesson.
MR JOURDAIN. Oh, Mr Philosopher, I'm sorry they've hurt you.
PHILOSOPHER. It is nothing. A philosopher learns how to take things as they come and I will get my own back on them with a satire in the manner of Juvenal. I'll fairly tear them to pieces. Let us think no more of it. What would you like to learn?
MR JOURDAIN. Whatever I can, for I want, above all things, to become a scholar. I blame my father and mother that they never made me go in for learning when I was young.
PHILOSOPHER. A very proper sentiment! Nam sine doctrina vita est quasi mortis
imago. You know Latin I suppose?
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, but just go on as if I didn't. Tell me what it means.
PHILOSOPHER. It means that without knowledge, life is no more than the shadow
MR JOURDAIN. Ay. Your Latin has hit the nail on the head there.
PHILOSOPHER. Have you not mastered the first principles, the rudiments of the
MR JOURDAIN. Oh yes, I can read and write.
PHILOSOPHER. Well, where would you like to begin? Shall I teach you logic?
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, but what is it?
PHILOSOPHER. Logic instructs us in the three processes of reasoning.
MR JOURDAIN. And what are they, these three processes of reasoning?
PHILOSOPHER. The first, the second and the third. The first is the comprehension of affinities, the second discrimination by means of categories, the third deduction by means of syllogisms. Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, Baralipton.
MR JOURDAIN. No. They sound horrible words. Logic doesn't appeal to me. Let
me learn something nicer.
PHILOSOPHER. Would you like to study moral philosophy?
MR JOURDAIN. Moral philosophy?
PHILOSOPHER. It is concerned with the good life and teaches men how to moderate their passions.
MR JOURDAIN. No, we'll leave that out. I'm as hot-tempered as they make 'em and whatever moral philosophy may say I'll be as angry as I want whenever I feel like it.
PHILOSOPHER. Well, do you wish to study physics — the natural sciences?
MR JOURDAIN. The natural sciences? What have they to say for themselves?
PHILOSOPHER. Natural science explains the principles of natural phenomena, and the properties of matter; it is concerned with the nature of the elements, metals, minerals, precious stones, plants, and animals, and teaches us the causes of meteors, rainbows, will-o'-the-wisp, comets, lightning, thunder and thunderbolts, rain, snow, hail, tempests, and whirlwinds.
MR JOURDAIN. This is too much of a hullabaloo for me, too much of a rigmarole altogether.
PHILOSOPHER. Then what am I to teach you?
MR JOURDAIN. Teach me to spell.
MR JOURDAIN. And then you can teach me the almanac so that I shall know if there's a moon or not.
PHILOSOPHER. Very well. Now, to meet your wishes and at the same time treat the matter philosophically one must begin, according to the proper order of these things, with the precise recognition of the nature of the letters of the alphabet and the different ways of pronouncing them, and, in this connexion, I must explain that the letters are divided into vowels, so called because they express the various sounds, and consonants, so named because they are pronounced "con", or with, the vowels and serve only to differentiate the various articulations of the voice. There are five vowels, A, E, I, 0, U.2 MR JOURDAIN. I understand all that. PHILOSOPHER. The vowel A is pronounced with the mouth open wide. So — A,
MR JOURDAIN. Ah, Ah. Yes.
PHILOSOPHER. The vowel E is pronounced by bringing the jaws near together. So,
A, E — Ah, Eh.
MR JOURDAIN. A, E. Ah, Eh, now that's fine.
PHILOSOPHER. For the vowel I, bring the jaws still nearer together and stretch the
mouth comers towards the ears, so —A, E, I. Ah, Eh, EEE.
MR JOURDAIN. A, E, I. Ah, Eh, EEE — It's quite right. Oh! what a wonderful thing is knowledge!
PHILOSOPHER. To pronounce the vowel 0 you must open the mouth again and round the lips so — 0.
MR JOURDAIN. 0, 0. You are right again. A, E, I, 0, splendid. I, 0. I, 0.
PHILOSOPHER. The opening of the mouth is exactly the shape of the letter — 0.
MR JOURDAIN. 0, 0. You are right. 0. How wonderful to know such things!
PHILOSOPHER. The vowel U is pronounced by bringing the teeth close together but without quite meeting and pushing the lips out so — U, U, as if you were making a face — so if you happen to show that you don't think much of a person you only need say U!
MR JOURDAIN. U, U. It's perfectly true. Oh why didn't I learn all this earlier.
PHILOSOPHER. To-morrow we will take the other letters, the consonants.
MR JOURDAIN. Are they as interesting as those we have done?
PHILOSOPHER. Undoubtedly. The consonant D, for example, is pronounced by
pressing the tip of the tongue against the upper teeth so — D, D. Da. MR JOURDAIN. Da! Da! Splendid! Splendid! PHILOSOPHER. F by bringing the upper teeth against the lower lip. Fa!
MR JOURDAIN. Fa, Fa. It's quite true. Oh, father and mother, why didn't you teach me this —
PHILOSOPHER. And R by placing the tip of the tongue against the palate so that, alternately resisting and yielding to the force of the air coming out, it makes alittle trilling R, R, R.
MR JOURDAIN. R, R, Ra. R, R, R, RA. It's true. Ah what a clever man you are and how I've been wasting my time. R, R, Ra.
PHILOSOPHER. I will explain all these fascinating things for you.
MR JOURDAIN. Do please. And now I must tell you a secret. I'm in love with a lady of quality and I want you to help me to write her a little note I can let fall at her feet.
PHILOSOPHER. Very well.
MR JOURDAIN. That's the correct thing to do, isn't it?
PHILOSOPHER. Certainly. You want it in verse no doubt?
MR JOURDAIN. No. No. None of your verse for me.
PHILOSOPHER. You want it in prose then?
MR JOURDAIN. No. I don't want it in either.
PHILOSOPHER. But it must be one or the other.
MR JOURDAIN. Why?
PHILOSOPHER. Because, my dear sir, if you want to express yourself at all, there's only verse or prose for it.
MR JOURDAIN. Only verse or prose for it?
PHILOSOPHER. That's all, sir. Whatever isn't prose is verse and anything that isn't verse is prose.
MR JOURDAIN. And talking, as I am now, which is that?
PHILOSOPHER. That is prose.
MR JOURDAIN. You mean to say that when I say "Nicole, fetch me my slippers" or "Give me my night-cap" that's prose?
PHILOSOPHER. Certainly, sir.
MR JOURDAIN. Well, my goodness! Here I've been talking prose for forty years and never known it, and mighty grateful I am to you for telling me! Now, whatI want to say in the letter is, "Fair Countess, I am dying for love of your beautiful eyes!" but I want it put elegantly, so that it sounds genteel.
PHILOSOPHER. Then say that the ardour of her glances has reduced your heart to ashes and that you endure night and day —
MR JOURDAIN. No. No. No! I don't want that at all. All I want is what I told you. "Fair Countess, I am dying for love of your beautiful eyes."
PHILOSOPHER. But it must surely be elaborated a little.
MR JOURDAIN. No, I tell you I don't want anything in the letter but those very words, but I want them to be stylish and properly arranged. Just tell me some of the different ways of putting them so that I can see which I want.
PHILOSOPHER. Well, you can put them as you have done, "Fair Countess, I am dying for love of your beautiful eyes", or perhaps "For love, fair Countess, of your beautiful eyes I am dying", or again "For love of your beautiful eyes, fair Countess, dying I am", or yet again, "Your beautiful eyes, fair Countess, for love of, dying am I", or even "Dying, fair Countess, for love of your beautiful eyes, I am".
MR JOURDAIN. But which of these is the best?
PHILOSOPHER. The one your used yourself, "Fair Countess, I am dying for love of your beautiful eyes".
MR JOURDAIN. Although I've never done any study I get it right first time. Thank
you with all my heart. Please come in good time to-morrow.
PHILOSOPHER. You may rely upon me, sir. [He goes out}
MR JOURDAIN. Hasn't my suit arrived yet?
LACKEY. Not yet, sir.
MR JOURDAIN. That confounded tailor has kept me waiting a whole day, and just when I'm so busy too. I'm getting really annoyed. Confound him! I'm sick to death of him! If only I had him here now, the detestable scoundrel, the rascally i. dog, I'd — I'd ... Ah, there you are! I was beginning to get quite annoyed with
The TAILOR has come in, followed by his apprentice carrying the suit.
TAILOR. I couldn't get here any earlier. I've had a score of my men at work on your suit.
MR JOURDAIN. The silk stockings you sent me were so tight I could hardly get
them on. I've already torn two ladders in them.
TAILOR. They'll stretch all right, by and by.
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, if I tear them enough! Then, the shoes that you made for me pinch me most dreadfully.
TAILOR. Not at all, sir.
MR JOURDAIN. How d'ye mean "not at all"?
TAILOR. They don't pinch you at all.
MR JOURDAIN. But I tell you they do!
TAILOR. No, you imagine it.
MR JOURDAIN. I imagine it? If I imagine it, it's because I can feel it. Isn't that a
good enough reason? TAILOR. Teh! Teh! The coat I have here is as fine as any at the court, most
beautifully designed. It's a work of art to have made a suit which looks
dignified without using black. You won't find another anywhere to touch it.
MR JOURDAIN. But what's this? You've put the sprigs upside down.
TAILOR. You didn't say you wanted them the other way up.
MR JOURDAIN. Ought I to have told you?
TAILOR. Certainly. All gentlemen of quality wear them this way up.
MR JOURDAIN. Gentlemen of quality wear the sprigs upside down?
MR JOURDAIN. Well, that's all right then.
TAILOR. You can have them the other way up if you want.
MR JOURDAIN. No. No. No.
TAILOR. You've only to say so.
MR JOURDAIN. No, you've done very well. Do you think it will fit me?
TAILOR. What a question! If I'd drawn you on paper I couldn't have got nearer your fit. I have a man who is a genius at cutting out breeches and
another who hasn't an equal at fitting a doublet.
MR JOURDAIN. Are my wig and hat all they should be?
TAILOR. Everything is excellent.
MR JOURDAIN [looking at the TAILOR'S suit]. Ha ha! Master Tailor! Isn't that some of the stuff I got for the last suit you made me? I am sure that I recognizeit.
TAILOR. Yes, the fact is I liked the material so much I felt I must have a suit cut from it myself.
MR JOURDAIN. That's all very well but it shouldn't have come out of my stuff.
TAILOR. Are you going to try your suit on?
MR JOURDAIN. Yes. hand it here.
TAILOR. Wait a moment! That is not the way things are done. I have brought my men with me to dress you to music. Suits like these must be put on
with ceremony. Hello there! Come in!
Enter four tailor boys dancing
TAILOR. Put on the gentleman's suit in a manner befitting a gentleman of quality!-
Four tailor boys dance up to MR JOURDAIN. Two take off the breeches in which he did his exercises: the others remove his jacket, after which they dress him in his new suit. MR JOURDAIN struts round to be admired in time with the music.
FIRST TAILOR BOY. Now, kind gentleman, please give something to these fellows to drink your health.
MR JOURDAIN. What did you call me?
TAILOR BOY. "Kind gentleman."
MR JOURDAIN. "Kind gentleman." What it is to be got up as one of the quality! Go on dressing as an ordinary person and nobody will ever call you a
gentleman. Here! That's for your "kind gentleman".
TAILOR BOY. My lord! We are infinitely obliged to you.
MR JOURDAIN. "My lord!" Oh my goodness! "My lord." Wait a minute, my lad.
"My lord" is worth something more. "My lord" is something like! Here, that's
what "My lord" brings you [gives more money}.
TAILOR BOY. My lord, we will all drink to your Grace's good health.
MR JOURDAIN. "Your Grace!" Oh. Oh wait! Don't go away. Come here. "Your Grace!" [Aside] If he goes as far as Your Highness he'll get the
Take this for your "Your Grace".
TAILOR BOY. My lord, we thank your Lordship for your Grace's liberality.
MR JOURDAIN. Just as well he stopped. I nearly gave him the lot.
The four tailor boys show their satisfaction by a dance which forms the Second Interlude.
MR JOURDAIN and LACKEYS.
MR JOURDAIN. Follow me! I'm going out to show off my clothes in the town. Mind you keep close behind me so that people know you belong to me.
LACKEYS. Very good, sir.
MR JOURDAIN. Wait! Call Nicole for me. I want to tell her what she has to do. No, wait a minute. She's coming.
MR JOURDAIN. Nicole!
NICOLE. Yes sir, what is it?
MR JOURDAIN. Listen.
NICOLE [laughing}. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. What are you laughing at?
NICOLE. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. What's wrong with the hussy?
NICOLE. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Fancy you got up like that! Ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. Whatever d'ye mean?
NICOLE. Oh, my goodness! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. Silly creature! Are you laughing at me?
NICOLE. No master. I should hate to do that. Oh ho ho! Ho ho ho! Ha ha ha! Ha ha
MR JOURDAIN. I'll box your ears if you laugh any more.
NICOLE. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! I can't help it, master [laughs again}.
MR JOURDAIN. Are you never going to stop?
NICOLE. I'm sorry, master, but you look so funny I just can't help laughing [laughs again].
Nicole: I shall die if you don't let me laugh.
MR JOURDAIN. Oh! the impudence!
NICOLE. But you look so — so funny like that [laughs again].
MR JOURDAIN. I'11—
NICOLE. Forgive me, I — [laughs again].
MR JOURDAIN. Look here! If you laugh any more I'll give you such a smack
across the face as you've never had in your life.
NICOLE. All right, master, I've finished! I shan't laugh any more.
MR JOURDAIN. Well take care you don't. You must clean up the hall ready for —
NICOLE. Ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. You must clean it up properly or —
NICOLE. Ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. What! Again?
NICOLE. Look here, master, wallop me afterwards but let me have my laugh out
first. It'll do me more good — ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. I'm losing my temper —
NICOLE. Oh master, please, let me laugh — ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. If I once start to —
NICOLE. I shall die if you don't let me laugh — ha ha ha!
MR JOURDAIN. Was there ever such a good-for-nothing! She laughs in my face
instead of listening to what I'm telling her.
NICOLE. What — what is it you want me to do, sir?
MR JOURDAIN. What do you think, you slut? Get the house ready for the company
I'm expecting here shortly.
NICOLE. My goodness. That stops my laughing. Those visitors of yours make such
an upset that the very word company puts me out.
MR JOURDAIN. And am I to shut my door on my visitors to please you?
NICOLE. You ought to shut it on some of them.
Enter MRS JOURDAIN
MRS JOURDAIN. What new nonsense is it this time? What are you doing in that get-up, man? Whatever are you thinking about to get yourself rigged out like
that! Do you want to have everybody laughing at you?
MR JOURDAIN. My good woman, only the fools will laugh at me.
MRS JOURDAIN. Well, it isn't as if folk have not done it before! Your goings on have long been a laughing-stock for most people.
MR JOURDAIN. What sort of people may I ask?
MRS JOURDAIN. People with more sense than you have. I'm disgusted with the life you are leading. I can't call the house my own any more. It's like
a carnival- time all day and every day with fiddling and bawling enough to rouse the whole neighbourhood.
NICOLE. The mistress is right. I can't keep the place clean because of the good-for- nothing pack you bring into the house. They pick up mud all over the
town and cart it in here. Poor Frances is wearing her knees out polishing the floors for your fine gentlemen to come and muck them up again every day.
MR JOURDAIN. Now, now, our Nicole! For a country lass you've a pretty sharp tongue.
MRS JOURDAIN. Nicole is quite right. She has more sense than you have. I'd like to know what you think you want with a dancing master at your time of life.
NICOLE. Or with that great lump of a fencing master that comes stamping in, upsetting the house and loosening the very tiles in the floor.
MR JOURDAIN. Be quiet, both of you!
MRS JOURDAIN. Are you learning dancing against the time when you'll be too feeble to walk?
NICOLE. Is it because you want to murder somebody that you are learning fencing?
MR JOURDAIN. Shut up, I tell you! You are just ignorant, both of you. You don't understand the significance of these things.
MRS JOURDAIN. You'd do much better to think about getting your daughter married now that she's of an age to be provided with a husband.
MR JOURDAIN. I'll think about getting my daughter married when a suitable husband comes along. In the meantime I want to give my mind to learning
NICOLE. I've just heard tell, madam, that, to crown all, he's taken on a philosophy master to-day.
MR JOURDAIN. Well, why not? I tell you I want to improve my mind and learn to hold my own among civilized people.
MRS JOURDAIN. Then why don't you go back to school one of these days and get yourself soundly whipped?
MR JOURDAIN. Why not? I wish to goodness I could be whipped here and now and never mind who saw me if it would help me to learn what they
teach them in schools.
NICOLE. My goodness! A lot of good that would do you!
MR JOURDAIN. Of course it would.
MRS JOURDAIN. No doubt it's all very useful for carrying on your household affairs.
MR JOURDAIN. Of course it is. You are both talking nonsense. I'm ashamed of your ignorance. For example, do you know what you are doing — what
you are talking at this very moment?
MRS JOURDAIN. I'm talking plain common sense —you ought to be mending your ways.
MR JOURDAIN. That's not what I mean. What I'm asking is what sort of speech are you using?
MRS JOURDAIN. Speech. I'm not making a speech. But what I'm saying makes sense and that's more than can be said for your goings on.
MR JOURDAIN. I'm not talking about that. I'm asking what I am talking now. The words I am using — what are they?
MRS JOURDAIN. Stuff and nonsense!
MR JOURDAIN. Not at all! The words we are both using. What are they?
MRS JOURDAIN. Well, what on earth are they?
MR JOURDAIN. What are they called?
MRS JOURDAIN. Call them what you like.
MR JOURDAIN. They are prose, you ignorant creature!
MRS JOURDAIN. Prose?
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, prose! Everything that's prose isn't verse and everything that isn't verse isn't prose. Now you see what it is to be a scholar! And you
[to NICOLE], do you know what you have to do to say "U"?
MR JOURDAIN. What do you have to do to say "U"?
MR JOURDAIN. Say "U" and see!
NICOLE. All right then — "U".
MR JOURDAIN. Well, what did you do?
NICOLE. I said "U".
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, but when you said "U" what did you do?
NICOLE. I did what you told me to.
MR JOURDAIN. Oh! what it is to have to deal with stupidity! You push your lips out and bring your lower jaw up to your upper one and — "U" — you see?
I make a face like this — "U-U-U".
NICOLE. Yes, that's grand I must say!
MRS JOURDAIN. Really remarkable!
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, but that's only one thing. You should have heard "0" and "Da" and "Fa".
MRS JOURDAIN. What on earth is all this rigmarole?
NICOLE. And what good is it going to be to anybody?
MR JOURDAIN. It exasperates me to see how ignorant women can be!
MRS JOURDAIN. Oh get off with you! You ought to send all these fellows packing with their ridiculous tomfoolery.
NICOLE. And especially that great lump of a fencing master who fills my kitchen with dust.
MR JOURDAIN. Fencing master again! You've got him on the brain. I can see I shall have to teach you your manners.
[Calls for the foils and hands one to NICOLE.] There, take it! Now for a logical demonstration! The line of the body! When you lunge in quart you do
— so, and when you lunge in tierce you do — so! If you only do like that you can be sure that you'll never be killed. It's a grand thing to know that you are
safe when you are fighting. There now — have at me. Let's see what you can do.
NICOLE. Very well, what about that? [She thrusts at him several times.]
MR JOURDAIN. Steady on! Steady on! Confound the silly creature!
NICOLE. Well you told me to do it.
MR JOURDAIN. Yes, but you led in tierce before you led in quart and you never gave me time to parry.
1. Not a trumpet but a one-stringed instrument.
2. The Philosopher's instructions refer to French vowels.
Aspects of France at the Time of Moliere
During the latter half of the seventeenth century France was the leading nation in Europe. Its population was twice that of Spain and over four times that of England. Its land was fertile and its commerce and industry were growing. There were no disturbing arguments over forms of government; absolute monarchy was accepted by almost all Frenchmen as necessary, reasonable, and right. By the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659) the French army had displaced the Spanish as the strongest military machine on the Continent. As time went on, it seemed as if not only French generals, French military engineers, and French diplomatists but also French architects, painters, dramatists, and philosophers were the best in Europe, French fashions in dress dominated the Continent; the French language became the leading language of diplomacy and polite conversation, and the French court with its elaborate etiquette and ceremonial became the model for countless smaller courts throughout
The Would-be Gentleman: Title page of the 1682 edition.
It depicts the mock ceremony during which
Mr Jourdain is given the title of
"Mamamouchi" by Turkish ambassadors.
Europe, As Florence had been the nerve center of the Italian Renaissance and Spain of the Catholic Reformation, so France was the nerve center of late-seventeenth-century politics, diplomacy, and culture.
How much of this predominance is to be attributed to the long reign of Louis XIV is one of those questions that historians can speculate about but never answer. No one doubts that French (and European) history would have run in different channels had Louis never lived — or had he not lived
so long. He was born in 1638, became king in 1643, took the reins of power into his own hands in 1661 at twenty-three, and died in 1715 at the age of seventy-seven, leaving the throne to his great- grandson. By temperament and training Louis was the very incarnation of divine-right monarchy — the idea that hereditary monarchy is the only divinely approved form of government, that kings are responsible to God alone for their conduct, and that subjects should obey their kings as the direct representatives of God on earth. In an age that put its trust in absolute rulers, the achievements of the French people at the peak of their greatness cannot be separated from the personality of their ruler, even if it can be proved that many of those achievements were unrelated to, or even accomplished in spite of, the ruler.
Louis is said to have remarked, "I am the state." Even if the remark is apocryphal, the words reveal more of the true importance of his reign than anything else he said or wrote. Louis XIV set out early in his reign to personify the concept of sovereignty. He dramatized this aim immediately after Mazarin's death by ordering his ministers thereafter to report to him in person, not to a "first minister."
To be the real head of a large and complicated government required long, hard work, and Louis paid the price. His education was poor, and he had little imagination, no sense of humor, and only a mediocre intelligence. But he had common sense, a knack of picking up information from others, and a willingness to work steadily at the business of governing. "If you let yourself be carried away by your passions," he once said, "don't do it in business hours." Painstakingly he caught up all the threads of power in his own hands. All major decisions were made in four great councils, which he attended regularly. These decisions were then carried out by professional "secretaries" at the head of organized bureaucracies. In the provinces, the intendants more and more represented the direct authority of the central government in justice, finance, and general administration. The old French monarchy imposed its authority through judicial decisions and had frequently consulted local and central assemblies. The new monarchy, begun by Richelieu and perfected by Louis XIV, imposed its authority through executive decisions. Louis reduced the importance of the parlements, never summoned the Estates General, and, so far as such a thing was humanly possible in his century, built a government that was himself...
The most dangerous potential opponents of royal absolutism, as Louis XIV knew from his own experience during the Fronde, were the members of the nobility. Louis completed Richelieu's work of destroying the political power of the French nobility. He excluded the nobles completely from all responsible positions in government and cheapened their status by increasing their numbers. An army commission came to be almost the only major outlet for a noble's ambition, which meant that the nobles as a class generally constituted a war party at court. All important positions in Louis XIV's government, such as the secretaryships and intendancies, were filled by men of bourgeois or recently ennobled families.
Louis did not attack the social privileges of the nobility; he used them to make the nobles utterly dependent on him. In 1683 he moved the court and government from the Louvre in Paris to Versailles, fifteen miles away. He had hated Paris since the riots of the Fronde, and now in the formal gardens and ornate chateaux of Versailles, which he had built on waste marsh at
The King Louis XIV, portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud,
Louvre Museum, Paris
considerable cost of human lives and treasure, he felt at home. He also felt safe; Versailles was the first royal residence that was completely unfortified. At Versailles, the king lived in an utterly artificial atmosphere, as far removed from reality as Versailles was physically removed from the bustle of Paris. Here the great nobles were compelled to live. Here a ball seemed as important as a battle and holding the basin for the king's morning ablutions was a job as much to be coveted as commanding the king's armies. Instead of competing for political power, nobles squandered their fortunes and exhausted their energies in jockeying for social prestige.
The regular rectangular shapes of the gardens, the balanced classical lines of the baroque architecture, the bright glint of mirrors and chandeliers, all these seemed to symbolize and emphasize the isolation of Versailles from nature, from the French nation, from the real world. Through all this Louis moved with impassive dignity. Years of self-conscious practice in kingship had given him a kind of public personality — cool, courteous, impersonal, imperturbable — which carried out perfectly the artificiality of the little world at Versailles. At his death he left to his successors a privileged nobility shorn of all political power and responsibility, demoralized by the empty pleasures and petty intrigues of court life and uneasily aware of its uselessness. It was a dangerous legacy....
To dramatize his conception of kingship and to underscore the dependence on the monarch of all other persons and institutions in the state, Louis chose as his emblem Apollo, the sun god. The symbol of the sun, on whose rays all earthly life is dependent, was worked into the architecture and sculpture of the palace of Versailles. The Sun King patronized the arts and gave historians some reason to call his reign the "Augustan Age" of French culture. As befitted such a patron, the prevailing taste was classical, insisting on form, order, balance and proportion. The ideals of literature and art were "order, neatness, precision, exactitude" — and these were presumed to be the ideals of all reasonable men of all ages.
Pierre Corneille (1606-84) was the father of French classical tragedy. In 1636 he had written Le
Cid, the first of his powerful dramas that glorified will power and the striving for perfection. Corneille was still writing when Louis XIV began his personal reign, but he was soon eclipsed by. his brilliant younger contemporary, Jean Racine (1639-99). Racine wrote more realistically about human beings in the grip of violent and sometimes coarse passions, bringing French tragedy to its highest point of perfection in the years between 1667 and 1677. Then he underwent a religious conversion and renounced playwriting as an immoral occupation. Some who thrilled to his and Corneille's tragedies had little respect for the comedian Moliere (1622-73), but Moliere's wit and satire became the unsurpassable model for future French dramatists. From 1659 to his death in 1673 he was the idol of audiences at Versailles. All three playwrights concentrated on portraying types, not individuals — the hero, the man of honor violently in love, the miser, the hypocrite - embodiments of human passions and foibles who belonged to no particular time or place. As a result, French classical drama of the age of Louis XIV could be understood and appreciated by people everywhere, and French taste in writing came to be the dominant taste of other countries as well. So it was with architecture and the other arts. The baroque style, which ruled the design and decoration of the palace of Versailles, was intelligible and exportable. French artistic and literary standards became the standards of cultivated Europeans everywhere.
From Joseph R. Strayer and Hans W. Gatzke, The Mainstream of Civilization
(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanoviteh, 1979), pp. 446-51.
Material Conditions in the French Theatre of the Mid-seventeenth Century
In its material shape the French theatre of the mid-seventeenth century was still in the stage of improvisation. Such companies as Moliere's Illustre Theatre, which he founded with the Bejarts, played in tennis courts, inn-yards, or the halls of great houses with little specialized setting and, originally, no proscenium curtain. The audience stood before the stage in the parterre or pit (not around it as in Elizabethan England) or sat in tiers on three sides of the room. The young men of i fashion sat on the stage. With the development of spectacular plays the proscenium curtain came into general use to withhold the surprise of the setting, cover scene changes, and mask the machines which enabled gods to fly, nymphs to emerge from their fountains, and villains to go to their last account as in Dom Juan. The influence of a stage without front curtain is seen in Moliere's openings — with individuals walking and conversing — and in his endings which so often become i processions or dances. The elaborations seen at Versailles were much modified elsewhere and the contemporary inventories show how simple were stage furniture and properties. For L 'Avare, [The Miser] a table, a chair, an inkstand, paper, a cash-box, a broom, a stick, overalls, spectacles, two candles on the table in the fifth act; for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, chairs, table for the meal and one for the buffet, accessories for the Turkish ceremony, for Dom Juan, a trap, incense (to make smoke), two chairs, and a stool. Costumes, on the other hand, were rich, varied, and stylized according to character. The audience could recognize characters by their dress and deportment
immediately they entered, master and man, mistress and maid, soldier, doctor, pedant, ruffian, poor, rich, old, young, comic, serious. There are relatively few references in the plays to the setting, but allusions to costume and personal appearance are abundant and indicative of character — as Don Juan's flame-coloured ribbons, Cleante's fashionable attire in L'Avare, and Jourdain's finely. Costume was used to concentrate attention on the actor, and the stage was the unencumbered space where he must create his illusion by voice, movement, and gesture in patterns of colour and sound....
From John Wood, Introduction, in Moliere, The Miser and Other Plays
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1962), pp. xvii-xviii.
Moliere: His Life and Works
Moliere was born in Paris in 1622 and died there in 1673. His father, Jean Poquelin, was a merchant upholsterer and a man of some substance. He had purchased an office at court and in 1637 secured the reversion to his son. Meanwhile young Poquelin (the name Moliere was assumed later) was receiving, as a pupil of the Jesuits, the best education the age afforded. Afterwards he appears to have studied law at a university, but where is not known for certain.
At the age of 21, on the threshold of the career that was planned for him, he resigned his rights in the office at court, compounded for his share of his deceased mother's estate, and threw in his lot with a company of actors. What motives there were, if any, beyond the irresistible attraction of the theatre, we do not know. One thing is certain, that the choice was final and decisive. Thereafter through all the vicissitudes of thirty years on the stage his passion for acting burned unabated to his death.
The nucleus of the company to which Moliere attached himself was provided by members of one family, the Bejarts. Three daughters, Madeleine, Genevieve, and Armande, and two sons, Joseph and Louis, were at various times members of the troupe and, once enrolled, never left it. Madeleine, it has always been assumed, was at one time Moliere's mistress; that she was his comrade and colleague until her death, the year before his own, is beyond question; Armande, younger by twenty years, was to become his wife.
The project of establishing a new theatre in competition with the two companies then playing permanently in Paris did not meet with success. Moliere was imprisoned for debt and released on the intervention of his father. In 1646 he and his companions forsook the capital for the provinces and, for the next twelve years, led the life of itinerant players. They have been traced in various provincial towns mainly in the South, but little is known of their adventures. It is clear, however, that it was in this school that Moliere learned his trade: when in 1658 the company came back to Paris, they were an experienced team of actors, he had become their acknowledged leader, and their repertory included, with many of the well known plays of the time, a number of short farces of his own devising which had already proved popular with provincial audiences. A further turning point in Moliere's career came when his company, having established a precarious foothold in Paris,
secured an invitation to perform before the young King, Louis XIV. The play chosen was a tragedy of Corneille, but it was followed by Moliere's short farce, now lost, Le Docteur amoureux. The- King was amused and the way to patronage and success was opened. The company had already come under the protection of the King's brother; they now established themselves in the hall of the Petit-Bourbon which they shared with the Italian company of the great farcical actor Fiorelli, the creator of Scaramouche. Each company took certain fixed days of the week. Moliere now played L'Etourdi and Le Depit amoureux, and in 1659 achieved a resounding success with Les Precieuses ridicules, a high-spirited and farcical treatment of contemporary literary enthusiasms. This success was surpassed and consolidated by L 'Ecole des Femmes, a full-length comedy in verse which made its author the talk of the town. It also provoked the jealousy of rival companies and authors, but the box office throve on controversy and in the war of the theatres Moliere proved well able to look after himself. He showed in this play a new range of comic invention, a growing sureness of touch and, at the same time, a tendency to cut deeper than the conventional surface of things and provoke reactions other than laughter which was to make him one of the most controversial figures of his time. If L'Ecole des Femmes put the strongholds of convention on the alert, Le Tartuffe, the first of the great comedies of human obsession, went on to outrage them. It is concerned with religion and religious hypocrisy. With Tartuffe himself, Moliere created an unforgettable character. The play is a major achievement, as strong theatrically as deep in its implications; but it hit the age hard on a touchy spot and the reaction was immediate and violent. Despite the known support of the King, the author was attacked, execrated, anathematized and not only by those whom he chose to regard as the professional and organized forces of hypocrisy but by many of the truly devout. To this day there are those, not all among his detractors, who feel that in this play and its successor Moliere attacked not religiosity but the foundations of religion itself. The King was driven to temporize. The play was forbidden public performance. Even when reshaped and probably toned down, in the form that we know, it was not allowed to be played for nearly five years. For Moliere the setback was serious and the disappointment acute, but his output did not slacken — with the limited play- going public of Paris of that day new plays were a constant necessity. Nevertheless his attitude hardens. He is no longer content to assert that the test of a play lies in its ability to please. The function of comedy is now to castigate folly and vice and when in an attempt, as it would seem, to cut a way out of his difficulties, he chose for his new play one of the most popular themes of the day, the story of Don Juan, where the known plot required that religion should triumph and unbelief be confounded, he produced one of the most enigmatic and powerful of his comedies, a masterpiece, in the circumstances, of artistic intransigence! It provoked a fierce renewal of polemics against him, but it was played to full houses. Between 15 February and 20 March 1665 the play was performed fifteen times, a considerable run for those days, but thereafter never again in Moliere's lifetime and not for nearly two centuries after his death in the form in which he wrote it. It was not printed until 1682 and then in a bowdlerized version. In what form the interdict fell is not known, but the effect was conclusive.
Meanwhile Moliere had been at work for some time on Le Misanthrope. First played in 1666, it enjoyed only a moderate success, but discerning contemporaries acclaimed the masterpiece which
posterity has recognized it to be, a consummate revelation of character and human relationships within the terms of pure comedy. If, after Le Misanthrope, the peak of artistic achievement was past, Moliere's verve and creative energy were undiminished. Spectacular plays for the court, Amphitryon, Psyche, Les Amants magnifiques, jostle with plays for the town, L'Avare, Le Medecin malgre lui, Scapin, and plays which pleased court and town alike, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, Les Femmes savantes. In these years he exploited increasingly the comedy-ballet, seeking the ideal union of acting, music, and dancing. He had experimented with this form much earlier in Les Fdcheux and turned to it again, after the tumults of Tartuffe and Dom Juan, in L'Amour medecin. Moliere was himself musical and came, on his mother's side, of a family of musicians; the King was at that time passionately fond of music and dancing; the court adored ballets and spectacle, and, in Lully, Moliere found a collaborator of genius, whose music lent a charm to the most hurriedly extemporized of plays and diversions. The conception of comedy-ballet was most completely realized in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Le Malade imaginaire.The former, first played in 1670, exemplifies the mood of these later years at its happiest.
Favoured by the King — he had resumed the office of Groom of the Bedchamber on the death of his brother in 1667 and his company had become La Troupe du Roi in 1665 — playing now in the Palais-Royal, once the private theatre of Richelieu, the ban on Tartuffe finally lifted in 1669, enjoying the friendship of many of the great men of his day, Moliere knew success in full measure, but his personal life was unhappy. His two sons died in infancy. His relationship with his young wife, Armande, was such that for a time they lived apart. His health, which gave trouble as early as 1665, grew worse. His relations with Lully deteriorated as the Italian exploited the royal favour increasingly to his own advantage. His friends advised him to give up acting and enjoy a more leisurely life, but in vain. The road he had taken in 1643 he followed to the end. In February 1673 he produced Le Malade imaginaire [The Hypocondriac], playing himself the role of Argan, the invalid more fortunate on the stage than his creator in life. At the third performance Moliere was taken ill and died shortly afterwards. His fame did not save him from the penalty of an outcast profession and the malice of his enemies. Only the appeal of his widow to the King in person secured him burial in consecrated ground.
Moliere's company, which had stood by him in good times and bad, held together and was playing again within a week of his death; it survived to unite eventually with its old rivals of the theatres of the Hotel de Bourgogne and Le Marais, and maintain, as the Comedie Francaise, the tradition of French acting from the theatre of Moliere to that of our day.
The bare facts of Moliere's life are well known, but the man himself eludes us. Contemporary descriptions are fragmentary: the most complete are done by his enemies with intent to malign him. His manner in company was said to have been reserved. Boileau called him "Le Contemplateur". As he depicts himself inL'lmpromptu de Versailles rehearsing his cast, he is quick, highly strung, and irascible, immersed in the immediate task of dealing with those most difficult of creatures, actors and actresses. His portraits show a man with fine eyes and wide mouth. The daughter of his colleague Du Croisy, speaking of him long afterwards as she remembered seeing him in her youth,
A German painter here depicts Moliere reading a play to his faithful servant
La Foret. He is said to have attached great importance to her judgement.
said he was of medium build, imposing carriage, grave in manner with a large nose, wide mouth and full lips, dark of complexion, with eyebrows black and strongly marked which he could move in a way which gave his whole face a most comical expression.
Moliere's relations with his father seem to have been close in spite of their early divergence of purpose. He had the loyalty and respect of his company over many years, no common thing in the theatre. With the King his relations seem to have been consistently fortunate. Louis may have found it necessary at times to set bounds to his impetuosity, but on critical occasions he gave his support with deliberate discrimination. When the attacks on L 'Ecole des Femmes were being pressed hard he made his own position clear by the award of a pension and L 'Impromptu de Versailles in which Moliere replied to his enemies seems to have been a royal commission; at a time when personal attacks on Moliere and his wife exceeded all bounds the King stood godfather to their first child:
at the most critical stage of his fortunes, when Le Tartuffe was under interdict and the position of the company precarious, the King increased his annual subvention and conferred on them the title of Troupe du Roi. That such a relationship was possible attests the enlightenment of the monarch and the discretion of the subject. In dedications of the plays and the petitions he addressed to the King, Moliere shows that he could play the courtier to achieve his own purposes: life at court must have made great demands on his physical strength and perhaps on his integrity but only a man of great inward serenity and courage could, after the storms of Tartuffe and Dom Juan and what we assume to have been the partial disappointment of Le Misanthrope, have retained such zest and love of life as found expression in the later comedies and comedy-ballets. Yet he was under no illusion. "Among all human weaknesses" — says Filerin in L 'Amour medecin —"love of living is the most powerful." If it was not himself he put on the stage as Argan, the dupe of the doctors, it was his own dilemma. He who turned so many others to comic account did not except himself.
From John Wood, Introduction, in Moliere, The Miser and Other Plays
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1962,) pp. ix-xiv.