Moliere Creates Modern Comedy
Author: Laun, Henri Van
Moliere Creates Modern Comedy
The seventeenth century was the period of a very remarkable literary outburst in France, an outburst which has done much to mould French genius of more recent times. The latter part of the century, which has been called the Augustan age of France, the age of Louis XIV, has certainly been but seldom equalled in the number and variety of the writers who adorned it. Yet it owes much of its brilliancy, much of its rapid development, to the training of the decades previous to 1650, and especially to the enthusiastic patronage of that great statesman Richelieu. Were a Frenchman seeking for a single event, a single date to mark the most striking moment of this literary era, he would probably select the foundation of the French Academy by Richelieu, in 1635. Or perhaps he might turn to the production of Corneille's most famous tragedy, Le Cid, in 1633. Neither of these events, however, has quite what we would recognize as a world-wide significance. The Academy has done much for France, but it has always remained a French academy, and the forty "immortal" Frenchmen who constitute its membership have not always owed their election solely to literary eminence. Neither have Corneille's tragedies been accepted as models by the world at large.
But under Corneille's influence the French stage developed from a state of buffoonery and wooden imitation of the ancients to a state where a greater artist than Corneille gave it really world-wide prominence. Moliere is not only the most celebrated of French actor-managers; he is the greatest of all character-comedy writers, the teacher of all future generations, and the satiric scourge of his own. When in 1659 his comedy Les precieuses Ridicules took Paris by storm, it did more than make a reformation of the manners of its own. It taught the world what true comedy should be, and it sent ringing through the universe forever a mighty trumpet-note against hypocrisy and folly.
The drama attained its highest excellence and repute in the age of Louis XIV, and we should not be making a very hazardous assertion if we were to say that the literature of that epoch in France attained its height of glory in the drama. No French dramatist has excelled Moliere, Corneille, and Racine; no group of authors in the seventeenth century were more brilliant, more powerful, more originative. When we turn our eyes upon the stage for which these three wrote, we find ourselves in the full splendor of the Augustan age, in all its refinement and culture, its luxury and elegance, its strength of wit and justness of expression, its social polish and gorgeous display.
Great as was the advance made by the audience of Jodelle upon the audience of the "moralities" and "sotties," the advance of the court and society under the Valois was equally great. The Grand Monarque, listening to a masterpiece of Corneille, Moliere, or Racine, surrounded by his brilliant circle of lords and ladies, represented an almost incalculable development of ceremonious culture, in idea, in apparel, and in general surroundings, since the day when, about a hundred years before, while the blossom of the Renaissance was barely expanded, the popinjay King Henry II looked on at the first crude sketch of a French classical play. Stage, scenery, appointments, audience, critic, music, actors, and authors, all now bore witness to and adorned, as they were in fact the most elaborate product of, an Augustan age.
Paris up to this time had had little opportunity of knowing what true comedy was. It had had farces in abundance, not only of home growth, but imported, and from Italy in particular. When Moliere came before the public with his homogeneous and well-trained company, and his repertory of excellent character-sketches and comic situations, the prevailing sentiment was expressed by a member of the audience which listened to the first production of...
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