Defining the start of modernity has been a recurrent if not an obsessive objective for intellectuals. Scholars have engaged in thousands of relentless debates to find a solution, but the mystery remains unsolved. During the nineteenth century, historians often praised the reign of Louis XIV for having laid down the foundations of the French modern state with its vast series of institutional reforms, which sought to centralize power in the hands of the state. However, the surge of modern France went beyond institutional reforms. The Grand Siècle witnessed the birth of prodigious intellectuals, scientists like René Descartes and artists such as Hyacinthe Rigaud, Charles LeBrun or Jean-Baptiste Lully. Between this plethora this proliferation of talented individuals, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known as Molière, focused his attention on the drama genre of comedy. Through his plays, Molière tremendously transformed the genre, to the point that some historians described him as an emissary of modernity. Christopher Braider asserted that 'if in inventing the modern stage, French classical tragedy helped pave the way to the modern world, it fell to (…) Molière, to have created the first truly convincing portrayal of modernity itself' (Braider, 2017, 173). This first short article seeks to illustrate some aspects of Molière's modernity, notably his contribution to the artistic evolution of comedy and theatre in the last decades of the seventeenth century.
Above all, Molière’s suggested artistic modernity finds its roots in the genre of comedy itself. Comedy possessed a modern touch, particularly visible when put in contrast with tragedy. Even if both originally developed along the lines of Aristotelian philosophy, comedies appeared more modern (Calder, 1993). Indeed, seventeenth century French tragedies found inspiration in the classic period and focused almost solely on the life of the elites. First performed in 1677, Phèdre by Jean Racine set its drama in Ancient Greece and narrated the unfortunate fate of Theseus, Hippolytus and Phaedra. If tragedies were composed exclusively of illustrious characters, comedies depicted the life of more common protagonists (Calder, 1993). Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme definitely represents this approach as it mocks the desperate tentative of Jourdain, a middle-class bourgeois, to access a better social ranking. In contrast to Phaedra, Jourdain does not have any prestigious mythological background and, despite his desires, does not belong to the aristocracy, which makes him more appealing to the audience. Differences are further accentuated by the writing style composing the two plays. Racine wrote in Alexandrine and with sophisticated vocabulary, while Molière's comedies were almost exclusively written in prose. In short, Molière's comedies offered a more actual depiction of reality, suggesting more affinities with codes that are still found nowadays in theatre (Braider, 2017).
Molière was a protagonist in the development of comedy. Many historians noted that before his arrival, the genre was in a period of relative neglect (Wadsworth, 1977). Even if Voltaire disagreed and argued that "it is not true to say that when Molière appeared, he found the stage entirely lacking of good comedies", it was nonetheless with Molière that comedy began to assert its rights as a major theatrical genre (Wadsworth, 1977, 3). His unconventional methods not only perfected, but also pushed the codes previously settled by Aristotelian philosophy (Calder, 1993). One can examine Molière's contribution with his use of the rule of vraisemblance (French term for "likelihood") in his plays. Issued from Aristotle’s principle that 'all poetry is imitation', vraisemblance demanded that the actions in a play subscribed to a coherent logic (Calder, 1993). In terms of acting, many contemporaries of Molière noticed that his plays took this Aristotelian concept to another dimension. Unlike his contemporaries, Molière performed the role of actor but also of director and poet, which allowed his company to achieve an unprecedented level of discipline in their performances. Christopher Braider reports that 'spectators noted, for instance, the precise timing of exchanges of glances between Molière’s actors, and the skilful blocking and painstakingly counted steps that choreographed their physical movements to maximum effect' (Calder, 1993, 173). Vraisemblance was further accentuated with other details such as costumes. His characters were most of the time dressed in the latest fashions which helped the audience to guess and understand the aspirations of each character, reinforcing the illusion of realism (Dock, 1992). However, Molière did not limit himself to developing Aristotelian principles. He also sought to change and break some of their aspects to enhance the impact of his comedies. In Tartuffe, Molière saves his protagonist from his logical and tragic fate by using a Deus Ex Machina (Simonds, 1977). Molière's taste for transgression testifies to a modern aspect in his approach to the arts. After all, countless artists nowadays break the imposed rules in order to push the limits of their artistic genre.
Molière went beyond challenging Aristotelian principles and brought other significant innovations. Among those was the comédie-ballet, an atypical production encompassing three different arts: theatre, dance, and music (Mazouer, 2006). Actors and dancers performed in the same space, with music accompanying the intrigue and the different dances (McCarthy, 2002). Molière created this new genre in 1661 with his play Les Fâcheux, but his most famous comédie-ballet remains the Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Written in 1670, this masterwork resulted from the collaboration of Molière and of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis XIV’s superintendent of music (McCarthy, 128). Lully’s music reinforced the comic aspect and strengthened the vraisemblance of the performance even more. From the impressive acting to the choreographies, these comédie-ballets elevated the genre of comedy to new levels. The historian J. S. Powel notes that the Bourgeois Gentilhomme constituted a step forward in the making of modern theatre, as it was the first wholly professional comédie-ballet in which noble amateurs did not dance (2006).
Besides representing a cultural achievement, these performances also depicted a modern conception of the role of arts. From 1664, the different comédies-ballet were meant either to entertain the King or to be performed at royal festivals in front of the Sun King’s court or foreign officials (Powell, 2006). It is a truism to say that Louis XIV expressed a great interest in the embellishment of his image. During the entirety of his reign, the so-called Sun King invested tremendous sums of money in creating and maintaining a prestigious image around paintings, architecture, literature, music, dance and inevitably theatre. Molière's comédie-ballets often embedded in larger festivals, were primarily designed to glorify the King’s image, contributing into the crafting of his myth (Burke, 1992). The King exploited the unique format of these performances to show his magnificence, as he personally expressed an interest in the sartorial details on and off-stage and even took part in dances designed by Molière and Lully (Dock, 1995). His well-known dancing skills allowed him to affirm his taste for refinement and for dominance in front of his court.
Overall, Molière stands as a cornerstone of French theatre and comedy. He was able to perfect the demands of his art, but also was not afraid to break or change them when needed. His contributions mentioned in this article are just examples of how much this talented writer impacted his art. However, Molière's impact on the French comedy goes further than incorporating artistic changes. His plays were known to abound in interesting and provocative ideas, which are still being taught in schools nowadays.
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