Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière

By Robert Chambers

Editors’ Note: This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864 and 1869). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added some annotations, links, and images and performed some slight editing.

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière by Pierre Mignard, painted in Avignon, ca. 1658. (Wikimedia Commons)

Died on 17 February 1673, in Paris, Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière, playwright.

France, having Molière [1] for one of her sons, may be said to have given birth to the greatest purely comic writer of modern times. Born the son of a humble valet-de-chambre and tapissier [2] in Paris, in 1620, this singular genius pressed through all the trammels and difliculties of his situation, to education and the exercise of that dramatic art in which he was to attain such excellence. The theatre [3] was new in the French capital, and he at once raised it to glory. His Etourdi, [4] his Precieuses Ridicules [5], his Menteur [6], his Tartuffe, [7] his Femmes Savantes [8] —- what a brilliant series they constitute! The list is closed by the Malade Imaginaire, [9] which came before the world when the poor author was sick in earnest; dying indeed of a chest complaint, accompanied by spitting of blood. On the third night of the representation, he was advised not to play; but he resolved to make the effort, and it cost him his life. He was carried home dying to his house in the Rue Richelieu, and there soon breathed his last, choked with a gush of blood, in the arms of two stranger priests who happened to lodge in the same house.

It was maliciously reported by prejudiced people that Molière had expired when in the net of counterfeiting death in his idle on the stage, and this made it the more difficult to obtain for him the Christian burial usually denied to players. [10] His widow [11] flew to the king exclaiming against the priesthood, but was glad to make very humble representations to the Archbishop of Paris, and to stretch a point regarding Molière’s wish for religious consolations, in order to have the remains of her husband treated decently. On its being shown that he had received the sacrament at the preceding Easter, the archbishop was pleased to permit that this glory of France should be inhumed without any pomp, with two priests only, and with no church solemnities. The Revolutionists, more just, transferred the remains of the great comedian from the little chapel where they were first deposited to the Museum of French Monuments. [12]

Detail of a ca. 1898-1901 photograph of Molière’s tomb in Pere LaChaise. Photo by Eugène Atget (Wikimedia Commons)

Notes:

This excerpt was adapted from the very excellent Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable Chambers’ Book of Days. (Here)

  1. Molière (born 1622).
  2. Molière’s father, Jean Poquelin, was one of eight valets de chambre to the King of France, Louis XIII, specifically the servant for the tapestries and linens. His mother was Marie Cressé, daughter of a prosperous bourgeois family in Paris.
  3. A reasonable timeline and description of theatre in France from the early medieval period continuing through Molière’s Neo-Classical period can be found on Wikipedia.
  4. Also known as The Tardy, The Blunderer, The Mishaps, or Les Contretemps. Premiered in Lyon in 1655. An English version is available for free to read on Project Gutenberg. A free audio reading of the play can be found on LibriVox.
  5. The Pretentious Young Ladies, published 1659.
  6. The Liar by Pierre Corneille, 1644. It is possible that Chambers is confusing Corneille’s “The Liar” (Menteur) with some of Molière’s other comedies, specifically Dom Juan. Molière admitted that  “I am much indebted to Le Menteur. When it was first performed, I had already a wish to write, but it was in doubt as to what it should be. My ideas were still confused, but this piece determined them.” (Source) Molière’s theatre company often performed the works of Corneille, including Le Menteur.
  7. Tartuffe, (The Impostor or The Hypocrite), first performed in 1664. Several free English translations of this play are available on Project Gutenberg (here is one). There are many versions available on YouTube as well. (Here’s one from 2017)
  8. Also known as The Learned Ladies, Paris premiere in 1672. (Related: see Précieuses, literary movement, Wikipedia)
  9. The Imaginary Invalid, 1673.
  10. Not only did an actor need to receive Last Communion, Final Unction, and all last rites before death, the actor also needed to renounce his participation in the theatre in order to be buried in consecrated ground. In order to participate in any of the major sacraments, including marriage, it was imperative at this time that the actor renounce the theatre and his profession.
  11. Armande Béjart (1640-1700). Also an actress.
  12. For the complete saga of Molière’s burial, exhumation, and rebuttal see also “Burying Molière: How the French Revolution Reapproppriated the Favored Playwright of Louis XIV” by Steve Moyers (National Endowment for the Humanities)

See Also:

Le Menteur and Dom Juan: A Case of Theatrical and Literary Adaptation. By James F. Gaines

The Theatrical Baroque: European Plays, Painting and Poetry, 1575-1725 (Fathom/University of Chicago)

The Women of the French Salons. By Amelia Gere Mason.

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