- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

Zut alors. Too bad French playwright and satirist Moliere isn’t around today. What a field day he’d have ridiculing the two-faced poseurs now masquerading as the leaders of an imaginary Holy Parisian Empire.
  At the very least, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, those wacky Gallic masters of double-cross, would seize his imagination, perhaps spurring him on to write, say, “Le Roman de Renard Chirac” a comic romp in which every animal in the forest is swindled out of cash, contracts and reputation by sly Jacques the Fox.
  But, helas, Moliere departed this earthly sphere rather melodramatically in 1673, so we’ll have to do with those masterworks he kindly left behind, witty farces and biting satires on the foibles and obsessions of rogues and the gullibility of Everyman. One of his best, “The Miser,” now playing at the Olney Theatre Center, pokes vicious fun at the lengths to which a small-minded man will go to build and retain his fortune.
  Though his career was relatively short and his works few in number, Moliere was arguably France’s Shakespeare and certainly one of the world’s great dramatists. Not attuned to tragedy such as the Bard of Avon, Moliere preferred satirical comedy as a delivery vehicle for his parables of greed, carnality and corruption.
  He viewed mankind as essentially irredeemable. Moliere’s piercing rapier-thrusts at people in positions of authority are sidesplittingly merciless and universal in their appeal to all levels of society. Even in English-centric America, Moliere remains one of the few foreign playwrights whose works are regularly staged.
  The playwright now known as Moliere was born Jean Baptiste Poquelin on Jan. 15, 1622, in Paris. Beyond that, details of his life are often a matter of conjecture. Like William Shakespeare, elements of his biography have become the stuff of legend, and the juicier bits cannot always be confirmed.
  His father, it seems, was well-off, serving as one of eight “valets de chambre tapissiers,” or upholsterers, who built and maintained the royal furniture in King Louis XIII’s court. Young Jean Baptiste apparently received a fine education from the Jesuits and got to hang out at the king’s court. He quickly learned to ridicule the affectations and the mannerisms of the royal courtiers behind their backs a youthful indiscretion he turned to his advantage as an adult. Some sources have the teenager being apprenticed to his father’s trade at around age 15. Most have him undertaking the study of law.
  Whatever the case, Jean Baptiste clearly didn’t have much use for upholstering or the legal profession, and he would sneak out whenever he could to catch the plays and medicine shows that were a constant feature in his bustling Parisian neighborhood. He is also said to have attended theatrical performances by the King’s Players with his grandfather on occasion. It did not take long for him to decide that an actor’s life was infinitely preferable to the daily grind.
  Of course, it didn’t hurt that his mistress of the moment, an attractive red-head named Madeleine Bejart, was part of a theatrical family.
  Jean Baptiste, Madeleine, her brother and sister, and several other young people struck out on their own in 1643, modestly calling themselves the Illustrious Theater. They failed miserably. They and others reconstituted themselves as a traveling company touring the hinterlands, which they did for roughly a dozen years. It was at this time that Jean Baptiste dropped his given name and became known as Moliere, no doubt to save his family from the embarrassment of having produced an actor, a profession so disreputable at the time that its members were barred from receiving the sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church.
  It was during his troupe’s wandering days that Moliere began to write original pieces for them, often modeled on the character types and slapstick style derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte. In many ways, Moliere’s early career paralleled that of Shakespeare, a journeyman actor who became a leading playwright. Moliere also was frequently the star of his own productions.
  Increasingly popular even in Paris, where his plays had begun to draw large audiences, Moliere and his troupe performed before Louis XIV in 1658. After a series of misunderstandings, Moliere won over the Sun King, who eventually installed him as a permanent fixture in the Theatre du Palais Royal under the patronage of the king’s brother. This became Moliere’s professional home, and his company was granted the title Troupe of the King.
  By 1661, Moliere had truly hit his stride, penning what is regarded by most as his first major play, “The School for Husbands.” Here, Moliere’s trademarks, patiently cultivated out in the field, came brilliantly to the fore, particularly his great skill at composing light couplets that skipped off the page with the cleverness of their meter and rhyme.
  Other masterpieces soon followed, each dwelling on some kind of comedic character trait. “The Miser’s” central character, the greedy Harpagon, claims to love a young woman, but is really engaged in a lifelong affair with his money. “The Bourgeois Gentleman” is concerned with frippery and manners in polite French society. “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” skewers hypochondriacs. The 1664 “Tartuffe” satirizes religion. The latter play got Moliere into hot water with the church, which had the play banned, and it took the intercession of the king to get it mounted once again.
  During this period, Moliere impulsively wed, at age 40, a girl less than half his age named Armande Bejart, variously described as his former mistress Madeleine’s sister or daughter. Given Madeleine’s age, it was most likely the latter, which gave rise to the rumor, fostered by Moliere’s enemies, that Armande was his own daughter. In any event, Moliere and Armande were soon quarrelling endlessly, and the May-December match was an unqualified disaster.
  It served, however, to provide the inspiration for Moliere’s wittiest observations on the relations between men and women, perhaps including the ill-fated desire of the aging miser Harpagon to marry a young woman who is secretly in love with his own son. In any event, there were no lasting hard feelings, and both Madeleine and Armande continued to star in Moliere’s plays.
  If only Woody Allen had lived in 17th-century Paris, before palimony and child welfare workers.
  Moliere’s untimely end, unlike Shakespeare’s quiet disappearing act, was infused with a bit of over-the-top Gallic panache.
  Starring in a production of “The Imaginary Invalid,” his own medical satire, Moliere was struck onstage with an internal hemorrhage, probably in his lungs. He managed to finish the play and make it home only to die of his malady shortly thereafter, surely an unintentionally dramatic finale but the stuff of which legends are made.
  He died, predictably, still in trouble with the church, and it took Armande and the king to convince the archbishop of Paris to allow Moliere a proper burial.
  Although perfumed with 17th-century Gallic dandyism, Moliere’s plays have never really dated. They have continued to elicit gales of knowing laughter from successive generations of delighted audiences who immediately recognize their witty and ironic insights. Whether attired by directors in powdered wigs and satin finery or in somber Brooks Brothers business suits, Moliere’s characters, like the beloved nut cases in “Seinfeld,” will never change and will never learn.

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