Thoughts & Musings

No Fool Like an Old Fool:
Molière’s School for Wives (1662)

© 2010 by Eileen Warburton

Ovid tells the story of a sculptor called Pygmalion who creates a statue of the “perfect woman” and adores her. The gods show pity on his love and bring the statue to life. The beautiful woman steps down from her pedestal, falls instantly in love with her creator, and they live happily ever after.

This perennial male fantasy is pure baloney.

Bernard Shaw shows the real outcome in his Pygmalion, as does Ibsen in A Doll’s House. When a man tries to create his perfect woman and then keeps her dependent on him, she doesn’t say “I love you,” she says “Goodbye.”

And so little Agnes (a name that means lamb”), deliberately raised in a convent to be ignorant and simple, is brought like a poor lamb to market to marry the older, pompous, cynical Arnolphe who looks for a wife too stupid to betray him.

The playwright we call Molière (1622-1678) was born Jean-Baptiste Poqueline in Paris in 1622 during the reign of Louis XIII. His family was middle-class and respectable, since his father was one of the king’s upholsterers, and the boy received a good education and the promise of following in his father’s comfortable and secure position. Ah, but his imagination was seduced by street players, musicians, dancers, and wandering actors until, at 21, Jean-Baptiste announced himself for a life in the theatre and formed the tiny troupe he was to call L’Illustre Theatre. To spare his family the shame of having a disreputable actor in the family, young Poqueline adopted the stage name “Molière.” The dazzling red-headed Madeleine Bejart was the troupe’s leading lady and was soon Molière’s mistress, remaining his dramatic and business partner for the rest of their lives. For 15 years, the vagabond troupe toured the provinces, playing in barns, houses, and in the open, learning the deft comic moves of the Italian Commedia del Arte and perfecting their craft. At some point, Molière began writing sketches and plays for his strolling players. At Lyon the actress Catherine Debrie became his mistress while his partnership with Madeleine stayed intact.

Molière was 36 when, in 1658, no less an admirer than the Duke of Orleans (the king’s brother) secured the wandering players the chance to perform before the newly crowned Louis XIV in a Paris glittering with performance and entertainment possibility. With one of Molière’s delightful farces, the players won the attention and, it was to turn out, the undying loyalty of the Sun King and they were appointed Troupe de Monsieur to the king’s brother.

It’s difficult for us today to comprehend how controversial were Molière’s comedies. His enormous gift for mockery of the pretentious and insincere won him the bitter enmity of the Church hierarchy, certain members of the court, almost the entire medical profession (a particular target), and a coterie of important ladies who arbitrated social status in Louis’ Paris. They also landed him in jail once and twice closed his theatres. It was the king’s intervention every time that rescued Molière and his players. Ultimately, Louis XIV put his favorites under his direct patronage by naming them the Troupe du Roi and giving them a pension.

Molière excels in funny, farcical plays flaying one singular, obsessive character. They are satires about extremists that almost seem to be derived from the old medieval Vice and Virtue plays. Tartuffe, for example, is the embodiment of religious hypocrisy, cheating a family out of wealth and house through his pretended piety. Alceste is the sourest of misanthropes, finding nothing but ill in his fellow humans. Argan is consumed by his self-absorbed hypochondria,

surrounding himself with incompetent doctors. Harpagon is the very definition of greedy and grasping. These central characters are always buffered by a good friend who expresses a more moderate, measured perspective on society and offers a thoughtful, compromising model of behavior-immediately scorned by the protagonist. As the protagonist’s life has been shaped by his one dominating obsessive character trait, so his richly deserved come-uppance is the outcome of that sorry flaw.

In the case of School for Wives, Arnolphe is obsessed by jealousy and the fear that he will be made a cuckold by any wife he takes, as he has seen other men betrayed. Arnolphe’s humiliation would be very public, since he himself has publically jeered and mocked at husbands who have been duped by their wives. He thinks he has solved the dilemma by cloistering a young girl, raising her to be ignorant and “simple” and devoted only to his interests. The result is Agnes, a lovely girl so untutored that Arnolphe makes fun at her expense at how stupid she is.

Men attempting to keep women in their place by denying them education is an old, old story. Fortunately, as in the case of Agnes, natural cleverness and basic kindness of character often makes the girl learn fast. Agnes falls in love with Horace out of her own good heart and quickly learns to manipulate in her own turn. Arnolphe, who would have victimized the young lovers, finds himself the butt.

Jealousy is one vice to which Molière kept returning, and critics actually speak of his “Jealousy Series” – The Jealous Prince, School for Husbands, and School for Wives. And there was a reason why jealousy was such a familiar vice to Molière. Madeleine Bejart had brought her much-younger sister (possibly her illegitimate daughter) Armande, then only 8, then into the life of the troupe. Molière directed Armande’s education and she grew up under his eye. By the time she was 17, he was wildly in love with her and, throwing over the faithful Catherine Debrie, married the girl. He was 40. What a mistake! Although she bore him two children and he wrote several sensational stage parts for her, neither partner was happy. The beautiful Armande became one of the most notorious flirts in Louis’ court, heartless, acquisitive, giddy and shallow. If he complained, she called him a tyrant. They separated. They reconciled, Molière suffered-suffered from her indifference and suffered because he knew himself to be a fool. While Agnes and Arnolphe are not directly Molière and Armande, their dilemma is certainly reflected in School for Wives.

Molière’s end was as dramatic as his life and enduring works. Worn out and ill, in 1678 he was performing Argon in The Imaginary Invalid when he hemorrhaged and collapsed onstage. He insisted on finishing the performance and then was taken home to die. All priests refused to give him extreme unction but some nuns arrived to comfort his end. The Catholic Church refused to bury him in sanctified ground until, one final time, the Sun King intervened and Molière was quietly laid to rest under cover of darkness in hallowed ground.

For further reading:

Virginia Scott. Molière: A Theatrical Life (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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