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Among the considerable number of men dedicated to the task of keeping Louis XIV entertained, several met bizarre ends. In $1671$ at Chantilly, the great chef Vatel, after providing the king and some $2,000$ courtiers with three superb meals on the first day of their visit, killed himself on the next, when a consignment of fish he had ordered failed to appear (it turned up shortly thereafter) Jean-Bapriste Lully, in charge of music for all the royal festivities, managed to stab himself in the foot with his conductor’s baton while directing a performance of one of his own works in $1687;$ he died soon afterwards when gangrene set in.

Nothing, however, quite equals the death of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the self-styled sieure de Moliere, a man established by $1672$ as actor/manager and chief play-wright of la troupe du ropi, performing at the Palais Royal in Paris and much in demand at court. “But might it not be a bit dangerous to counterfeit death?” Moliere, as Argan, the hypochondriac protagonist of his last comedy, “Le Malade imaginaire”, enquired, when about to do just that, during the play’s fourth performance on February $17\text{th,} 1673.$ “No, no,” the maid Toinette reassured him, “what danger could there be?” But Moliere did, in fact, die: not actually on stage though he finished Argan’s part with considerable difficulty — but an hour or two later at home. Predictably, a strictly Catholic France where actors were excommunicated and refused burial in consecrated ground (though churchmen patronised the theatre and wrote plays themselves) the usual dour moral lessons were drawn.

The stage chair in which Moliere as Argan was stricken in earnest, not in jest, can still be seen on permanent display in the upper lobby of the Comedie Francaise —the theatre which, in effect, he founded. It is, apart from the plays themselves and their prefaces, almost the only tangible relic of a man much written about by friends and enemies during and immediately after his lifetime, who nevertheless remains in many ways mysterious, despite endlessly proliferating scholarly and critical research. Virginia Scott, author of the latest attempt at a biography, is well aware of the difficulties. No one can disentangle legend from fact, fiction from truth — not even in the brief life attached to the collected edition of Moliere’s works produced by his associate La Grange in $1682,$ or in the $1705$ biography by Grimmarest. Moliere himself left no letters, no diaries, no memoirs. None of the various houses in which he is said to have lived remains, nor do any of his personal possessions. Not only do his contemporaries provide ambiguous and conflicting reports, but the basic facts are wanting. Shakespeareans may complain about a certain paucity of information, but at least they know where their man was buried and whom he married. Molieristes do not.

Ms Scott is engagingly candid about her biographical method. “My agenda is to express those intersections between myself and the past that I experience imaginatively... I order what I know or believe I know so as to create characters — whom I choose to call Moliere and Madeleine — who could have made with some degree of probability the choices I believe the real Moliere and Madeleine to have made.” So she is free to decide that Armande Bejart, the teenager Moliere married in $1662,$ was indeed the daughter of his former mistress Madeleine Bejart by the Comte de Modene, rather than her youngest sister. (But not, as some of his enemies suggested, also Moliere’s own daughter.) As to where and when the respectable Jean-Baptiste Poquehin first met the distinctly bohemian Madeleine, and how he was drawn away from the solid family upholstery business into the theatre, she does not pretend to offer more than speculation. Like everyone who writes about Moliere, Ms Scott combs the plays themselves for clues about his private life and comes up with suggestions that may or may not be right. Most innovative of all, perhaps, is her hypothesis that Moliere’s relationship with his young protégé Baron was homoerotic — though even that was hinted at by the more malicious of his contemporaries.

The last biography of Moliere published in English, John Palmer’s “Moliere” $(1930;$ reprinted in $1970),$ is still worth reading. To compare it, however, with Ms Scott’s is to realise how enormously attitudes have changed during the intervening years. Nervous even about Moliere’s illicit relationship with Madeleine, Palmer could not bring himself to say more than that “probably” they had an affair. Over Baron’s possibly sexual appeal to Moliere he maintained total silence. Also very much of its period was his slight regard for that improvised Italian theatre which provided Moliere with many dramatic types, and his contempt for lavish baroque spectacle of the kind that Louis XIV loved and on which Moliere “wasted” his talents. The ballet de cour and comedies-ballets are now regarded with far more interest and respect than was the case in $1930$ (as indeed are the court masques that Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones created for James $1$). Both the delicious “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” and “Le Malade Imaginaire” are, after all, comedies-ballets — a category that a more flexible $21$ “..century idea of theatre can once again accommodate.

Ms Scott provides valuable correctives here. The strength of her book (as might be expected from the author of “The Commedia dell’ Arte in Paris”, $1990)$ lies less in its portrait of Moliere himself than in the densely researched and persuasive background against which she is able to situate him. This is made up of families and places (she is particularly good on the $13$ years during which Moliere and his troupe wandered the French provinces before returning to Paris), while also including portraits of his enemies, as well as eminent friends such as Boileau, La Fontaine and Racine. She does not offer much in the way of commentary on the plays themselves. What she does do is arrestingly illuminate the complex world of theatre and court, both in Paris and elsewhere, that finally constitutes almost all that can really be known of Moliere’s life.

Suggest a suitable title for the passage:

  1. Mysterious Moliere
  2. Recreating Moliere
  3. A Spectacular Death
  4. Moliere and Madeleine
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