Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, is often considered to be for Francophones what Shakespeare is for English speakers. The actor-playwright was born four centuries ago on January 15, 1622—an event I celebrated in The New Criterion’s September 2022 issue. This autumn and continuing until Molière’s birthday in January 2023, France’s Bibliothèque Nationale is presenting “Molière, the Game of True and False,” an exhibition on the realities and myths of the playwright at the library’s recently restored Richelieu site, a seventeenth-century estate turned research center near the house where Molière lived and died.1
The exhibition strives to separate the myths and facts of Molière’s life. The show and its catalogue reveal certain elements of Molière’s life, long taken for granted, to be mere fables. For example, while Louis XIV was Molière’s patron and attempted to assist him when he ran afoul of the church, it appears untrue that the king invited him to dine and chat at the royal table. Molière’s work as an actor and a playwright blurs lines between fact and fiction—the point of an actor is that he is what he seems to be onstage, not what he is off it. This blurring, the show demonstrates, bled into every part of Molière’s life, and the general lack of documentation of his life only confuses his history.
The exhibition’s collaboration with the Comédie Française—the continuation of Molière’s original troupe, which still performs his oeuvre—ensures that it is rich with costumes, clips of performances, and photos of stars from every generation of the group’s storied history. Paintings of Molière, statues, original manuscripts, and first-edition prints of his plays are also on view. This exhibition allows the public to enjoy a compact, enlightening trip into Molière’s world. By the end, we understand better both the reality and the myth of the playwright’s life.
“Molière, the Game of True and False” opens surprisingly with Molière’s death on the evening of February 17, 1673, after the fourth performance of his last play, Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). Many have long believed that Molière died onstage mid-performance. In truth, we learn from the show, he died when he was at home on the rue de Richelieu—but not with two nuns at his bedside praying for his soul as in Pierre Antoine Augustin Vafflard’s Death of Molière (1806). The date of this painting, however, is pertinent to the legacy of the playwright: the Romantic Age placed Molière on a pedestal and enshrined his surrounding mythology. Contrary to these Romantic myths, the show informs us that Molière neither renounced acting on his deathbed nor was he buried in secret at night. He was, in fact, given a normal daylight burial by the Church.
Molière has sometimes been assumed to to have been a chronic hypochondriac, similar to the protagonist, Argan, in his last play. Even so, Molière was probably no more of a hypochondriac than most. His death came not from chronic illness, as has been suggested, but a pulmonary virus raging in Paris that winter. Molière’s plays often mocked doctors as rogues and quacks, and there is a pointed moment in Don Juan in which the Don dismisses medicine as mere skepticism. Molière’s skepticism of the medical world followed the tradition of Italian comedy and the ideas of Montaigne.
“Molière was lucky with painters,” Jean-Claude Boyer writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, citing the contemporary portraits of him by the brothers Mignard: Nicolas and Pierre. We see a painting by Nicolas of the playwright in 1658 wearing laurels on his head, placed there not for his own achievements—he had by then written several plays but not yet those that gave him immortality—but for the part of Caesar that he was then playing in Pierre Corneille’s tragedy La Mort de Pompée (The Death of Pompey). In 1670, Pierre Mignard painted Molière as a writer, with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. The eighteenth century saw Charles Antoine Coypel’s 1734 portrait of the playwright, which, we notice, bears a striking resemblance to the portrait by Nicolas Mignard, and statues by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1781) and Jean-Jacques Caffièri (1785).
The blending of myth and reality confused the history of Molière’s love life as well. Georges Forestier, a biographer of Molière and a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, has dispensed with the suggestion that Molière’s wife, Armande, eighteen years his junior, was his daughter born from his affair with the actress Madeleine Bèjart. In reality, Bèjart was the mistress for several years of Esprit de Rémond, Baron of Modena, and she had two daughters as a result of that affair, one of which was Armande, who Molière later married. Madeleine’s affair with Modena ended just before she met Molière and joined his troupe, in which she remained until her death in 1672 (a year to the day before Molière’s). Though Molière enjoyed many affairs with actresses, this one, perhaps brief, gave way to an enduring affection. Madeleine was known in her time not only as an excellent actress and a singer but also for her wit and her writing in verse and prose. Questions of authorship have surrounded Molière since his time—a rumor, promoted in 1919 by the poet Pierre Louys, claimed that Corneille, a famous playwright born a generation before (though he survived him by more than a decade), was the real author behind many of Molière’s plays. In reality, if Molière collaborated with anyone, it was likely this talented Madeleine.
It was not unusual then for men to marry much younger women, and marriages of the kind, together with themes of cuckoldry, were often used in the comedies of the time. Molière’s L’école de femmes (The School for Wives), produced during his marriage to Armande, is unusual for its subtlety rather than for its subject matter. Molière’s use of cuckolded husbands, complacent or jealous, was a stock comedic theme then and need not be assumed to have been drawn from the playwright’s personal life. This goes too for his greatest play, Le Misanthrope (1666), often considered—perhaps wrongly so—to be autobiographical. What is certain is that Armande did everything she could to preserve Molière’s glory and work after his death.
This lively exhibition provides a merry tour on Molière and his colorful world, correcting many of the legends that surround his legacy.