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Benjamin IvryJanuary 06, 2023
"Molière," by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse (Wikimedia Commons)

To delve into the sometimes fraught relationship between the Catholic Church and the French playwright Molière (1622-73) while celebrating the latter’s 400th birthday might spoil the party. After all, Molière is considered a classic of the Gallic stage. Indeed, the French sometimes describe their idiom as the “language of Molière.”

The Comédie-Française, the venerable state theater, has performed works by Molière more often than those of any other playwright. Yet lasting opprobrium has surrounded the author of “Tartuffe,” a play satirizing religious hypocrisy, and “Don Juan or the Feast of the Statue,” about sexual profligacy.

Sometimes vulgar and even abusive, Molière’s inventive verbal derring-do was based on solid reading, including of theological works.

In neither work did the protagonists repent or learn the error of their ways. Instead, Molière’s plays often glitter giddily with rhyming couplets that dazzle the ear, at least in the original French.

In this way, they do not seem overtly edifying, which may have troubled sober-sided viewers and readers. Sometimes vulgar and even abusive, Molière’s inventive verbal derring-do was based on solid reading, including of theological works.

He studied at the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit establishment, where he first experienced theater. This school was named in honor of Guillaume Duprat, Bishop of Clermont, a pen pal of Ignatius Loyola, S.J. The bishop lived in a mansion that became the Jesuit order’s first permanent home in Paris. Eventually, the Collège de Clermont was renamed Lycée Louis-le-Grand after Louis XIV, the Sun King who became Molière’s steadfast patron.

Perhaps echoing these schooldays, vocabulary from didactic religious texts could sometimes be heard in Molière’s writings, which would tantalize theologically astute listeners. The third act of “Tartuffe” contains a parody of the Marian hymn “Salve Regina,” containing many of the same words found in the traditional French translation of the original: “Salut, ô Reine, Mère de miséricorde, notre vie, notre douceur, notre espérance, salut!” (“Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope.”)

Vocabulary from didactic religious texts could sometimes be heard in Molière’s writings, which would tantalize theologically astute listeners.

At the same time, perhaps because Molière’s acting troupe performed for the King first and foremost, his plays contained no direct allusions to the church that might have offended listeners. Jesus, God and the Catholic Church go unmentioned in “Tartuffe,” a play about how piety can go awry and attract gullible followers.

This is in decided contrast to other poets and playwrights of his era, who took advantage of the fact that in French, many words rhyme with Catholique.

Molière, on the lookout for snappy rhymes like all verse playwrights, must have consciously avoided such temptation. But not so Nicolas Drouin’s “Feast of the Statue or the Criminal Son,” a play which inspired Molière’s “Don Juan.” This earlier work featured a servant who is terrified by the appearance of a ghost and refuses to sing on command: “I should sing at the end of my life?/ I’m no swan, but I am a Catholic.” His master describes him as an “impertinent coward in panicked terror.”

Drouin’s verse rhymes Catholique with panique, rather irreverently. Even less pious was a satirical poem by Jacques du Lorens, another Molière contemporary, which contains the sneering couplet: “As long as we appear to be good Catholics/ we can thumb our noses at good works.” (Pourvu qu’en apparence on soit bon Catholique/ Qu’aux bonnes actions on peut faire la nique). Rhyming Catholique with the slang expression faire la nique is notably undignified.

Molière himself sidestepped any such crass mockery, at least linguistically. Yet other farcical elements in his comedies remained unsettling for some spectators, such as a tendency to make all older characters ridiculous, whether misers or hypochondriacs, while young people are the sole appealing characters.

Although Molière limited himself to vague references to the heavens rather than targeting specific religious observance, he was nevertheless watched with suspicion by church authorities. In his day, religious hypocrisy was an especially sensitive issue. Around the time that “Tartuffe” first dismayed certain audiences, François Harlay de Champvallon was elevated to the post of archbishop of Paris.

About Champvallon, François Fénelon, a fellow archbishop, drafted an anonymous letter to Louis XIV, informing the monarch: “You have a corrupt, scandalous, incorrigible, counterfeit, malevolent, cunning archbishop who is the enemy of every virtue and who makes all decent people whimper.”

Champvallon would reportedly be instrumental in trying to deny Molière a Christian burial. When Champvallon himself died, the writer Madame de Sévigné received a letter from a friend, explaining that finding someone to deliver Champvallon’s eulogy was proving difficult for two reasons: “His life and his death.”

After the first performance of “Tartuffe,” which was well received, Louis XIV’s religious advisor expressed complaints, so the play was withdrawn for extensive rewrites.

Still, a certain crowd-pleasing roughness remained. Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Molière adopted his stage name in his 20s, possibly after the French villages Meulière and Molière, sites for quarries of grinding stone (pierres à meule). In the Picard language of northern France, a mollière is marshy, uncultivated swampland. Following these etymologies, those who rejected Molière’s plays for religious reasons may have seen his world view as grindingly barren of spirituality.

Those who rejected Molière’s plays for religious reasons may have seen his world view as grindingly barren of spirituality.

In Molière’s day, debate still raged over whether plays were idolatry, as Tertullian stated centuries before, and public spectacles mere distractions for the faithful from divine worship. For anyone with this attitude, the vast ongoing popularity of Molière was an uncomfortable matter.

To later generations, he was considered either too Catholic or not Catholic enough. In 1862, the poet Théophile Gautier, a believer in the “religion of art,” dismissively told the Goncourt brothers, noted diarists, that Molière’s “The Misanthrope” was a “Jesuit comedy for the back-to-school period.”

In 1882, Auguste Charaux, founder of the Catholic University of Lille, in northern France, published a book about Molière, reminding readers: “If comedy especially has no obvious relationship to theology, it is inseparable from morality, as morality is from religion. But Molière, the very incarnation of comedy, preferred Epicurus to Jesus Christ, and preferred to the precepts of the faith, the catechism of perverted nature; [Molière’s] intelligence declined accordingly.”

Charaux added: “The insinuating sweetness of religion, in turning his gaze towards Heaven, would perhaps have cured [Molière’s] ulcerated soul, and caused hope to permeate his genius.” Lacking the hope that religion brings, Molière’s plays could only be “discouraging,” as Charaux put it, in their bitter absence of redemption.

Well into the 20th century, writers have fretted over the tone and content of Molière’s works.

An ongoing dispute

Well into the 20th century, writers have fretted over the tone and content of Molière’s works. On the playwright’s tricentenary in 1922, Father Jean Calvet, a professor at the Catholic University of Paris, wrote in Cahiers Catholiques that Molière’s achievements were limited because he was a “man for whom saintliness had no meaning.”

That same year, an actor from the Comédie-Française wrote to Louis-Ernest Dubois, archbishop of Paris, asking for permission for a Requiem Mass for Molière to be celebrated at Notre-Dame Cathedral or a humbler alternative location. Cardinal Dubois demurred that it was not his responsibility to launch such a tribute, but cautioned that a Notre-Dame service would be problematic to organize. A Mass was finally celebrated at the smaller Saint-Roch Church, without the participation of the cardinal, who was otherwise engaged.

This ongoing leeriness in the face of Molière’s writings was expressed more fully by François Mauriac in an article, “Tragic Molière,” published in February 1930 in Vigile, a Catholic literary review.

Echoing the opinions of Auguste Charaux from decades before, Mauriac argued that “Molière is sad, far sadder than [Blaise] Pascal…This humanist derides intense Christians because they seem to believe that heaven and earth, social life and a worshipful life, are incompatible.”

Ironically, in June 1964, Mauriac would become entangled in a Molieresque polemic when he decried a film adaptation of Roger Peyrefitte’s gay-themed novel Special Friendships. Mauriac called Peyrefitte a Tartuffe. Peyrefitte responded in turn that Mauriac himself was a Tartuffe. The dispute showed that at least in Parisian literary circles, Molière’s characters were considered as ripe for controversy as ever.

Yet through the years, a few courageous Catholic writers have defended Molière, none more vigorously than Barbara Smythe, who in 1924 published “A Note on Molière and His Religion”in Blackfriars, a London Catholic periodical.

Through the years, a few courageous Catholic writers have defended Molière, none more vigorously than Barbara Smythe.

Smythe counteracted centuries of criticism by asserting that “it would be useless to pretend that [Molière] was deeply religious, or that he had much comprehension of the mystical or the ascetic aspects of Christianity, yet there are features in his work which do seem to reflect, even if not consciously, the Catholic ideals which had inspired French literature from its first beginnings… [By] showing evil as something contemptible and fit to be laughed at, Molière is simply following the tradition of all the great Catholic art of the Middle Ages. The same idea is manifested in the chimaeras on the towers of Notre Dame de Paris and in the low-comedy devils of the Inferno.”

By retaining a sense of humor, which many of Molière’s harsher critics failed to do, Smythe implied, it might be possible to identify moral virtues in the much-decried playwright: “The importance attached to family life, and the insistence on the evils that arise when a family is disunited, which is noticeable in so many of the plays, is typically Catholic… it is above all Molière’s kindliness, his sympathy with human weakness, that prove him to be in reality the product of a Catholic civilisation.”

In 1933, the literary historian Arthur Lytton Sells politely disagreed in The Modern Language Review: “Whatever his innermost beliefs, Molière was assuredly not a Christian thinker…He accepted the forms of Catholicism, but without conviction or enthusiasm and rather as a matter of good breeding.”

More recently, researchers have gone even further, lauding the playwright for the same reasons that previous critics condemned him. Antony McKenna’s Molière, Libertine Playwright (2005) hyperbolically claims that Molière used a libertine philosophy to deploy a real “war machine against Christianity.”

The posthumous life of Molière

Often-published accounts of the death of Molière, who supposedly expired while being comforted by two nuns, have been discounted by recent scholarship. However, it was true that as an actor, a shunned social class in his time, Molière was deemed unworthy of a Christian burial. This discomfited Parisian diocese leadership, given Molière’s fame and considerable wealth.

To resolve the issue, Molière’s wife wrote a letter to the archbishop of Paris. She complained that when she had requested a priest from the Saint-Eustache parish to administer last rites to her husband, two clerics refused to oblige and a third had arrived too late to be useful.

She also appealed to the king, who impatiently advised the archbishop to find a compromise. This turned out to mean that Molière’s parish priest was allowed to conduct a burial service for him, but without excessive ceremony or display.

The debate continued. Twenty years after Molière’s death, the bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, court preacher to Louis XIV, castigated Molière’s plays that targeted “only the ridiculousness of the world, while leaving all its corruption intact.” Bossuet concluded his tirade with a citation from the Gospel of Luke presumably addressed to Molière’s audiences: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.”

Fortunately, Molière was granted a much less gloomy posterity. Even those who do not speak French can thrill to the verve of recordings by the actors Louis Jouvet, Sacha Guitry, Charles Dullin, Michel Bouquet, Robert Hirsch and Jacques Charon in Molière’s plays. Because he wrote plum roles for himself, the leading male characters created by Molière tend to be more imposing than his female protagonists. In commemorating Molière’s 400th birthday, readers and theatergoers may be inclined to agree with Barbara Smythe’s generous conclusions, more than the sometimes captious critics who blamed him for lacking an ideal piety he never claimed to possess.

A Molière playlist:

Sacha Guitry on Moliere

Louis Jouvet, speaking about Molière’s ”Don Juan”

Louis Jouvet acting with his company in a Boston performance of Molière’s ”School for Wives” in 1951

Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Tartuffe” from 1983, starring Nigel Hawthorne, Alison Steadman and Antony Sher

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