The plays of Jean-Batiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, are considered some of the finest examples of French theater ever written. They are noted by theater critics for their wit and topical subject matter. Moliere’s plays caused both fanfare and riots in their original performances, and continue as staple productions of live theater today.
The first of Moliere’s plays to bring him tremendous success was the 1662 five-act comedy The School for Wives. The play involves the comic disasters caused by Arnolphe, a man so afraid of being betrayed by a woman that he insists that his ward, Agnes, be raised as innocently as possible so he can eventually marry her. Starved for male attention after her entire childhood in a convent, Agnes immediately falls in love with Arnolphe’s friend Horace, having no idea that Arnolphe intends her for himself. The play received such positive attention that King Louis XIV granted Moliere a yearly pension for his work.
Perhaps the best known of Moliere’s plays is his most controversial, Tartuffe. In the 1664 play, a con-artist posing as a man of great piety tricks a gullible man out of his home and wealth. The play caused an uproar with the religious faction of the French court, demanding that it be banned from the stage. The king, despite being a fan of the play, forbade public performance of it for several years. Eventually, opposition died down, and the play was freely and frequently performed starting in 1669.
Some critics consider the Moliere’s play The Misanthrope to be his masterpiece, despite initially poor reviews at its 1666 premier. The play features an enormous amount of word-play and verbal banter, as it follows the life of Alceste, a man who hates people. The play is also considered a socially important play, as it questions the role of man and whether honesty or politeness should rule societal behavior.
Moliere’s plays are often cited as being influenced by the traveling Italian theater troupes of commedia dell’arte. In the Italian style, archetypal characters, such as the clown, the lovers, the buffoon father, are used for comedic effect. In Scapin some experts believe the effect of commedia dell’arte is apparent. The story follows two sons who have both secretly married while their fathers are away and depend on Scapin, a wily and deceitful servant, to help them get away with it. As in the Italian comedies, every one ends more or less happily, with Scapin somehow both getting credit and looking ridiculous.
Many of Moliere’s plays are one-act comedies, performed to lighten the mood after tragic subject matter. These short plays often feature commedia dell’arte stock characters and heavy wordplay. Some of the best known include School for Husbands, Sganarelle, and The Pretentious Young Ladies. In modern theater, two or three of Moliere’s plays are often combined to form an evening of one-acts.
The plays of Moliere are extremely popular with modern theater-goers. The political and societal wit of the plays is often re-imagined to fit modern issues. Moliere’s plays also serve as excellent teaching tools, and are frequently used to introduce young actor’s to the world of French Farce and the skills required for excellent verbal banter.