Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a classic French playwright, was famous for French comedy. Often called the master of social comedy and worthy to stand with Shakespeare, he tackled subjects that others didn’t dare to. On stage, he was Molière.
Growing Up: From Upholstery Apprentice to Playwright
In 1622, Jean was born in Paris to a wealthy family. His father was contracted by King Louis XIV to care for furniture and tapestries. The youngster enjoyed his days in the king’s courts and received the fineries in life. He received an education at the College de Clermont in Paris, one of the best schools available. Despite all of this, he had no interest in mingling or being like the aristocracy. In fact, he loved to make fun of them.
His mother’s priest was one of his favorites to mimic jokingly, not to her amusement, however. She was very religious, and Jean’s foolish attitude got him into trouble. Sadly, his mother died when he was only 12 years old, leaving him to contend with his father alone.
During his apprenticeship to carry on the upholstering trade with his father, theater crossed his path. There were two major theater spots near his father’s shop. At Pont-Neuf, comedians put on plays and pulled practical jokes in the streets to sell medicine to people passing by.
The other location, Hotel de Bourgogne, held traditional type plays like romantic tragedies and classical drama. Jean attended these formal plays put on by the King’s Players with his grandfather. Both kinds of shows had an enormous impact and influence on him.
To compound matters, he met and fell head over heels for an actress, Madeleine Bejart. He soon organized a group of about 12 up-and-coming entertainers. He named the group The Illustrious Theater and changed his name to Molière. His theater group included Madeleine and her siblings. In 1643, at the age of 21, Jean dedicated himself to theatre life.
They performed in theaters and any location that they could attract an audience. Once they tried to charge admission for their productions, however, disappointment showed its face. People weren’t willing to pay to watch a bunch of novice’s parade around on stage. This went on for over two years before members started dropping out. The remaining members finally decided to abandon Paris and try touring around smaller towns instead.
It was during this 12-year touring period that Molière began writing his own plays for the group as well as honing his acting and writing skills. A master was born out of love and dedication to the craft of theater.
Success at Last
His first successful play was The Blunderer. It was a five-act play based on an Italian comedy. After experiencing success with this play, The Illustrious Theater company went back to Paris once again; only his time, they were experienced and confident.
Hearing that the Duke of Anjou was interested in backing a theater company that he could give his name to, Molière resourcefully got his group a chance to perform at court in 1658. King Louis XIV and his court were not impressed. Realizing they had performed the wrong kind of play, Molière approached the King and got permission to perform once again. This time they did a Molière original comedy, The Love-Sick Doctor. It was such a success that the King gave them access to one of the most important theaters in Paris, the Hotel du Petit-Bourbon.
The King highly favored Molière and his troupe. This favoritism continued for the rest of Molière’s life. They were dubbed the “Troupe of the King.” His close relationship with King Louis became so personal that the King was Molière’s firstborn son’s godfather.
The End of Great Life
Molière died doing what he loved most – performing on stage. He had a brain hemorrhage in 1673 while starring in his play, The Imaginary Invalid. His role as Argan, the hypochondriac, was his last.
Ironically, he became an invalid with death. The local Catholic priest wouldn’t allow him to give confession on his deathbed. They considered him excommunicated and wouldn’t even bury him on church grounds. King Louis, once again, came to his rescue and had him buried during the night at Saint Joseph’s.