Gerry McCarthy’s The Theatres of Molière (Routledge 2002) is one of my favorite explorations of the development of his comic genius in the context of his historical period.
All of Paris in the 17th century was a stage for public display with street entertainment accessible to everyone, and Molière was never ashamed of those early humble influences. The French farceurs on the Hôtel de Bourgogne stage in the 1630s, where Jean-Baptiste was taken by his grandfather, had adopted Italian commedia dell’arte techniques, and these too impacted his future writing. At school he learned – as all bourgeois children did – to speak effectively according to classical principles of rhetoric and to comport his body gracefully; a well-bred man would stand with his leg turned out like a dancer. The future Molière attended the Jesuit Collège de Clermont where training in dance was integral to the curriculum. The Jesuits staged ballets (narrative dance interspersed by spoken poetry) as well as plays in Latin and French.
The book offers fascinating insights such as why “Molière was adept at the use of a chair on stage” (19), examples of his penchant for “physical action and verbal obstruction” (49) and physical scoring of his texts for the actor, the influence of the court in turning his work to more extensive collaboration with composers and choreographers, his way of using stage space to underscore character relationships, grotesque and fantastic elements in costuming, and Molière’s audience as a society in which comedy could flourish: “men and women living together brilliantly, neither puritanical nor licentious, yet highly aware of the moral character of their lives” (175).
McCarthy skillfully interweaves material from Molière’s biography, social factors that impacted his work, and analysis of key sequences from the plays in a well-researched and reader-friendly book.
Front cover of the book, published by Routledge, New York and London, 2002
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