- (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 1622 - 73) French playwright andactor-manager. The son of a wealthy upholsterer in the service ofthe king, the young Jean-Baptiste was expected to take his father'splace at the court. Instead, at the age of 21, he became involvedwith an acting family, the Béjarts, turning his back on hisfather's business and changing his name to Molière. With theBéjarts, Molière attempted to found a new theater companyin Paris; the result was a short lived enterprise called the Illustre-Théâtre,which ran into debt as early as 1645, leading to a brief spell ina debtor's prison for Molière.
Upon his release, Molière and a few other members ofthe now defunct company (including the Béjarts' eldest daughterMadeleine, with whom Molière was in love) headed for the provincesand joined forces with a touring troupe. He spent the next 13 yearsin almost constant touring, mainly playing farces inspired by thecommedia dell'arte. It was during these years in the provincesthat Molière wrote his first plays such as L'étourdiou les Contretemps (1655) and De Dépit amoureaux(1656).
In 1658 the company returned to Paris and obtained, throughthe patronage of the king's brother, a command performance beforeLouis XIV. The company performed two works, a tragedy by Corneilleand one of Molière's own farces, Le Docteur amoureaux,which was an instant success and led to the king providing them withthe use of the Salle du Petit-Bourbon on a time-share arrangementwith an Italian commedia company. The following year Molièreenjoyed his first Paris success with Les Précieuses ridicules.Following the demolition of the Petit-Bourbon in 1661, Molièreand his company were installed the following year at the Palais-Royal.
In 1662 Molière married Armande Béjart, theyounger sister of Madeleine, who was almost 20 years his junior. Atthe time of the marriage there was much gossip, most of it spreadby theatrical rivals, to the effect that Armande was actually Molière'sown daughter by Madeleine. That same year saw the production of Molière'sfirst full-length comedy, The School for Wives, which encountereda storm of criticism from those who considered the work to be immoral.The following year much of the gossip was silenced when the king commissionedMolière to write L'Impromptu de Versailles (1663),in which the playwright ridiculed his rivals and detractors.
No less controversial were Molière's next two plays,Tartuffe (1664) and Don Juan (1665). Following itsfirst production Tartuffe was withheld from performance until1667, whereupon it was denounced for immorality by the Church andbanned until 1669. Similarly Don Juan was withdrawn from thestage following its first production and not performed again untilafter Molière's death. However, successful productions followedof The Misanthrope (1666), possibly Molière's greatestplay, The Miser (1668), Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671),Les Femmes savantes (1672), and Le Malade imaginaire(1672). It was during an early performance of Le Malade imaginairethat Molière, playing the role of the hypochondriac, was seizedby a real coughing fit and collapsed; he died hours later.
Molière's main achievement was in raising the standardof French comedy to a level commensurate with French tragedy. In doingso he created a body of work that would continue to be performed forthe next three centuries, providing generation after generation ofperformers with some of their finest roles.