Two Controversial French Writers

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Answers from Anya Tretyakova

Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) & Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Molière and Beaumarchais fell prey to much controversy, criticism and condemnation during their lifetimes, regardless of this, they also enjoyed widespread popularity.  Often compared for their satirical approach to class hierarchy, witty social and political commentary, as well as secular inclination, Beaumarchais and his compatriot predecessor, Molière, are two incredibly influential French playwrights, both in their time and in the contemporary era (Lewis).  Molière in the 17th Century and Beaumarchais in the 18th wrote works, which challenged social values, questioned religious dogma and infuriated as well as pleased many an audience member.  Whether it was a private viewing, or a public performance, their plays did nothing if not create fervor of opinion in their wake (Carlson, French Stage).  Working in a period wherein France had few permanent theatrical venues, both Molière and his successor, Beaumarchais, needed to possess certain adaptability in the staging of their works (Kennedy et al).  The adaptability both playwrights had to possess needed to extend to modifying the content of their work, should it be deemed too controversial or inappropriate.  Due to the institutionalised nature of French theatre during these centuries, companies (even the Comédie Française) had to be wary of censorship and stringent Government regulations, especially as they were largely patronised by the aristocracy (Trott).  Molière’s (in) famous Don Juan was first performed at the illustrious Palais-Royal in 1665; however the playwright struggled earlier in his career to secure such prestigious venues (Clarke).  The first stage space Molière performed in was a disused tennis court his Illustre Théâtre had rented in 1643, a difficult space to work with, not least due to its narrow structure and limited sight-lines (Clarke).  Beaumarchais was luckier in this regard, living in a period where French theatre could only attempt to satiate the demands of theatre enthusiasts (Frischauer).  To really fathom the growth of the French theatre and its rapidly changing appetites, it would be prudent to look at Molière’s Don Juan and Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro; both cornerstone plays in their time, echoing the social dissent and political upheaval which would eventually lead to the French Revolution.

Comparing and contrasting Molière’s Don Juan and Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro may seem folly considering the different periods in time these plays occupy; however, both plays demand a similar number of actors, both were written in prose, both set in exotic locations – Don Juan in Sicily and The Marriage of Figaro in Spain – both plays include rapidly changing scene locations from indoors to outdoors, and both plays require their characters to change costume and adopt disguise.  For the purposes of this essay, the author will discuss the similarities and differences in these two plays, based on the contemporary, translated texts, arguing that there exists much similarity, despite over a century of time between the inaugural productions of these plays.

IInfluential French Playwrighter

Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin)

(Photo was taken from Wikipedia)

Both plays were written as part of a trilogy, for Beaumarchais more character-driven than Molière’s thematic approach of hypocrisy.  In The Marriage of Figaro, the protagonist, Figaro, had already existed for audiences in Beaumarchais’ The Barber of Seville.  The idea behind utilising a popular character in more than one play, as Beaumarchais did with Figaro in The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother, was to take advantage of an already established popularity, not to mention a well-known fictional context (Haunted Stage).  This phenomenon, which Carlson calls ‘ghosting’, establishes an audience’s understanding of a theatrical plot, based on prior knowledge of the character types on stage, the story, or sometimes even the actors themselves. Carlson also points out the fragility of enduring characters in times of great change, as made apparent with the decline in Figaro’s popularity during the French Revolution in The Guilty Mother (Haunted Stage). It was, amongst many other storytellers, a technique also utilised by Molière, although a little differently (Haunted Stage). Despite the audience not having seen Don Juan in Molière’s work before, audience members would have been familiar with the character, because Molière based his eponymous work, on the infamous, imaginary libertine, as did other playwrights, before and after him (Haunted Stage).  Molière’s version bears much similarity in plot and structure to the Don Juan myth as represented in the plays by Dorimond and Villiers, significantly however, Molière’s Don Juan is a supercilious atheist, where the Dorimond and Villiers legend shows him to be a man (no matter how licentious) accepting of the existence of an omniscient universal power (McBride).  Carlson’s idea of ‘ghosting’ can even extend to the performance space of a particular theatrical company, the Comédie Française, for example, still continues to be so strongly associated with its most famous one-time dramatist, manager and actor, that it was and remains informally known as “the house of Molière” (Haunted Stage, 155).  The so-called ‘Molière salon’, is an example of how ghosting can extend to scenery; thus elements on the stage can themselves become a recognisable feature, signifying a plot or character/s the audience will be familiar with from a previous production (Carlson, Haunted Stage).

The influence Greek and Roman New Comedy has had on playwrights such as Molière, must also be noted; the genre’s formulaic storytelling techniques, as popularised during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC by Menander, Terence and Plautus, and later in the 16th century’s Italian ‘lazzi’ and stock characters of the commedia dell’arte, rely on the predictability of well-established plot-lines  which audiences could instantly recognise and understand (Haunted Stage).  Beaumarchais’s works have also been influenced by this approach to comedy, especially in scenes where characters are hidden on stage, to the knowledge of the audience, but the ignorance of fellow characters (Carlson, Haunted Stage).  Figaro himself almost became a character type on the Parisian boulevard stages; following the success of Beaumarchais’ The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, approximately seven incarnations of Figaro appeared, at no less than three theatres (Root-Bernstein).  Often characterised as a beacon of polemic in Revolutionary Paris, The Marriage of Figaro is rather less incendiary than is frequently cited.  Although definitely controversial in its day, being denied public performance for years after its completion in 1778, The Marriage of Figaro nevertheless upheld some bourgeois ideals and enjoyed tremendous popularity with the aristocracy (Rodmell).  Perhaps a more likely reason for its contentious status at the time, were the rampant sexual insinuations and vulgar intimations in the play (Kennedy et al).

Writing plays

French fan 17th Century, or gauze-covered peepholes, which allowed ladies to view scandalous plays.

(Photo was taken from Tumblr)

In his introduction to the first American edition of Le Mariage de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Langley writes that as one of only four sons to survive, Beaumarchais endured much pressure and criticism from his father, who at one point, demanded that Beaumarchais sign a contract promising his subsequent commitment to hard work and good behaviour; Beaumarchais acquiesced and continued to live under his father’s roof with his mother and sisters, one of which, Marie-Julie, was said to have been the inspiration for Suzanne in The Marriage of Figaro (viii).  To say that Beaumarchais was a prudent man, would be an understatement; having successfully established his enormous wealth, he went to great lengths to keep his money and indeed, to expand it.  On becoming engaged to the (apparently) wealthy, Creole woman, Pauline Le Breton, Beaumarchais used his resources in order to ascertain the magnitude of her riches, which were not as grand as he had initially believed – leading him to promptly break off the engagement (Frischauer).  As both Molière and Beaumarchais were well known as somewhat public figures, their personal relationships and controversies did not escape the notice of their audiences (Frischauer).  For example, Molière’s presence on stage as an actor in his own productions, would have added an interesting metatheatrical element for his audience, they undoubtedly speculated on whether he, the actor, was much like the characters he had written and was portraying, especially as he was often joined onstage by his real-life wife, Armande, who would also play his fictional wife (Prest).  Although unknown to this day, it was thought Armande was the daughter, or perhaps sister, of Madeleine Béjart, who acted in and managed Molière’s Illustre Théâtre and who was also Molière’s mistress (Mongrédien) for a time; a fact which would not have escaped audience’s knowledge, nor their imaginations.  But even Molière’s personal controversies could not compete with that of his play Don Juan. The Jesuit-educated Molière (Prest), no doubt understood the implications of writing this controversial piece, but produced it nevertheless.  The role of Sganarelle was performed by Molière himself, who was heavily criticised by many contemporaries for the passive role and its grotesquely comic perspective on Don Juan’s eventual demise at the end of the play (Whitton).  Don Juan was widely viewed as the most despicable of characters, not least for his lack of religion and mockery of marriage.  In the French language, “to marry” comes from the same root word as “to promise”, thus the promise of marriage, in Don Juan, becomes in itself the promise of truth and constancy and the same can be said in reverse (Felman); Don Juan’s habit of systematically perverting the institution of marriage and breaking his promise outside of that institution, become one and the same, a signifier of sin and corruption of character.  However, it has also been suggested that Don Juan’s honesty throughout the play, regarding his duplicitous nature toward women and the reasons behind it, removes much of the hypocrisy he is accused of, excepting the play’s dénouement, where his behaviour is out-of-character and most probably only written to indulge easily scandalised audiences (Nelson).

Beaumarchais in the 18th century

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

(Photo was taken from Wikipedia)

Beaumarchais launches into lengthy description of how his characters should be costumed at the beginning of The Marriage of Figaro, which actors they should be portrayed by and how, even to the point of providing acting tips (Beaumarchais).  Molière’s Don Juan does include such detailed direction (Molière), however, because Molière acted in and managed his own troupe, this was not entirely necessary.  Where Beaumarchais often had to rely on others to collaborate with him in producing his plays, for example managers, designers and actors for the Comédie Française; this same company, which was known as “the house of Molière” in his day, would have afforded Molière much more direct control of the staging, acting and costuming (Carlson, Haunted Stage), negating the need to include such detailed direction in the texts themselves.  This namesake is very much deserved, taking into account that of all the plays produced by the Comédie, over twenty thousand shows, were Molière’s work, all together more than the works of Racine, Regnard, Corneille and Voltaire, combined (French Stage, 228-229).  Additionally, of the approximately 100 plays he produced whilst in Paris, Molière wrote over 30 of these works, to greatest commercial success (Mongrédien).  Molière also would have taken into account his own company of actors when writing specific roles within his plays (Carlson, Haunted Stage).  One interesting example of this is Molière’s sometime inclusion of a limp, which he wrote into several parts for Louis Béjart, one of the members of his original troupe, who in reality, had a limp from a sword wound (Prest).  Molière was also known to favour naturalistic acting in his productions, encouraging his troupe to embody their characters truthfully; he would spend much time with his individual actors, analysing their parts so as to render a faithful portrayal of the characters he had created (Mongrédien).  Thus, in contrast to Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, Molière’s Don Juan text introduction includes only brief, one-line, character descriptions and short scene-headings, listing those persons present during the scene (Molière).  Beaumarchais even goes so far as to assume prior knowledge of certain characters in The Marriage of Figaro, who had already appeared in his Barber of Seville, providing little description of them except, that they appeared in the first play in the trilogy (Beaumarchais). Both Molière and Beaumarchais provide a similar level of blocking direction within the texts of Don Juan and The Marriage of Figaro; Don Juan’s duplicity is especially highlighted by this in his aside-driven conversation with Charlotte and Mathurine in scene four (Molière).  As for staging, Coward states in his introduction to Don Juan that the character’ demise at the end of the play was shown rather spectacularly, with special effects utilised to show his descent into hell.  Although popular with the commedia dell’arte, masks would have still sometime been used in Molière’s productions, although hardly ever, being an out-dated practice; utilisation of falsetto voice for comic effect would still have been employed by the troupe, specifically in cross-casting roles, a practice that in itself was in decline (Prest).  These practices would have all but entirely gone out of vogue by the time Beaumarchais was developing his plays.  Beaumarchais utilised other interesting methods of ‘dressing’ his stage; he often integrated copies of prominent paintings in the staging of his plays, which became a more common practice thereafter (Haunted Stage).  This practice undoubtedly added another layer of metatheatrical meaning for Beaumarchais’ contemporary audience, as the works of art were often patriotic and reflected the growing sense of nationalism in France (Haunted Stage).

The similarities between both Molière’s Don Juan and Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro encompass content, influence of comedic traditions such as Greek and Roman New Comedy and the commedia dell’arte, the scenic requirements of staging the exotic locations within the plays and the differing levels of involvement in areas of production by the playwrights themselves.  It is apparent why these two, controversial, French writers, living almost a century apart, still garner so much comparison. Although by no means the same, both men influenced their country and captured the imaginations of the world.

Works Cited

 Beaumarchais. Le Mariage de Figaro. Ed. Ernest F. Langley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1917. Print.

Beaumarchais. The Figaro Trilogy. Trans. David Coward. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Carlson, Marvin. The French Stage in the Nineteenth Century. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1972. Print.

Carlson, Marvin. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.

Clarke, Jan. “The Material Conditions of Molière’s Stage.” The Cambridge Companion to Molière. Eds. David Bradby and Andrew Calder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 15-36 Print.

Felman, Shoshana. The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. Print.

Frischauer, Paul. Beaumarchais: Adventurer in the Century of Women. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1970. Print.

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Written by Anya Tretyakova

Sometime thespian, wannabe film director. Lover of literature for life.