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Molière, the French Revolution, and the Theatrical Afterlife

Mechele Leon

Publication Year: 2009

From 1680 until the French Revolution, when legislation abolished restrictions on theatrical enterprise, a single theatre held sole proprietorship of Molière’s works. After 1791, his plays were performed in new theatres all over Paris by new actors, before audiences new to his works. Both his plays and his image took on new dimensions. In Molière, the French Revolution, and the Theatrical Afterlife, Mechele Leon convincingly demonstrates how revolutionaries challenged the ties that bound this preeminent seventeenth-century comic playwright to the Old Regime and provided him with a place of honor in the nation’s new cultural memory.

Leon begins by analyzing the performance of Molière’s plays during the Revolution, showing how his privileged position as royal servant was disrupted by the practical conditions of the revolutionary theatre. Next she explores Molière’s relationship to Louis XIV, Tartuffe, and the social function of his comedy, using Rousseau’s famous critique of Molière as well as appropriations of George Dandin in revolutionary iconography to discuss how Moliérean laughter was retooled to serve republican interests. After examining the profusion of plays dealing with his life in the latter years of the Revolution, she looks at the exhumation of his remains and their reentombment as the tangible manifestation of his passage from Ancien Régime favorite to new national icon.

The great Molière is appreciated by theatre artists and audiences worldwide, but for the French people it is no exaggeration to say that the Father of French Comedy is part of their national soul. By showing how he was represented, reborn, and reburied in the new France—how the revolutionaries asserted his relevance for their tumultuous time in ways that were audacious, irreverent, imaginative, and extreme—Leon clarifies the important role of theatrical figures in preserving and portraying a nation’s history.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Series: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

This book is the result of work spanning two states, several universities, and two countries. I am pleased to acknowledge the advisors, colleagues, institutions, organizations, family, and friends who have supported my efforts along the way....

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Prologue: The Theatrical Afterlife

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pp. 1-13

A legend appeared in the nineteenth century concerning Molière’s manuscripts, which have not come down to us. The story goes something like this: a man from the provinces shows up in Paris carting a load of papers that he found in his attic.1 Suspecting that they are manuscripts and other personal papers belonging to Molière, he tries to donate them to the...

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1. Repertory: The Popularity of Moli

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pp. 14-33

In the history of theatre there are few examples of upheaval in a nation’s theatrical culture as sudden and pronounced as that which occurred in revolutionary France.1 The coup de théâtre for the Paris stage came in the form of government legislation abolishing long-standing royal supervision...

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2. Performance: The "High/Low" Moli

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pp. 34-48

The “Molière” of the revolutionary repertory was the Molière of the petites pièces: one- and three-act plays traditionally associated with farce and commedia dell’arte and differentiated from his grandes pièces (five-act verse comedies).1 Parsing his oeuvre in this dualistic way was a convenient...

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3. History: Rewriting the Story of Moli

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pp. 49-73


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4. Function: Retooling Moli

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pp. 74-99

Revising Tartuffe and its resonating biographical associations with Louis XIV worked to dislodge the memory of Moli

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5. Life: Depicting Moli

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pp. 100-122

In November 1789 the Com

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6. Death: Remembering Moli

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pp. 123-138

A good ghost story begins with a mystery. The mystery here concerns how, in July 1792, citizens of Paris unearthed a casket containing what they believed were Molière’s mortal remains. They placed it for safekeeping in the basement of the chapel adjoining the cemetery where, on a February night in 1673, Molière had been buried with the reluctant permission...

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Epilogue: The Future of an Afterlife

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pp. 139-143

The story of Molière’s exhumation did not end at the Musée des monuments français. I am referring not to the transfer of his remains to the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1817 but to an unresolved element of the exhumation. This study began with a legend. It is fitting that it should end...


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pp. 145-164

Works Cited

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pp. 165-178


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pp. 179-184

E-ISBN-13: 9781587298912
E-ISBN-10: 1587298910
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587298219
Print-ISBN-10: 158729821X

Page Count: 196
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: cloth
Series Title: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture