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MOLIERE AND SATIRE PETER H, NURSE I One of the commonplaces of historians of literature has been the view that the work of Moliere constitutes the outstanding example of French dramatic satire; and, for many people, this view would immediately be justified by memories of the most frequently performed of all Moliere's plays: T artuffe, commonly presented as a stinging attack upon religious hypocrisy. If further justification for so widely accepted a classification were necessary, there is Moliere's preface to the play, in which he eloquently re-affirms as his own the Horatian notion of the function of comedy: "to correct morals with laughter." Academic criticism has steadily reH ected and confirmed this point of view by the attention it has given to the question of the moral philosophy that underlies the satire in the plays, and there exist numerous authoritative studies defining Moliere's place in a given current of philosophical ideas.' Today, however, the Moliere specialist can no longer take for granted the thesis that his author's work is essentially satire, with a basically polemical purpose, rooted in a coherent system of moral values. Equally authoritative voices have been raised in the last few decades, challenging the traditional verdict: they emphasize the purely theatrical nature of Moliere's comic world and see entertainment as its only raison d'~tre. Such was the attitude of the literary critic, Albert Thibaudet, who protested against any attempt to equate the world of the theatre with the pragmatic problems of everyday reality, and who claimed that to judge Moliere's comedy as satire was to confuse life and art? Support for this opinion came from the theatre itself, in the person of the actor Louis Jouvet,' and more recently an even more categorical denial of the validity of the debates on the playwright's morale was made by the late Rene Bray: for him, when we enter the theatre as spectators of a Moliere comedy, we have entered an autonomous world of the imagination; we have left our problems behind us, and, therefore, in this world of illusion, "Je comique ne peut comporter ni moralite, ni immoralite."· Volume XXXVI, Number 2, Jan'tUlT)', 1967 114 PETER H. NURSE In actual fact, however, this view of things was not really new at all: what was new was its systematic application to Moliere. Perhaps the most striking formulation of it was penned by Charles Lamb in his essay on Restoration comedy: I could never connect those sports of a witty fancy in any shape with any result to be drawn from them to imitation in real life. They are a world of themselves, almost as much as fairy-land ... The Fainalls and the Mirabells, the Dorimants and the Lady Touchwoods, in their own sphere, do not offend my moral sense . . . They break through no laws, or conscientious restraints. They know of none. They have got out of Christendom into the land- what shall I call it?-of cuckoldry- the Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom. It is altogether a speculative scene of things, which has no reference whatever to the world that is ... I am glad for a season to take an airing beyond the diocese of the strict conscience-not to live always in the precincts of the law-courts- but now and then, for a dreamwhile or so, to imagine a world with no meddling restrictions .. . I wear my shackles more contentedly for having respired the breath of imaginary freedom.' In other words, seated in the darkness of the theatre, comfortably anonymous among the crowd of spectators around us, we can happily forget our normal inhibitions-all those irksome moral restraints that life so cruelly fastens upon us in the outside world-and indulge our secret fantasies, readily identifying ourselves with the trickster who cuckolds the possessive husband. One of Lamb's main points is that Restoration comedy can be seen in proper perspective only if it is taken as being essentially farce rather than satire. This, together with the reference to the land of "cuckoldry," provides the direct connection with the issues involved in evaluating Moliere's comedy. If the didactic side...


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