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Reviewed by:
  • Molière par Georges Forestier
  • Michael Hawcroft
Molière. Par Georges Forestier. (Biographies nrf.) Paris: Gallimard, 2018. 541 pp., ill.

Roger Duchêne’s formidably scholarly biography of Molière is not that old (Paris: Fayard, 1998). Given that we still have no autograph manuscripts by Molière, do we really need a new biography? Well, yes. Georges Forestier makes the case that many myths about Molière still persist and need to be scotched: that he had a father who was unsympathetic to his career; that he was a pupil of Pierre Gassendi; that he was unhappy in his marriage to the much younger and unfaithful Armande Béjart; that he had no talents as a tragic actor; that he was tantalizingly mysterious about his choice of a pseudonym. All these and many more myths are patiently dismantled in Forestier’s book. Many of them have as their source Molière’s first, and perennially influential biographer, Jean-Léonor Le Gallois, sieur de Grimarest (La Vie de M. de Molière (Paris: no pub., 1705)). Forestier distinguishes himself from Duchêne by claiming that Duchêne’s biography is built upon a critical [End Page 627] dialogue with Grimarest, and that whilst Duchêne is attentive to Grimarest’s errors, he nonetheless leaves Grimarest with too much of a voice. Forestier, on the other hand, pretty much silences Grimarest. Even though we have no Molière manuscripts, we have a good deal of evidence about the material circumstances of his life through all manner of legal records, carefully assembled by nineteenth- and twentieth-century researchers. Forestier’s approach is to read all these documents afresh in the light of recent historical and literary research. As a result, his biography teems with insights. For instance, the choice of the pseudonym ‘Molière’, with its rustic resonances (meulière), is contextualized with reference to all those other male actors of the time who assumed rustic-sounding pseudonyms. An explanation of the duties of the eight tapissiers du roi sheds light on Molière’s decision in 1660 (after his brother’s death) to take up again a position which he had abandoned to his brother years before: it gave him (as an actor) unprecedented access to the king and potentially helpful courtiers. But, in the absence of manuscript evidence, what new can be said about Molière the playwright? This is where Forestier really comes into his own. Whereas Duchêne had studiously summarized both the plays and all that is known about their creation on stage and their original reception, Forestier deploys his known skill as a genetic critic of seventeenth-century drama to suggest highly convincing hypotheses as to how, at a given moment, Molière chose to work with particular source material, to weave together particular elements of plot, to privilege certain character types, certain themes, certain kinds of performance. In all these choices, Molière was driven by the desire to please and to succeed, to give his publics what he sensed with ever greater sureness they would flock to see. This made him very much a writer and performer who was tapping into the fashionable, galant, libertin tastes of Louis XIV’s young court. This vision of Molière is the one to be found in much recent Molière scholarship, not least in the exceptional Œuvres complètes edited by Forestier himself along with Claude Bourqui and others (2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 2010)). But it is wonderful to have all these aspects of Molière’s life and work distilled into this one highly readable, scholarly, and inexpensive volume (€24), which will not be surpassed for many years to come.

Michael Hawcroft
Keble College, Oxford


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