The last decade in the life
of Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673) was full
of tragedy and scandal, but produced some of the best theatre
the world has ever known.
On January 23, 1662, Molière
married Armande Béjart, “age 20 or there about,” who was
widely believed to be his daughter by Madeleine Béjart, his
life-long collaborator and founder of the “Illustrious
Theatre,” which Molière was named head of in 1644. Legal
papers and members of the troupe diplomatically referred to
Armande and Madeleine as sisters or cousins.
On January 19, 1664,
Armande gave birth to their son, Louis, who was named after
Louis XIV. The king agreed to serve as the child’s
godfather. Eleven months later, the baby died.
In 1665, Molière became
embattled with Racine over a production by his troupe of
Racine’s Alexandre and the rift was never mended. By
1666, Molière was seriously ill with tuberculosis. Not
surprisingly, The Misanthrope and The Doctor In
Spite of Himself premiered in June and August of that
Over the next three years,
he was embroiled in controversy surrounding Tartuffe (a
satire on religious hyprocrisy), which had one performance in
August of 1667 and was then banned, rewritten, revived, banned
again, rewritten and finally officially opened in February,
1669 to great success. Three weeks later his father died.
During this period many of Molière’s patrons and defenders
also died, many at the hands of the doctors engaged to ease
their suffering or prevent their deaths.
In 1670, a skit entitled
Élomire the Hypochondriac was published and performed,
authored by Le Boulanger de Chalussay, a rival, who was
well-informed, but venomous. Élomire was an anagram for
Molière and the skit viciously skewered Molière’s personal
life, what was then perceived to be his fictive illness and
the suspicions surrounding his marriage.
The deaths continued. In
February, 1672, Madeleine Béjart died. Yet Molière finished
The Learned Women, which he had been working on for
three or four years. It debuted in March, again followed by
an uproar. Women were shown onstage reading books and
discussing scientific theories (however foolishly) and the men
came off even worse. The young heroines in the piece were
deciding for themselves what kind of life they wanted rather
than letting their father choose. In September, Armande
gave birth to another son, Pierre-Jean-Baptiste-Armand. He
died a month later.
Lully (or Lulli), who had
composed for several of Molière’s early plays, had, by 1673,
become the king’s secretary of music. He obtained an edict
which gave him a monopoly on all music for the theatre.
Molière ignored the edict and continued using his current
Molière wanted to produce a
satire on the universities and professors. A friend, Boileau,
published a “burlesque” against the theologians and scholars
in 1671. Molière decided to attack the medical profession,
which he judged perhaps the most retrograde. There was also
the burgeoning debate among scientifics, the “Ancients” and
the “Moderns,” which had been festering for decades since the
discovery of the body’s circulatory system by the English
physician William Harvey in 1619 and further fueled by
Harvey’s report of embryo development in 1651.
On February 17, 1673,
during the last interlude of the fourth performance of The
Imaginary Invalid, Molière began coughing blood. He
finished the performance and was taken home, where he refused
a doctor or a priest. He died later that night. Four days
later, his coffin was covered with rugs (his father had been
the king’s carpet-maker) and clandestinely taken to St.
Joseph’s (now St. Eustache) cemetery, the church deeming
actors unfit for proper Christian burial.
Armande refused to have the
The Imaginary Invalid published, although plagiarized
performances written from memory appeared in Paris, Amsterdam
The following month, Lully
was relieved of his duties and given a theatre and money by
the king to start a music school.
In 1677, Armande married
Guérin d’Estriché, an actor in the company.
In 1680, all the theatrical
troupes under the king’s aegis were merged into the
Comédie-Française. To this day, the chair Molière took ill in
is encased in glass in the lobby. Molière’s complete works
were published in 1682. His remains were moved in 1817 to a
small wall overlooking a foot path in Père Lachaise cemetery.
On August 3, 1665, Armande
and Molière had a daughter, Esprit- (spirit) Magdeleine. Baby
girls were not given the same medical attention as boys. She
lived until 1723.