Burying Molière

How the French Revolution reappropriated the favored playwright of Louis XIV.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2010, Volume 31, Number 3

Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of Albert Camus’s death, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the Nobel Laureate’s body be exhumed, brought to Paris, and placed in the Panthéon. This temple on the Left Bank, located near the Sorbonne, serves as the resting place for many of France’s greatest writers and thinkers. Sarkozy’s plan was ridiculed by some as a transparent pander in anticipation of the upcoming elections. His defenders countered that the fiftieth anniversary of Camus’s death was simply the appropriate time to bring the novelist’s remains to their rightful place of honor. To anyone acquainted with the story of the burial of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière in 1673, and his exhumation during the French Revolution, the squabble over Camus must have seemed a perfect example of the Gallic dictum, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Two empires and five republics separate Sarkozy from those who acted on behalf of Molière during the revolution, but French attachment to the country’s writers of stature has always run deep. It profoundly affects the policies of those who govern, perhaps as much now as it did during the revolution, which secularized the church that became the Panthéon. And among French writers Molière may even be the most French. The playwright’s name is routinely invoked as emblematic of the language in the same way English is called the language of Shakespeare and Spanish the language of Cervantes.

Which makes the curious, circuitous burial, exhumation, long-term above-ground storage, and reburial of Molière’s remains even more intriguing. As recounted in Molière, the French Revolution and the Theatrical Afterlife by Mechele Leon, the story begins one hundred and thirty years after the playwright’s death. The revolutionaries wanted corporeal proof of the abolition of the monarchy and the social order that came to be known as the Ancien Régime. They did this by prominently displaying wax effigies of the victims of the guillotine. They also required prominent display of the relics of their newly appointed heroes.

Throughout the revolution, then, Molière was center stage: His coffin was moved about Paris until revolutionaries and ordinary citizens settled on a more fitting site for his final resting place. Meanwhile, his plays were performed with greater liberty than ever, following the new theater laws of 1791. The two phenomena are inextricable and together help explain the new regime’s interpretation of the old.

During his final performance in The Imaginary Invalid and while playing the role of a husband faking his own death, Molière was suffering greatly from a pulmonary affliction. After the performance, he died, though before he could receive last rites and before, as the Church required of actors, he could renounce his profession. Molière’s wife, Armande, petitioned Louis XIV for a church burial, but the king deferred to the archbishop of Paris, who restricted funerary rites.

In the 1790s, the revolutionaries in Paris saw in this an opportunity to reclaim Molière as their own. Molière’s long-dead remains were thus trotted out as a vivid example of the old regime’s capricious and arbitrary manner toward anyone not of royal lineage. The injustice had seemed perfectly scripted: there’s the humbly born son of an upholsterer, he rises in the world by becoming a master of the French language, and because of his talent even performs at court, but in social standing is greatly inferior to the nobles he entertained, and so his memory is profaned by the ruthless prejudices of the old system.

Reality, however, parted ways from this story in one or two details. The church had, with some prodding from Louis XIV, consented to a grave for the playwright’s body in consecrated ground. Rumors concerning the church’s begrudging burial of Molière turned into a legend that became widespread in the eighteenth century. The story went that the playwright had actually been interred at the last minute in a section of a chapel cemetery reserved for the stillborn and the excommunicated. In 1793, members of the revolution mistook this false report as absolute truth and thus proof of unconscionably shabby treatment for such an accomplished figure.

Nevertheless, Molière’s coffin was recovered from the chapel cemetery and placed under guard in a church basement. Then, for another few years, and again under guard, it rested in municipal offices. Finally, the organizer of the Museum of French Monuments, Alexandre Lenoir, received permission to erect a sarcophagus to hold the remains of Molière on the grounds of his museum, where they remained until 1817. Molière’s sarcophagus was ornate, made allusions to other great writers, and secured a highly visible place for one of the revolution’s literary heroes. The remains had moved, then, from the ignominy of a nondescript grave in a chapel cemetery to, eventually, a sumptuous garden site in Lenoir’s “Elysium,” modeled after the Elysian Fields as described in the literature of antiquity, a resting place of the heroic and virtuous.

During this same time, Molière’s theatrical work had been getting some makeovers. How theaters came to grips with the production of Molière’s plays during the revolutionary years in general and during the Terror in particular is the most revealing aspect of how the new rulers changed, or attempted to change, perceptions of the past. “Molière was,” writes Leon, “an artifact of the past to be salvaged for the new France.”

The author of thirty-two plays, Molière has been interpreted, depending on prevailing winds, as both defending, or at least supporting, l’Ancien Régime, as well as criticizing it. In 1658, Louis XIV granted Molière’s acting company permission to take up residence in the Petit-Bourbon palace after the company had been touring the provinces for thirteen years, for which Molière, in the preface to one of his plays, expressed gratitude. This is one example of how Molière was, in fact, beholden to the Sun King. Louis XIV also supported him during his struggle to have Tartuffe performed in spite of harsh criticism from some powerful members of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, who deemed Molière and the play irreligious.

During the revolution, Molière’s reputation suffered tarnish after some of his plays, ones that clearly betrayed his old regime sensibilities, were perfomed. One character, though, the commedia dell’arte figure Scapin, was above, or perhaps beneath, all rebuke by either regime, so timeless is he in his self-serving deceit. The farce Les Fourberies de Scapin was one of the most frequently performed plays during the revolution. There were literary critics, moreover, from the new regime who praised what they saw in Molière’s work as sly, prescient criticism of the old regime’s rampant social and political injustices.

The theater of the revolution was poised to reclaim Molière, but not as one might expect. The corpus of his comedies required, as did the dust of his bones, some further accommodation.

In 1791, new theater laws liberated the classical repertory from royal control. Many new theaters opened, the Comédie-Française no longer held exclusive rights to the performance of Molière’s plays, and the boulevard and vaudeville theaters were free to perform any play they wished.

According to Leon, revolutionary audiences showed a surprising preference for the lesser works of Molière, including the purely farcical. Theaters during the revolution, thus, upset the apple cart not only by performing Molière’s plays outside the neoclassical purview of the Comédie-Française, but they also undermined the old regime discrimination between high and low Molière. The boulevard theaters sometimes went even further and gave a farce by another playwright top billing above a high comedy by Molière.

And the tinkering continued. When the theaters of the revolution performed one of Molière’s greater works, adjustments were made to rid the play of any overtly royal sensibilities. Productions of Tartuffe from around 1793 to 1798 demonstrate just how determined the revolutionaries were in maintaining the balancing act of redefinition, as opposed to a wholesale erasure, of the old regime.

The five-act comedy, sometimes called The Impostor, is named after its villain, Tartuffe, and it appealed very differently to seventeeth-century and revolution-era audiences, due almost entirely to the denouement. Tartuffe is a house guest in the Paris home of Orgon. The gullible host is the only one in the household who doesn’t see through Tartuffe’s religious hypocrisy. As if attempting to seduce Orgon’s wife weren’t enough, Tartuffe finagles his way into Orgon’s trust to such an extent that he becomes betrothed to his daughter and replaces his son as his benefactor. In the last act, Tartuffe is exposed but by now has the legal documents in hand to both possess Orgon’s house and have him arrested. An officer arrives to arrest Orgon, but, in a reversal, the impostor himself is arrested through a last-minute intervention by the king.

Critics have long found fault with this resolution to the play, coming as it does from the outside and not justified by the facts developed by the action, a classic example of deus ex machina or, as Leon calls it, reus ex machina. The king, whose “keen discernment that his greatness brings / Gives him a piercing insight into things,” steps in to foil the impostor and hypocrite even though he, Tartuffe, has Orgon dead to rights. If old regime audiences found the intervention by the king artificial and a bit forced, we can surmise that they generally found the idea of a supreme and wise monarch reassuring.

But in 1793, the revolution’s Committee for Public Safety was ransacking the culture for any lingering insults from the old regime. Praise for one prince, Louis XIV, at just about the same time another one, Louis XVI, now known as Citizen Capet, was to be guillotined was a major faux pas.

Tartuffe was among a number of Molière’s plays that another governing body under the Terror, the Committee of Public Instruction, had approved for performance but only if revised. There are no extant copies of the scripts rewritten by theaters and approved by the committee, but through reviews and letters from the time Leon was able to follow the many ways the play was altered between 1793 and 1798 to better suit the remembrance of things past.

Revisions of Tartuffe performed in Paris showed a different final act, one that emphasized not the wisdom of kings but the rule of law. Tartuffe still gets his due and is hauled off to prison by an officer who tells him, “Your loathsome schemes are uncovered, and the age has passed when a vile slanderer rules the lives of true patriots. Follow me!”

Tartuffe had become,” Leon writes, “a palimpsest that recorded revolutionary attempts to vitiate monarchical authority.”

The revisionists of Tartuffe weren’t alone in trying to touch up the image of the playwright. Vaudeville shows about Molière appearing about 1795 and after snubbed the historical record as depicted by Jean-Léonor de Grimarest in his 1705 biography of the playwright. These plays generally freed Molière from court and city and tried to make the case that the sources for many of his characters were the “common folk” he had met throughout his life, perhaps while touring with his company in the provinces.

Managing memories of the old regime may not have started or ended with Molière but certainly centered on him. “The exhumation and subsequent events surrounding the treatment of Molière’s corpse,” writes Leon, “are a striking example of an attempt to construct history for the New Regime through the recuperation, destruction, or displacement of the material from the Old Regime.” The same is true of Molière’s plays. The constraints imposed by royal control had affected not only the theatrical settings in which they were performed but also how they were performed and by whom. Starting in the 1790s, actors with training from the provinces were allowed to perform plays not only by Molière but by Racine and Corneille as well, which undermined the strong cultural hold the Comédie-Française had enjoyed, through royal support, for so long.

Molière, the shape-shifter extraordinaire of the seventeenth century had become by the late eighteenth century an icon of tremendous political value, as has Camus in our own day. Politicians will always need writers more than writers need politicians, which may go a long way in explaining the motives of both members of revolutions and presidents of republics. And as for the whereabouts of the “august debris” of the illustrious playwright? Lodged quite nicely, thank you, in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery. At least for the time being.