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Molière played a significant role in the birth of Arab theatre and has continued to influence it right down to the present day. Every pioneer, from the Machrek to the Maghreb and not forgetting the Gulf, has been inspired by the Molière repertoire, and experts have often queried the reasons for his success. Presenting works by authors from all over the Arab world, this chapter defines Molière’s role in the development of a national Arab theatre, considering some of the adjustments and adaptations that proved necessary.
Molière is generally viewed as a comic author who mocks all aspects of society – aristocratic, bourgeois and peasant. However, he was himself part of this tripartite society and adopted points of view that, when we examine them, we see to be those of his caste – one of the people who dined at the King’s table. He was, in fact, at the intersection of two worlds, the court and the town (Paris), and in his works we meet individuals from different milieus, in the plays themselves but also making up the audiences that came to see them. He makes his characters ridiculous through exaggeration, thereby rendering less credible whatever they represent. When presenting different comic situations, Molière never comes down on one side or another. Instead, he offers suggestions, and leaves their appreciation up to the members of the public. They, according to their status or the circumstances in which they see the plays, receive them in one way or another, but always refuse to recognise themselves in any particular character. The focus of this article is, therefore, to determine whether Molière, whose criticism was so acerbic, really was this transgressive and subversive bourgeois author.
This chapter considers the supposedly ‘democratic’ way in which seventeenth-century theatre companies managed their affairs. Each troupe consisted of a number of share-holding actor members, and decisions relating to all aspects of the company’s activity were taken at meetings convened for particular purposes, whether general administration, play selection or to settle the end of year accounts. Women generally played an equal administrative role alongside men, and this is recognised as one of the few areas where such gender equality was the norm. Following Molière’s death, theatre companies came under the control of the First Gentlemen of the King’s Bedchamber, and (male) officers were appointed from among the actors to ensure liaison with them. The acting troupe was supported by a team of front-of-house and backstage staff, who were paid per performance, and where women were also well represented, particularly in the box office and other ‘front facing’ roles. Many of these women were former actresses, and this was one career that was open to them when they had to leave the stage. The company was also careful to look after its own, awarding pensions to former actors and employees and supporting other individuals by means of charitable donations.
Thanks to the account books and the archives, it is possible to reconstitute the majority of Molière’s stage designs subsequent to his return to the capital in 1658. During the whole of this second Parisian period, his troupe shared a stage with the Italian actors. Molière gave numerous plays set in a street scene, inspired by the Italian comic decor, such as L’École des femmes or Les Fourberies de Scapin, where the doors, windows and balconies were integral to the action. Molière alternated this type of staging with interior decors – lower rooms – depicting rich bourgeois apartments, as in Tartuffe or L’Avare. If all these plays were given in a single decor, others benefitted from a more sophisticated staging, notably when it was a question of performing in town a work that had been created at court, such as La Princesse d’Élide or Psyché, which required scene changes and special effects. But Molière, who was an excellent scenographer, undertook to create some plays in town that also required multiple decors, such as Le Festin de pierre, which even included a visible scene change, or Le Malade imaginaire, where the decors changed in the breaks between the acts.
Livrets were distributed to the spectators of all of Molière’s plays created at court and involving music, from Le Mariage forcé (1664) to La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas (1671). They explained the action, described the decors, costumes and dances, and gave the names of those dancing. This chapter explore three ways of reading these livrets. First, they are precious traces of the conditions in which the plays were created within court entertainments. Second, they constitute a specific branch of theatre publishing with its own aesthetics – involving a combination of different art forms and an accumulation of different pleasures – and its own audience, which is designated as an elite. Finally, because they contribute to the representation of monarchical power, they are a way of demonstrating a close relationship with this power and of recording it in the long-lived form of print. All this makes them an ideal site in which to observe the ways in which theatrical practices were institutionalised in the second half of the seventeenth century, and the central role Molière and his troupe played in this process.