The Bourgeois Nobleman by Molière

Molière and Jean-Baptiste Lully

Molière (1622-1673)

Molière (1622-1673)France’s greatest dramatist was, during his life, a celebrated actor-manager. His real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the son of respectable Parisian upholsterers.

In 1643, with Madeleine Béjart, he founded the Illustre Théâtre, which later became the Comédie Française - to this day France’s national theatre company - eventually securing the patronage of King Louis XIV.

Louis commissioned Molière’s company to put on plays for himself and his courtiers at the newly built Palace of Versailles, and also allowed them to use the former royal palace in Paris as a theatre. The king paid for Court productions at Versailles, and the company could then take them on to the Palais Royal to play to the Parisians, this popular audience providing useful additional income.

Under the King’s protection, Molière satirised powerful establishment groups with impunity, including the clergy. He ridiculed their bigotry and imposture, until even Louis had difficulty defending him against the wrath of the Catholic Church.

Molière’s company shared the Palais Royal with the popular Italian Theatre company under Scaramouche. Commedia dell’arte was at that time at the height of its popularity in France, and Molière borrowed their stock characters and visual slapstick as much as he plundered Plautus and Aristophanes for many of his comic plots.

Towards the end of his career, he was appointed Court Dramatist, in recognition of Louis’s affection and admiration for him. The king had also conceived a passion for dance and music, and he appointed Molière’s friend, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, as Court Composer. ‘Les deux Jean-Baptistes’, as they became known, collaborated on many entertainments for the King, Molière inventing an entirely new genre for him - the comedie-ballet - of which Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme remains the greatest example.

A performance of one of Molière's plays at Versailles. Engraving by Le Pautre.So the musical comedy was born. As well as conducting the orchestra, Lully himself played The Mufti in their production at Versailles, much to the amusement of The Sun King.

Although honoured and loved by both King and people, when he died at age 51 - having performed onstage to the end, despite a long and debilitating illness - Molière was denied a Christian burial in consecrated ground. Because he had not renounced his profession of actor, the law forbade it. Although Louis tried to intercede for his friend, the Catholic Church was implacable and finally inflicted its revenge on the great man. To this day his grave has never been found.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1639-1687)

Born, in Florence, Giovanni Battista Lulli, he moved to France and became naturalised in 1661.He was made Court Composer to Louis XIV in 1653, and was director of the Paris Opera for the last 15 years of his life. He was the founder of French opera, forsaking the Italian method of separate recitative and aria for a dramatic consolidation of the two.

While conducting with a rather long baton one day, he injured his foot so badly that a cancerous growth appeared, killing him within three months.

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