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Moliere: A Theatrical Life.

Moliere: A Theatrical Life. By VIRGINIA SCOTT. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2000. 333 pp. 35 [pounds sterling].

All lives of Moliere are to a greater or lesser extent histories of his plays, their enormous success, the controversy surrounding some, and the features common to most. They offer secondary criticism of his theatre by another route. Following the publication of Grimarest's much-criticized Vie de M. de Moliere in the early eighteenth century, a succession of biographers down to the on-line Moliere 'fanzine' editors of today have superimposed one on another their accounts of the incontrovertible facts of the curriculum vitae of this son of a tapissier du roi who was to become the most complete man of the theatre in seventeenth-century France. In addition to useful insights into the circumstances of production and performance of his work, the majority of Moliere's biographers offer a wealth of apparently unnecessary, but often irresistible, information about the milieu and make-up of this master of disguise, who left so little in the way of personal data. In this new biographical study for the twenty-first century, the first full-length life to be published in English for seventy years--replacing J. J. Palmer's Moliere (1930), last reprinted in 1970--Virginia-Scott, who also has an eye for detail, candidly explains that she subscribes to the 'consistent fiction' school of biography. This dynamic American professor, known for her work on the Commedia dell'arte players in Paris, who mixes archival work with directing University drama productions, and 'a strange passion to share the subject's geography', has here achieved a ten-year ambition. She allows the French comic dramatist who 'struck out against hypocrisy in religion and medicine', and was also a 'cynical survivor of literacy, cultural and marital wars', once more to rub shoulders on the Paris stage more in his own right with her first love, the Italians, from whom he learnt so much of his art. She takes almost as much interest in Moliere-mythology, which is the starting point for many of the episodes in the book, as in establishing the facts of the case. Her elegantly written 'Theatrical Life' is theatrical in the sense that it is more concerned than a number of other biographies with the plays. It is a theatrical life, too, because it gives space to so many of the most colourful and dramatic stories of what Moliere did or may have done, in those rare moments when he was off stage and off duty. Scott has sought out afresh a host of literary anecdotes about him and followed up traces of his highly formative period of provincial exile in the South of France, where he lingered longer than elsewhere. Scott's research has taken her north of Montpellier and Pezenas to the Comtat Venaissin near Avignon where, having failed to find any trace of Madeleine Bejart's mill, she managed to locate the ruins of the castle of the comte de Modene, the first lover of Moliere's mistress. This character, she feels, drawing her inspiration in part from old stones, is a much more likely candidate for the role of father to Armande Bejart, who became Moliere's 18-year-old bride in 1662 when the comic playwright was already 40, than Moliere himself. Scott's visit to Modene's castle, though it cannot now yield fresh facts of relevance to the case, confirms her in the belief, shared by almost everyone including Palmer, that Moliere was innocent of the rumours of incest spread by his enemies. She is quick, too, to dismiss suggestions of a homosexual relationship with the young actor Baron, who joined his troupe late in his career. An envoi, after the final curtain has fallen in the last act of this biography, leaves us to pick over the bones of this most eager of dramatists royal, much like the good revolutionary citizens of Paris who removed what were thought to be his remains from the cemetery at Saint-Joseph. We can marvel in a macabre way, if we so wish, at those nineteenth-century French amateurs who revered the relics of the legendary playwright, member of the excommunicated profession of actors, or who wore a 'Moliere tooth' on their ring finger as a good-luck charm. Scott is particularly successful, however, in her attempt to recreate the characters of Moliere's world: his enemies, friends, and family. She leaves us to reflect on the fate of his only daughter, Esprit-Madeleine, who left no survivors or account of her own father's life and work, and led a relatively uneventful life, but has also had her admirers among biographers in recent years. M. de Moliere is still a writer of international interest about whom people want to read, and write, in English. The question we must ask, since the book presents itself as a renewal of the tradition of Moliere biography, in English at least, is how does this book change our view of him? Moliere studies pose a problem today, because the critical bibliography of his work has proliferated to the point where it represents almost as much a barrier to researchers as an aid. Few can consider its findings in their entirety, but there is much of interest for his life in the latest secondary criticism of his plays. In his own biography of Moliere of just a few years ago (Moliere (Paris: Fayard, c.1998)), Roger Duchene, interestingly enough, refuses to cite any of the 'bibliographie infinie' of secondary works which he has consulted. Scott's bibliography also tells a story of its own, as it includes, perhaps deliberately, very few recent titles. Duchene's biography, which claimed to set the record straight on a number of issues, and give the lie to the idea, among others, that the playwright definitely studied at the Jesuit College de Clermont, is one of only a handful of books cited to bear a post-1990 publication date. Scott, however, does not situate her findings in relation to Duchene, except in the occasional footnote. Her main pionts of reference remain Palmer, Mongredien, and Grimarest. Scott's biography thus seems to preserve Moliere in a kind of time capsule, which can have certain benefits for those who wish to understand his continuing hold on the French consciousness. She gives body to the man, colour to his life, and life to his bones, even if she does not engage entirely with contemporary debate. It may safely be said, therefore, that this beautifully produced book, written with a dedication to the subject which can be moving, will become a necessary staging-post in the study of a French myth to which so many foreigners still subscribe. Anyone with an interest in seventeenth-century French studies should read this highly personalized biography, which testifies to the passage not just of one comic dramatist of genius, but of a whole generation who marked out the siecle de Louis XIV as the great century in the history of French literature.

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Author:Woodrough, Elizabeth
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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