in Versailles an exhibition deciphers the legend

The exhibition Molière, The Making of a National Glory takes a step aside in the chorus of praise provoked by the playwright’s fourth centenary, by questioning the way in which each era has built its own Molière. Because the author most read, played and translated in the world is also the most unknown, since he left no manuscript, no correspondence.

The majestic building that once housed the Royal Hospital of Versailles unfolds the abundant life of this hyperactive man. Five spaces open through his genealogy, then quickly point to the fabrications and the various reappropriations of which the great man was the object.

“Molière, the making of a legend” at Versailles (PIERRICK DAUL)

Starting with its origins. Contrary to a stubborn legend, Molière is a son of a bourgeois promised to a brilliant future. His father was a wealthy merchant invested with the office of upholsterer to the king. But he, the eldest son, made the courageous choice to become an actor, a profession stricken with infamy by the Church.

His father will not hold it against him and supports him, including when he finds himself in prison for debts when his first company goes bankrupt. It is not his father that he criticizes in his work, but the patriarchy, a fundamental element of his time.


Molière by Claude Lefèvre (1632-1675) (Collection of the Comédie-Française)

Molière by Claude Lefèvre (1632-1675) (Collection of the Comédie-Française)

Molière was therefore very familiar, a retired artist and favorite of Louis XIV who saw in the language of Molière a diplomatic tool, but not to the point either of having lunch alone with the mountebank, as a painting by Jean Hégésippe de 1864. “A scene of pure fiction, emblematic of the political recovery of Molière. The king only received at his table the princes of the blood and the high dignitaries”, relates Martial Poirson, the curator of the exhibition. On the other hand, the presence of VIP spectators, marquises and other princes, on the theater stages, as represented on several engravings and paintings exhibited, is entirely consistent with reality!


Painting by Jean Hégésippe from 1864 representing Louis XIV and Molière at the table (DR)

Painting by Jean Hégésippe from 1864 representing Louis XIV and Molière at the table (DR)

Molière is therefore appreciated, recognized, as evidenced by this tasty exclusive contract signed by the hand of the king: an ordinance prohibiting troops other than that of Molière from playing Imaginary sick, a year after the death of the playwright.

Molière moralist, popular, republican… For Martial Poirson, the author and troop leader “has embraced all political currents and all aesthetics over the centuries”. Everyone sees in Molière a unifying model and appropriates it. The actor who becomes an author to provide roles for his troupe is considered a classic by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, a universal genius. With Racine and Corneille he forms the national trinity.


The works of Monsieur Molière, Louys Billaine, Paris 1666 (Versailles municipal library)

The works of Monsieur Molière, Louys Billaine, Paris 1666 (Versailles Municipal Library)

At the beginning of the 19th century, Molière was the symbol of the French spirit. It is the subject of a real cult, “moliérisme”, with derivative products and fashion accessories in its effigy.


Anonymous, detail of an engraving of a fan representing scenes from comedies by Molière: Le Malade imaginaire, Les femmes savantes and La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, 20th century, Engraving, Paper, Wood, Metal, (Musée Carnavalet)

Anonymous, detail of an engraving of a fan representing scenes from comedies by Molière: Le Malade imaginaire, Les femmes savantes and La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas, 20th century, Engraving, Paper, Wood, Metal, (Carnavalet Museum)

Later, the Molière loved by the king becomes a Republican Molière. Forgotten comedies-ballets and court plays, Molière fills school textbooks with The Misanthrope, Women’s School, Tartuffe Where Sganarelle. Pieces denouncing the mores of another time.

The exhibition also evokes the great collective adventures of the 20th century inspired by Molière. The Don Juan by Jean Vilar and the Théâtre National Populaire (TNP), which will see 370,000 spectators parade in France and abroad, has become a model of the contemporary hero through his freedom. Then, for Ariane Mouchkine and her collective at the Théâtre du Soleil, Poquelin will be the metaphor for the life of her own troupe, recounted in her very beautiful film Molière or the life of an honest man (1978), with Philippe Caubère in the title role. The masks made by Erhard Stiefel Squidel for the film are among the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition. In 1995, Mouchkin made Tartuffe a caustic fable denouncing religious fundamentalism.


Mask made by Erhard Stiefel Squidel for the film Molière by Ariane Mouchkine (Sophie Jouve)

Mask made by Erhard Stiefel Squidel for the film Molière by Ariane Mouchkine (Sophie Jouvé)

If Molière lived today he would be African, trumpeted Jamel Debbouze. Molière, and especially his Sganarelle, is an export product, we discover a little further through costumes of orientalist inspiration or representation of the first professional Moroccan troupe, directed by Tayeb Saddiki. Molière, carried in the suitcases of the settlers, becomes in this newly independent country a tool of emancipation, an indictment against obscurantism and fundamentalism.


Poster of The Doctor in Spite of Himself, directed by Henry Jacques, 1955 (Tayeb Saddiki Foundation archives)

Poster of the Doctor in spite of himself, realization Henry Jacques 1955 (Tayeb Saddiki Foundation archives)

The legend of Molière therefore goes well beyond the national novel. Transposable in all contexts, Molière has become a reference shared on the five continents. Moliere? A popstar!


Drawing of Plantu in Le Monde (Le Monde)

Drawing of Plantu in Le Monde (The world)

“Molière, the factory of a national glory”
From January 15 to April 17, 2022 Espace Richaud
78 Boulevard de la Reine, Versailles 01 30 97 28 66
Wednesday to Friday from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m..

Around the exhibition
– Guided tour on Saturday January 29: 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and Friday March 18 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. (8 euros)
-Artistic practice course 7 to 11 years old from February 21 to 25 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. (5O euros per course)
-Theatrical writing course 9 to 12 years old from February 28 to March 4 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. (5O euros per course)

 
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