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The word medieval is often loosely used to cover the whole period from the end of the Dark ages (i.e. 9th Century) to the beginning of the Renaissance (about the 16th Century). It’s easy to get the impression that throughout this period European society, more or less, remained organized upon the “feudal system”. The genuinely feudal organization already began to break up almost everywhere by the 11th century to yield to a more centralized type of government under the increased power of the crown. By the middle of the 12th century, the whole face of the society has been transformed — there is a new learning, new literature, a new convention of behavior between men and women, new manners, new costumes, new interest, new developments in church, castle, camp, and court. (Dickson, Seventeenth-Century News)
Thus we see, 17th century France, ruled by Louis XIV, was a ‘period of transition’ in many ways. During this time the idea of ‘land’ as wealth was disappearing steadily and the landlords belonging to the aristocratic class were no longer getting profits from their lands; instead, trade or business was gaining more importance by emerging as a source of more money. Therefore a new social class, founded on money and not on heritage, emerged as a culmination of these socio-economical and political changes; they were known as the bourgeoisie. Though the idea of ‘nobility’ in social classes was declining, economically potent groups still got respect and the newly emerged bourgeoisie continued to imitate them.
In the backdrop of these historical transitions, a further turning-point in the world of literature came when Moliere’s company, having established a precarious foothold in Paris, secured an invitation to perform before the young king, Louis XIV. The king was amused and the way to patronage and success was opened. (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Wikipedia) The company had already come under the protection of the king’s brother; they now established themselves in the hall of the Petit-Bourbon which they shared with the Italian company of the great farcical actor Fiorelli, the creator of Scaramouche; but in the war of the theatres, Moliere proved well able to look after himself. Moliere’s success was surpassed and consolidated because his plays used to talk of the town. “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (Molière, Project Gutenberg) showed a new range of comic invention, a growing sureness of touch and, at the same time, a tendency to cut deeper than the conventional surface of things and provoke reactions other than laughter which was to make Moliere one of the most prolific figures of his time.
The play “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” remains a source of delight, a commentary on life which men still find valid, an expression of the comic spirit which has not lost its piquancy. Delight one puts first because Moliere did so himself. First and last he was a man of the theatre to whom the touchstone of success was the pleasure of the audience. No doubt, like the Dancing Master in “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, he preferred discerning applause; but he was at pains to make clear that he respected all sections of his audiences. Thus sing Comedy, Music, and Ballet in “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” and one can not doubt that for Moliere this expressed essential values. The desire of Mr. Jourdain, the would-be-gentleman, is not a simple urge of the surface, not a product of high spirits, wit, or buffoonery; though all these have their place in his character. We laugh at Mr. Jourdain but the character also shares a feeling of compassion.
Mr. Jourdain reveals his own views of life by implication, not by assertion. He makes no protest against the nature of the world or the state of society. In turn, this character himself becomes the image of hidden social trends. The heroic virtues of Racine — courage, constancy, fortitude — are not found in the character of Mr. Jourdain. Such words as fate, love, desire, death are objects of fun in the play. There is no belief in perfection or perfectability, in progress, individual or social. Like Mr. Jourdain, Moliere’s characters remain as-it-is throughout the play. For the great deformities of man’s nature, Moliere offers no cure. Thus Jourdain is left to his folly and he appeals to us in the same way, through a kind of lyricism of folly. Moliere shows the character, Jourdain, through his foibles, vain, gullible, self-obsessed, and it’s his achievement that under the impact of laughter, by the solvent of comedy, we experience the moment of truth, feel the compulsion of reason, share his compassion for common humanity through the characters. (Dickson, Seventeenth-Century News)
By the characters of the music and dance masters, Moliere does not assert a system of virtues but the reverse of them — pretentiousness, insincerity, hypocrisy; in the characters of the masters, we find comic amusement in the contrasts between what men are and what they think themselves, what they endeavor to do and what is in their nature to be. (Dickson, Seventeenth-Century News)
On the stage, the music and dances which round off each act integrate the action, heighten the effect of hilarious abandon and sweep the play along to a triumphant conclusion where the audience may see only weak anticlimax, a petering out of the original theme. Plot development and structural logic were never a strong point with Moliere. “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” is revealed in loose sequences of scenes wherein the main character is the link and plot of no great significance. Characters of Jourdain, dance master, or music master too have close affinities with the stock figures of farce. What Moliere did was to deepen and enlarge their significance, to clothe them afresh with new comic traits, and to widen the range, effect, and appeal. Scenes of pure farce abound in the plays and a technique of acting derived from farce is implicit throughout, even though the form may be widened and refined. In Act III of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, where master and man (Cleonte and Covielle) meet mistress and maid (Lucile and Nicole) and sharp exchanges of speech cut down at times to single words and exclamations are the notation of a series of formalized movements, development and counter-development indicated by only the slightest of stage directions. In effect, the scene is a dance. Its charm is almost wholly visual, its relevance to the plot of the slightest. (Molière, Act III, Project Gutenberg)
To conclude, Moliere was no longer content to assert the test of a play lies in its ability to only please the audience; instead, the function of comedy is now to castigate idiocy and vice. It is a measure of Moliere’s achievement that he has so often been judged not as poet, playwright, maker of acting tradition, but in terms of ideas and morals as if he were a teacher, philosopher, or metaphysician. One thing is beyond question, that comedy, which immediately before his time was confined to farce, vulgar and vigorous with stock situations and recognized characters or, in its more respectable forms, to plays to contrivance and artifice, he raised in a space of fewer than twenty years to the pitch of great art, placed it alongside tragedy — the tragedy of Corneille and Racine — in the esteem of his countrymen and set standards by which comedy and comic acting have ever since and everywhere in the western world been judged.
Dickson, Donald R. Seventeenth-Century News. Vol 60. Nos. 1 & 2, 2002.
Texas A&M University. Molière (Poquelin). Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Trans. Jones, Philip Dwight. Edition: 10.
Project Gutenberg eBook. Web.
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web.