From Poor House to Palace—Molière and the Commedia dell ‘arte


Sometime around 1646, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin—who had by that time adopted the stage name Molière—found himself sitting in debtor’s prison. His squalid Parisian cell was probably a far cry from where he imagined he would end up when he abandoned his law education to pursue the life of an actor. The Illustre Théâtre, which he had founded with his mistress Madeleine Béjart only two years before, had gone bankrupt and left him holding the bag. Yet, for Molière that often trite expression “everything happens for a reason” may in fact have been true. After he was released, he joined the remains of his troupe and fled Paris for the French countryside where they became itinerants, traveling from village to village putting on shows. These were undoubtedly trying times for the young actor/playwright, but they were also quite definitive. Not only did he master the crafts of acting, directing, producing, and playwrighting during this sojourn, but he also encountered a theatrical form that would influence every comedy he would put before an audience, the Italian commedia dell ’arte.

            Born out of the comic interludes performed between medieval mystery plays, the commedia dell’ arte had by the Renaissance evolved into one of the most popular theatre forms in Italy and, eventually, France. Commedia troupes—many of them families—would travel throughout Italy in carts loaded with backdrops, costumes, props, pyrotechnics and a portable stage in case any town or village they visited did not have one of their own. Molière’s company probably traveled in a similar fashion. However, unlike Molière’s more traditional theatre company, the actors of the commedia dell ‘arte did not rehearse and perform scripts; they improvised outlandish farces featuring slap-stick, mime, acrobatics, dance, juggling, fireworks, and just plain buffoonery. It was more of a performance vehicle than a play.  

            These commedia troupes first visited France during the reign of Charles IX at the insistence of Catherine de’ Medici. From that point on, the French both embraced and shunned them. While many, including royalty, took great delight in their farcical extravaganzas, the Catholic Church branded the commedia, and all theatre for that matter, sinful. However, this did not hinder its popularity or influence one bit. When King Henry III invited the famous Gelosco company to perform in his court, their caravan was captured by Huguenots (French Protestants) who threatened to send only the heads of the actors to Paris unless the King freed their brothers from prison and paid up 50,000 silver and 10,000 gold florins. After several weeks of negotiations, the King complied and the company was allowed to continue its trek to Paris to perform before the court. 

            During the 17th Century, Molière would have encountered these troupes in both Paris and the French countryside, and their influence on his plays was substantial. One of the reasons commedia actors were able to improvise whole three act performances so well was that the actors played the same role their entire careers, no matter what scenario they were improvising. These stock characters included the trickster/thief Harlequin, the old fool Pantaloon, the romantic Isabelle, and dozens of others. Molière drew from these archetypes to create farces like Tartuffe. Not only, for instance, does his Orgon resemble Pantaloon, the aging family matriarch who was always being played for the fool, but the plot that Molière uses of the father trying to marry his daughter off to an older man was a standard commedia scenario. As for Tartuffe, it would not have been out of character at all for the thieving Harlequin to pose as a religious zealot to rob Pantaloon blind.

            Borrowing these familiar commedia characters and scenarios for his own plays paid big dividends for Molière. When he and his troupe eventually returned to Paris to perform one of his new farces, he did not end up in debtor’s prison. Instead he found himself where he probably imagined he would be when he abandoned the courthouse for the stage, performing before the French royal family like so many commedia artists before him.     


Dan Tarker     Literary Associate