This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 7. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 120-125.

As a boy, it is said, Jean displayed a surprising turn for mimicry. He reproduced, with accuracy and humor, the peculiarities of servants, customers in the shop and the priests and worshippers at the church, to which his mother, one of the most pious of women, led him every Sunday for mass and vespers. Madame Poquelin, proud as she may have been of his precocious intelligence, sternly set her face against such amusements, especially when they were indulged in at the expense of the clergy. "Lisette," said Jean to a work-girl in the house, after receiving a sound chastisement for such an offense, "can you tell me why my imitations of the priest make them so furious?" "Certainly," was the reply; "you succeed only too well, my little Jean." It is obvious that, if the young mimic was to become a respectable citizen, he should have been kept away from the theatre; but a good-natured relative, usually supposed to have been his maternal grandfather, frequently carried him off to see Bellerose and the trois farceurs at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Before long he had theatricals on the brain, and neither threats nor caresses could induce him to initiate himself in the mysteries of his father's business. "I verily believe," M. Poquelin exclaimed, "that the boy will turn actor"--a suggestion which at the time sent a shiver through the frames of all right-minded persons, playgoers not excepted. Modern criticism has rejected some of these stories as apocryphal, but they are chiefly from the lips of Jean himself, and doubtless relate what is very near the truth as to his early career.

In his fourteenth year, after losing his mother, Jean was sent as a day-boarder to the college of Clermont, where, as a means of extending their influence and gaining valuable recruits, the Jesuits educated a large number of boys gratuitously, or for a nominal sum. The pupils represented many grades of society, and the variety of character they exhibited must have brought much food for reflection to so quick an observer as Jean is reported to have been. His chosen companions at the college were four youths destined to attain eminence in different ways--the prince de Conti, Chapelle, Bernier and Hesnault. According to biographical tradition, he made rapid progress in humanities and rhetoric, the more so because the Jesuits industriously fostered a spirit of emulation among their flock. Nor was his education confined to what he learned at the college. Chapelle, at the insistance of his father, entered upon an independent course of philosophy under Gassendi; and young Poquelin, with Hesnault and Bernier, was allowed to join him. It is significant that in a short time he should have set to work upon a translation of Lucretius, but we may reasonably doubt whether the strangely qualified epicureanism of the tutor exercised more than a passing influence over his mind. Cyrano de Bergerac, as the story goes, obtained admission to the little class by bursting in upon them, laying his hand upon his sword, and threatening the philosopher with death if the favor were denied him. In 1641, owing to the illness of his father, Jean went with Louis XIII and the court to the south as a valet-tapissier, the reversion of which office had previously been secured for him by purchase. But M. Poquelin did not intend his son to have only one string to his bow. Jean devoted himself to law studies, and a satirical ballad directed against him in after years, referring to his appearance at the Palais de Justice in the robe of an advocate, may be taken as proof that he was actually called to the bar.


His liking for the stage, however, had not been destroyed by the study of law. He joined a company of amateurs who, collectively known as the "Illustre Théâtre," played in a racket court supported by trestles in the quartier de Saint Paul. These performances were well attended, for the reason, perhaps, that admission was free; but the amateurs, attributing their success to another cause, removed their theatre to a tennis court in the faubourg Saint Germain, and, in defiance of the privileges of the comedians by profession, charged a small fee for admission. The self-confidence of the little band was somewhat rudely dispelled; by ceasing to act gratuitously they at once lost ground in public estimation; their audiences dwindled to a mere handful, and these came only to decry them. In this emergency, Jean, assuming command of the troupe, summoned to his aid a few players who chanced to be in Paris at the time--two brothers and two sisters named Béjart, apparently of good birth, and a buffoon named Duparc, better known as Gros-René. Madeleine, the elder of the two sisters, is described by a contemporary as one of the best of living actresses; and she was certainly one of the most beautiful. Even her charms, however, did not restore the fortunes of the Illustre Théâtre. The enterprise ended in disaster, young Poquelin being proceeded against and imprisoned for debt by the costumier, the tallow-chandler and other creditors.


Happily, this cruel experience did not make the young player disgusted with the stage. His taste for it had, indeed, become a passion; and at length, giving way to an overmastering impulse, he took possession of a little fortune bequeathed to him by his mother, formally relinquished his right to the reversion of his father's office at court, resigned his chances of forensic distinction, and determined to go into the country with the Béjarts and Duparc as a strolling player. His family, of course, were greatly distressed at the news. In their view he was deliberately foregoing excellent prospects to adopt a calling held in scant respect, the decree of Richelieu notwithstanding. In order to diminish their annoyance he exchanged the name of Poquelin for that of Molière, the origin of which is a matter of speculation. But any entreaties that were made to him to reconsider his intention fell on deaf ears. In 1646 he left Paris with his new-found colleagues, and, unable to believe that a passion for the stage could account for such an act of self-sacrifice, his friends declared that the young advocate had deserted the law to follow Madelein Béjart--a notion which in years to come obtained some currency.

Molière, to whom his companions looked from the outset for guidance, may have been induced by his almost proverbial generosity to make good the deficiencies of the theatrical excheqeur from his own pocket, but even in that case the troupe could hardly have escaped the hardships inseparable from the course of life they had adopted. It was truly a changeful life--one of constant tramping from place to place, of alternate success and disappointment, of steady perseverance in all circumstances, and also, perhaps, of more or less stirring adventures. Now the strollers find themselves in a district scourged by civil war; now the deferentially seek the sanction of some upstart maire to perform within his jurisdiction; now they declaim the stately verse of Corneille in a barn or on a stage improvised in the street; now they look ruefully at each other as the keeper of the inn in which they have sojourned lays his reckoning before them. Scarron's Roman Comique enables us to realize in some measure the conditions of their existence; indeed, it is not improbable that this whimsical picture of itinerant players in the seventeenth century--a work destined to outlive the drollest of its author's farces--was suggested in part by a chance encounter with the Illustre Théâtre at Mans, where the scene of the story is laid. "Molière," writes a contemporary, "was neither stout nor too thin. He was rather above than below the medium height; his carriage was noble, his legs finely formed; he had a serious air and walked gravely. His complexion was dark; his nose and mouth were rather large; his lips a little thick, his eyebrows very black, and the changes of his facial expression incessant. As to character, he was gentle, kind and generous." Destin, the hero of the Roman Comique, is a man of similar stamp--"sympathetic, refined in manner, brave, contemplative, amiable, a personification of pleasant insouciance, by turns grave and gray, full of noble impulses." Whatever may have been the source of Scarron's inspiration in this instance, the district particularly favored by Molière and his companions was the south and southeast of France, the heart of the territory in which the troubadours of old had sung.



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