A history and analysis of the play by Molière

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. 175-179.

Molière wrote The School for Wives (L'École des Femmes), which appeared at the Palais Royal as a Christmas novelty. It was the first time he had taken up the pen since Armande became his wife, and it is remarkable that, in his new comedy, as in the one produced when his passion for her was growing upon him, he resorted to the ethics of marriage for his materials. The chief personage in the piece, Arnolphe, a middle-aged roué, played by Molière himself, has arrived at the conclusion, after a wide experience of womankind, that the best safeguard of a wife's honor is extreme ignorance, that if she is not to befool her husband she must be a fool herself. No girl should know anything except how to sew, pray, spin and love the man to whom she is pledged. Her library should consist of only two books, the Bible and the Maxims of Marriage. Nor does he fail to reduce these theories to rigid practice. Intending to espouse his ward Agnes--Mdlle. Debrie--he has her brought up at a convent school in complete seclusion. But the young lady, with a type of intelligent simplicity, unconsciously outwits him; she bestows her affections upon the gallant Horace, and the guardian, after being made the confident of the latter, is eventually left out in the cold. The character of Arnolphe is finely contrasted with that of Chrysalde, who utters a series of noble sentiments in favor of the cultivation of the intellect in a woman. It has been hastily assumed by some writers that Molière and his wife are before us in Arnolphe and Agnes. Far, indeed, is this from the truth, Armande bearing as little resemblance to the unsophisticated ward as her husband did to the tyrannical guardian. It is not improbable, however, that some of the most emotional passages in the play derived additional intensity of feeling and expression from his own experiences. In these, no doubt, the dramatist himself, rather than the character, is speaking. For a similar reason his acting may have gained in force and tenderness. However that may be, L'École des Femmes, especially toward the end, was pervaded by a depth of sensibility which he had not previously displayed, and which, joined as it was to unequalled dramatic excellence, exerted a strong fascination over most of the audience.

The success was not without alloy. In some of the incidents and speeches of the new comedy, it would seem, the précieuses and fâcheux saw a means of bringing odium upon their audacious assailant, and the temptation was not to be resisted. Vaguely denouncing the comedy as bad, they insisted that in writing it he had ridiculed manuals of devotion, sneered at the doctrine of punishment after death, caricatured the forms of a sermon, and degraded national morals and the national language.

Industriously repeated every night in the salons, the criticisms on L'École des Femmes were soon caught up outside, especially by those who are ever ready to calumniate an unusually successful man. But the dramatist's assailants were not allowed to have it all their own way. Boileau came forth against them, and his prowess as a satirist, now placed beyond question by the Adieux, insured attention to what he said. Molière's cause was also espoused in a pamphlet entitled La Guerre Comique. Here, as elsewhere, it was conclusively shown that he had not been guilty of either immodesty or impiety; but this by no means put an end to the controversy.

Molière replied to his detractors by the Critique de l'École des Femmes (The Critique of the School for Wives), written as a dramatic dialogue, but acted as a regular comedy. In this work he shows a self-command which may well excite surprise. Intense as was his provocation--for the jeers flung at him on account of his wife's misconduct had touched him to the quick--the play is free from any trace of malice. He never oversteps the limits of good taste; but within those limits he produced one of the most telling satires that was ever prepared for the stage. Climène, a précieuse, a coxcomb marquis, and Lysidas, a poetaster, successively assail L'École des Femmes in a conversation with three clear-headed persons--Uranie, Elise and Dorante. Climène's sense of decorum has been greatly shocked by certain passages in the play. "Nay," says Uranie, "you must have a sharp nose for secluded impropriety; I confess I saw none." "So much the worse for you." "So much the better, I think; I take things as they are presented to me, and do not turn them round to look for what should not be seen. A woman's modesty does not consist in grimacing. Nothing is more ridiculous than the delicacy which takes offense and gives criminal meaning to the most innocent words. The other night this affectation was carried so far by some ladies in the theatre that a lackey in the pit declared their ears to be more chaste than the rest of their persons." The marquis denounces the piece as "detestable, to the last degree detestable;" and Lysidas declaims against it because it violates all the rules of art. Dorante, without any want of respect for those rules, holds that a comedy justifies its existence only when it pleases the audience, and Uranie is of the opinion that the men best versed in Aristotle and Horace are those who write comedies which no one can admire. For her part, she does not inquire whether the rules of Aristotle forbid her to laugh. "It is very strange," she adds, "that you writers always condemn the plays which every one goes to see and never speak well of any except those which fail." The defenders of L'École have the advantage in the argument throughout, one of them remarking that the author did not care how much his comedies were abused, so long as the town came to see them. Thanks to his wit and sarcasm, the Critique was represented more than thirty times in succession, a sure sign that Molière had not overestimated his strength in placing this singular piece before his audience. Devisé replied with a play similar in form and title, but it produced little effect, for, unlike the man whom he had assailed, he could not keep his temper, trying to compensate for the absence of wit by an abundance of coarse invective.



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