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Portrait of Molière by Nicolas Mignard

Portrait of Molière, by Nicolas Mignard

There came a point when Préciosité went too far.  Playing shepherds and shepherdess in a salon could not last forever.  So by the time Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, presented his Précieuses ridicules, préciosité had become what Jean-Claude Tournand[i] terms “une fuite poétique,” (a poetical flight).

However, it would be unfortunate to trivialize préciosité and salons.  For one thing, they did have a civilizing influence on members of Paris’ affluent upper middle-class and on aristocrats, many of whom made of point of becoming honnêtes hommes, in the worldly acceptation of honnêteté.

Molière‘s Précieuses ridicules (1659) were played for the first time on 18 November 1659.  It is a farce, and therefore resembles Italian commedia dell’arte, one-act or short improvised plays featuring stock characters such as Pantalone, Dottore Gratiano, Il Capitano (mostly jealous characters), the occasional miles gloriosus (braggart-soldier), Arlecchino, Brighella, Pierrot, Pulcinella:zanni (clever servants who help the lovers), vecchi (old and jealous characters), inamorate and inamorati (lover, lovers).

The plot of Les Précieuses ridicules shows the typical reversal of farces, that of the trompeur trompé (or deceiver deceived).  Cathos and Magdelon have just moved to Paris and dream of becoming part of the beau monde (the elegant world, that of salons).  However, Gorgibus, Cathos’s father and Magdelon’s uncle has different ideas concerning the fate of his daughter and his niece.  He wants them to marry sensible and well-to-do young men, in which case “all [would be] well that ends well,” the final outcome of comedies.

Two perfectly suitable young men, Du Croisy and La Grange, come a-courting but they are immediately rejected by Cathos and Madgelon.  They are not précieux and call a chair a chair rather than commodité de la conversation (what is useful to conversation)In their attempt to make the French language more elegant, the précieuses have indeed renamed many objects.

So the young men are shown the door, which infuriates Gorgibus.  He pays a visit on his daughter and his niece as they are “greasing-up” their faces (se graisser le museau [muzzle]).  They tell Gorgibus that courting should be as in the country of Tendre, the map of courting featured in Mademoiselle de Scudery ’s Clélie.  They name the villages of Tendre:  Billets-Doux (love letters), Petits-Soins (tender loving care), Jolis-Vers (pretty or lovely poems).  Moreover, they complain because the young men did not wear feathered hats and designer clothes:  “de la bonne faiseuse” (from the right maker).  They then announce that they are changing their names.  Cathos, Gorgibus’s daughter, wants to be called Polixène and her cousin Magdelon, Aminthe.

So the stage is set for a reversal: the deceiver deceived.  The young men both decide that they will each clothe their laquais, or men servant, into garments worn in salons and send them to court our would-be salonnières.

Cathos and Magdelon are so blinded by their own wishes, that Mascarille’s entrance in a chair carried by porteurs is not viewed as inappropriate and ridiculous.  Mascarille (played by Molière) is a marquis.  He recites an inferior poem, an impromptu, he has written, pausing frequently to comment on the ingenuous manner in which he has worded his poem.

As for the other laquais, Jodelet (played by Jodelet FR), he plays the part of a vicomte and arrives later in the play (Scene XI).  Jodelet is a famous but older French actor playing himself, a valet.  His face is white because he covers it with flour.  The marquis and the vicomte start boasting about their life in various salons and about their abilities as poets and dancers.

The spectators are in stitches, but Cathos and Magdelon so wish to be précieuses that they admire the disguised laquais.  A few unacceptable words and references are used, but Cathos and Madgelon do not know the difference.  They are totally deceived.

The fantasy comes to an end during a danse.  Violinists had been hired, etc.  Du Croisy and La Grange come back and undress their valets so they can be seen for what they are.  Earlier (Scene IV) Cathos had remarked that the thought of sleeping next to a naked man was repulsive.

Gorgibus returns and the violinists demand to be paid for their services.  Gorgibus starts beating them up in the harmless fashion of comedy.  So the farce has been played out to its bitter end, bitter for the would-be précieuses and salonnières, and bitter for Gorgibus.

With kind regards to all of you.

[i] Jean-Claude Tournand, Introduction à la vie littéraire du XVIIe siècle  (Paris : Bordas 1984 [1970]), pp. 47-75.

Les Précieuses ridicules de Molière
avec : M-M Lozac’h à la mise en scène et dans le rôle de magdelon Marie Moriette dans cathos – François Floris dans Mascarille

© Micheline Walker
7 October 2011 (video added on 20 March 2016)