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La Critique de l’École des femmes, Francois Boucher (dessin) & Laurent Cars (gravure)

La Critique de l’École des femmes

When L’École des femmes was first performed, on 26 December 1662, it created a controversy, which Molière addressed by writing a one-act play in prose entitled La Critique de l’École des femmes (1663). The short play features characters discussing L’École des femmes. It has often been considered Molière’s ars poetica.

According to Dorante, the most prominent figure in the Critique, if the spectator laughed, the play was a success. The School for Wives had generated laughter so, using Dorante’s criterion, it was successful. Dorante also states that writing comedies is particularly difficult because one has to depict persons “d’après nature,” or as they are:

Mais lorsque vous peignez les hommes, il faut peindre d’après nature[.] (I, 6.)
[But when one depicts human beings, one must depict their true nature.]
La Critique de l’École des femmes, FR

“D’après nature”

In Le Tartuffe, Molière depicted his faux dévotd’après nature.” However, the play was banned because Tartuffe, who feigned devotion, acted very much like a devout person, which offended the dévots of Paris: la Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement.

As for L’École des femmes, it was criticized because of details mainly. For instance, one person found the manner in which Arnolphe questions Agnès rather crude. Arnolphe wants to know if Horace took anything from her other than her hands and arms, which he caressed. She hesitates to tell that he took the ribbon Arnolphe had given her. She says “le” and this “le” was obscene according to Climène, a précieuse.

Ah ! ruban, tant qu’il vous plaira ; mais ce, le, où elle s’arrête, n’est pas mis pour des prunes. Il vient sur ce, le, d’étranges pensées. Ce, le, scandalise furieusement ; et quoi que vous puissiez dire, vous ne sauriez défendre l’insolence de ce, le.
La Critique, Climène, scene 3.

The “le” (the) was not only offensive, but it wasn’t there for nothing: “pour des prunes[.]” This “le” led to strange thoughts: d’étranges pensées and was therefore “furiously scandalous.”

Il y a une obscénité qui n’est pas supportable.
[It is unbearably obscene.]
La Critique,
Climène, scene 3.

Soliloquies or récits and destiny

Obscenity was not the play’s most important ‘flaw.’ However, it was extremely amusing, and Molière wrote comedies. The more relevant flaw, according to our characters, was that Molière had made Arnolphe express himself using numerous soliloquies as well as asides (apartés). These were not part of the dramatic action,[1] said some members of the group.

Dorante countered that:

Les récits eux-mêmes y sont des actions suivant la constitution du sujet. (I, 6.)
[Soliloquies themselves are actions, depending on the subject matter.]

These were indeed part of the action because Arnolphe could not tell anyone, not even Chrysalde, the play’s raisonneur, about the “star […] bent on driving [him] to despair” (The School for Wives, p. 21). Arnolphe was a star-crossed barbon.

In L’École des femmes, the dramatic action is triggered by a doubling of the identity of the blocking character. Horace, our young lover, does not know that Arnolphe, his father’s friend, is Monsieur de la Souche and that in confiding to Arnolphe, he is in fact confiding to his rival. When Arnolphe learns that young Horace has fallen in love with Agnès who is kept sequestered by a very jealous Monsieur de la Souche, he must conceal his grief and bewilderment. He speaks to himself and, if he didn’t, there would be gaps in the dramatic action. There has to be a dialogue, which there is.

Oh ! que j’ai souffert durant cet entretien !
Jamais trouble d’esprit ne fut égal au mien.
Avec quelle imprudence et quelle hâte extrême
Il m’est venu conter cette affaire à moi-même ! (Arnolphe, I, 4, v. 355-358.)
[Oh, what I have endured during this conversation! Never was trouble of mind equal to mine! With what rashness and extreme haste did he come to tell me of this affair!]
The School for Wives, p. 9.

Destiny

Destiny plays the key role in L’École des femmes and Arnolphe blames destiny throughout the play:

Éloignement fatal ! Voyage malheureux ! (Arnolphe II, 1, v. 384.)
[Fatal absence! Unfortunate voyage!]
The School for Wives, p. 9.

In Act V, scene 7, Arnolphe speaks about the above-mentioned “star which is bent on driving [him] to despair,” and remains defiant.

Quoi ? l’astre qui s’obstine à me désespérer,
Ne me donnera pas le temps de respirer,
Coup sur coup je verrai par leur intelligence,
De mes soins vigilants confondre la prudence,
D’une jeune innocente, et d’un jeune éventé ? (Arnolphe, V, 7, v. 1180-1185.)
[What, will the star which is bent on driving me to despair allow me no time to breathe? Am I to see, through their mutual understanding, my watchful care and my wisdom defeated one after another? Must I, in my mature age, become the dupe of a simple girl and a scatter−brained young fellow?]
The School for Wives, p. 21.

Destiny is so cruel to Arnolphe that it brings in a “real” father. When Enrique, Agnès’ biological father, arrives, Agnès ceases to be Arnolphe’s ward, which she has been for 13 years. Arnolphe is so perturbed that, having expressed himself quite fluently in several soliloquies and asides, he suddenly loses his ability to speak. In an aparté, Chrysalde tells Arnolphe, who is returning to his house, that, given his fear of cuckolding, it is best for him not to marry. Arnolphe is indeed spared cuckolding, but he has been crushed by destiny.

Life as a game of dice: “un jeu de dés”

Destiny is so powerful that in Act IV, Scene 8, Chrysalde, the raisonneur himself, suggests  that all Arnolphe can do, if betrayed by “cursed fate,” is to select an appropriate response to this “accident.” Destiny is an indomitable force that can strike anyone at any time. In fact, Chrysalde tells Arnolphe that cocuage is what one makes of it: “Le cocuage n’est que ce que l’on le fait.” (Chrysalde, IV, 8, v. 1301.). Destiny (le sort) gives men a wife and life is a jeu de dés, a game of dice. One corrects such accidents as cocuage though “good management,” une bonne conduite:

Quoi qu’on en puisse dire, enfin, le cocuage
Sous des traits moins affreux aisément s’envisage;
Et, comme je vous le dis, toute l’habileté
Ne va qu’à le savoir tourner du bon côté. (Chrysalde, IV, 8, v. 1272-1275.)
L’École des femmes
[In short, say what you will, cuckolding may easily be made to seem less terrible; and, as I told you before, all your dexterity lies in being able to turn the best side outwards.]
The School for wives, p. 22.

Mais comme c’est le sort qui nous donne une femme,
Je dis que l’on doit faire ainsi qu’au jeu de dés,
Il faut jouer d’adresse et d’une âme réduite,
Corriger le hasard par la bonne conduite. (Chrysalde, IV, 8. v. 1282-1285.)
L’École des femmes
[But as fortune gives us a wife, I say that we should act as we do when we gamble with dice, when, if you do not get what you want, you must be shrewd and good−tempered, to amend your luck by good management.]
The School for wives, p. 22.

If one takes into account destiny’s power, Arnolphe’s obsessive fear of cuckolding is in his nature. This immutability of nature is a premise in Molière. Arnolphe is as he is and Agnès is as she is. For instance, she can tell Horace that she is kept by a very jealous man. Agnès may be an ignorant girl, but she knows about jealousy. She also knows about the game of dice.

Agnès and Horace

In L’École des femmes, the laws of comedy are pushed to an extreme. After Agnès escapes Monsieur de la Souche, which could be the resolution of the play, Horace asks Arnolphe to house and guard Agnès so her reputation is protected.

Moreover, it is barely credible that Agnès’ biological father should arrive the moment his daughter is being led away by Arnolphe. It is also barely credible that Agnès should have fallen in love with the young man her father wanted her to marry. Molière doubles the father figure: Monsieur de la Souche and Enrique, who has decided his daughter would marry Horace. Were it not for Chrysalde’s intervention, and the power of destiny, Horace’s marriage may have been a mariage forcé.

(…) Si son cœur a quelque répugnance.
Je tiens qu’on ne doit pas lui faire résistance. (Chrysalde, V, 7, v. 1684-1686.)
[If it is repugnant to him, I think we ought not to force him. I think my brother will be of my mind.]
The School for Wives, p. 28.

Le hasard [chance] en ces lieux avait exécuté
Ce que votre sagesse avait prémédité. (Horace, V, 9, v. 1764-1765.)
[Accident has done here what your wisdom intended.]
The School for Wives, p. 29.

Such words as “hasard” (chance) and “le Ciel,” (heaven) reveal a view of the world according to which destiny controls mankind. L’École des femmes may therefore reflect Jansenism, but the word Jansenism is not used.

Allons dans la maison débrouiller ces mystères,
Payer à notre ami ses soins officieux,
Et rendre grâce au Ciel qui fait tout pour le mieux. (Chrysalde, V, 9, v. 1775 -1765.)
[Let us go inside, and clear up these mysteries. Let us shew our friend some return for his great pains, and thank Heaven, which orders all for the best.]
The School for Wives, p. 29.

moliere

La Lecture de Molière, Jean-François de Troy

Conclusion

In 1662, the Church of France opposed Jesuits, who at the time used casuistry,[2] and Jansenists, who believed in predestination. Port-Royal (Jansenism) is an indelible page of French history and it inspired Blaise Pascal‘s masterful Lettres provinciales, a brillant attack of casuistry. Pascal’s last Lettre provinciale was written in 1657.

In The Tartuffe, there is a reference to casuistry. Tartuffe knows how to “pacify scruples:”

Je sais l’art de lever [to lift] des scrupules. (Tartuffe, IV, 4, v. 1486.)
[I know the art of pacifying scruples.]
Tartuffe IV, 4.

However, Molière does not associate L’École des femmes with an ideology. We know that Molière borrowed his subject matter from Paul Scarron‘s translation of a Spanish novella by Doña Maria de Zayas y Sotomayor, which Scarron entitled La Précaution inutile. We also know that L’École des femmes has Italian antecedents. It could be, therefore, that ancestors to L’École des femmes gave destiny an important role. Yet, it seems unlikely that they gave destiny as decisive a role as Molière did.

Jansenists maintained that only those whom God had chosen would be saved. This notion was referred to as the theory of predestination, a theory associated with Saint Augustine, or Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354 CE – 28 August 430 CE).

Molière did not have to refer to an ideology when writing L’École des femmes. He did not need toComedy promotes the success of the young lovers. Yet seldom has destiny countered a barbon‘s wishes as imperatively. Dismissing predestination is somewhat difficult because of the central role given soliloquies. Arnolphe must hide from Horace that he is Monsieur de la Souche, until Chrysalde says:

(…) Ce nom l’aigrit ;
C’est Monsieur de la Souche, on vous l’a déjà dit. (Chrysalde, V, 7, v. 1712-1703.)
[That name annoys him. He is Monsieur de la Souche, as you were told before.]
The School for Wives, p. 28.

As noted above, in L’École des femmes, life is compared to a jeu de dés [dice]. Gambling is also invoked by Agnès herself.

Mon Dieu, ne gagez pas, vous perdriez vraiment. (Agnès, II, 5, v. 474.) [3]
[Oh, Heaven, do not bet; you would assuredly lose.]
The School for wives, p.10.

However, I will not conclude that L’École des femmes reflects Jansenism, except marginally. The laws of comedy promote the marriage of the young lovers and farces do not tolerate boasting. Moreover, jealousy is a topos, a lieu commun.

But I will note that Molière’s L’École des femmes seems a prelude to Marivaux‘ exquisite comedies. It is a “jeu de l’amour et du hasard,” a “Game of love and chance,” without Watteau‘s ethereal Fêtes galantes.

I apologize for the long delay. I could not concentrate.

Love to everyone ♥

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Sources and Resources

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[1] Gabriel Conesa, Le Dialogue moliéresque (Paris: SEDES-CDU, 1992), p. 30.

[2] Roxanne Lalande, “L’École des femmes : matrimony and the laws of chance,” in David Bradby and Andrew Calder (editors), The Cambridge Companion to Molière (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 165-176

[3] “casuistry”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia

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“Me voilà hors du naufrage”
Charles Tessier, Carnets de Voyages
Claire Lefilliâtre, Le Poème Harmonique.

© Micheline Walker
10 June 2016
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