The Rules of Comedy: Moliere and the Art of Depiction

by Larry F. Norman

he same tensions that define the aesthetics of literary imitation are at play in the imitation of life. If one simply copies one's contemporaries, is one an artist? Is the resulting "copy" a work of art? These are the questions raised by Molière's critics when they attack his alleged use of amateur transcriptions of real persons and events. The debate around the mémoires' artless descriptions invokes the widest issues concerning poetic representation: what is the "Nature" to be reproduced? The Aristotelian ideal of imitating a universalized nature--"what should be"--as opposed to the historical singularities of "what is" (Poetics ch. 9) is largely adopted in the seventeenth century with the preference for the lifelike, the verisimilar (le vraisemblable), to life itself, truth (le vrai). Pierre Pasquier has shown how French classical treatises on dramatic mimesis continually valorize "selection and correction" (25-37) above "duplication." The artist's genius is reassuringly at work when constructing a generalized portrait; copying singularities of nature, on the other hand, is at best the work of a historian rather than a poet. The radicalness of Molière vaunting his use of transcriptions of the real can perhaps best be understood today by analogy with the first appearances early in the twentieth century of "found objects" in art exhibitions. The transposition of the real into a framework supposedly assigned to artistic craftsmanship and transcendence breaks with all existing rules concerning the selective and transformative role of the artist. In both cases the eruption of the real provokes a storm of critical opposition.

However, it is important not to oversimplify the aesthetic canons of the French classical age, particularly in relation to comedy. Even though Molière's realism appears to many of his contemporaries to be a striking transgression of all poetic norms, the fact is that Molière's supposed violation of the code of "selection and correction" arises quite naturally from an ambiguity inherent in the classical conception of the comic genre. The requirement to transform nature can be applied easily to tragedy, but comedy is the site of a polar requirement, one that insists that it present an image of daily life, a mirror to manners. Such is, after all, the definition of the genre attributed to Cicero, a definition that held considerable sway in the seventeenth century: imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis. Comedy was above all naïve in its depiction, frank and simple, aiming toward the transparent. The genre was thus the site of a battle between those who followed this precept of mimetic fidelity to the letter and those who insisted that comedy transform nature. The latter group generally aligned themselves with Aristotle's definition of comedy as presenting humans not as they are but rather worse than they are, as portraying not exact replicas of individual faults but instead as portraying the essence of the ridiculous. In short, comedy is a genre wavering between duplication and transformation, between ephemeral contemporary manners and the timelessly ridiculous, between the biting satire of Aristophanes and the transcendental elegance of Menander.

A passage in La Bruyère's Les Caracteres, written a decade and a half after Molière's death, reveals the depth of this tension.

It is not enough that the characters and manners of the theater be not bad, they must moreover be decent and instructive. There can be ridiculous qualities so low and gross, or even so bland and indifferent, that it is not permitted to the poet to pay attention to them, nor possible for the spectator to be entertained by them. The peasant or the drunk furnish a few scenes to a farceur; but they hardly enter into the truly comic: how can they form the foundation or the principal action of a comedy? "But these characters," it is said, "are natural." ("Des Ouvrages de l'esprit" no.52)
Once again the societal distinction between comedy and farce is put in polemical play. But this time farce is not so much accused of excessive physicality and staginess as of excessive fidelity to reality. Comedy is associated with dramatic structure (a "principal action") and a coherent foundation; farce with loose depictions of social conditions unworthy of representation. A comic poet selects and constructs judiciously; a "farceur" copies arbitrarily. One can never underestimate the classical age's obsession not simply with design, but with conscious design. Indeed, the most important treatise on theater in the period, the abbe d' Aubignac's 1657 La Pratique du théâtre, devotes an exhaustive chapter to the formidable "Study of Theory" that a playwright must undertake before committing pen to paper. This is the discipline lacking in the mere observer, whose farces duplicate their model.

But the case is not quite so simple as it may seem. The last line of the above passage reminds us that there is a tension present in the very definition of comedy, a tension that even the stern La Bruyère cannot ignore. If indeed "'these characters...are natural,'" has not the comic poet in fact perfectly performed his function and created a credible mirror to life, an imitatio vitae? La Bruyère responds:

According to this rule, the audience would soon be diverted with lackeys whistling, invalids sleeping or vomiting: Is there anything more natural? It is the nature of an effeminate man to rise late, to spend part of his day at his toilette, to look in the mirror, to perfume himself: to put on beauty spots, to receive notes and respond to them. Put this role on stage. The longer you make it last, one act, two acts, the more it will be natural and resemble its model; but also the more it will be uninteresting [cold, froid] and insipid.
La Bruyère appeals directly to the spectator here and shifts his critique from the moral ground to the realm of the delectable. The commentator is no longer concerned with the decency of an effeminate man, but instead with the pleasure that his representation may give an audience. The problem is this: the unmediated "natural" will by nature leave the audience "cold" and bored. For the purely pragmatic reasons of exciting and warming his audience, the playwright must select and construct, rather than transcribe. By referring specifically to the "act" structure of comedy, La Bruyère posits a basic distinction between dramatic structure and portraiture, between action and depiction, in which the former is valorized at the expense of the latter. It must not be forgotten that the basic governing principles of classical form, the famous three unities, are designed largely to assure an essential density to the representation of time, space, and action, to create a compactness that precludes any fidelity to the meandering contingencies of chronological and spatial specificity--to insure, in short, that an ideal formal structure repress the eruption of realistic detail.

And yet the dogmatic La Bruyère, at the very moment he embraces idealized form and rejects haphazard realism, cannot help seducing his audience, warming them up, with the kind of depictive acumen for which he himself is famous as a "moralist," as a painter of contemporary character types. The very phrasing swells with the effeminate details whose depiction it denounces: "It is the nature of an effeminate man to rise late, to spend part of his day at his toilette, to look in the mirror, to perfume himself, to put on beauty spots." This is just the kind of acute observation that La Bruyère knows his public loves, and that fills his own book. After all, he himself describes his book as a "portrait" of the public painted "after nature" [d'apres nature] (preface 61).

Indeed, La Bruyère's Caractères was criticized for precisely the same kind of unstructured realism for which he denounces the "farceur." Hence this critique from the journal Mercury Galant dating from 1693, three years after the edition in which La Bruyère published the passage above:

It is nothing but a mass of detached morsels. ...Nothing is easier than making a portrait of three or four pages, which requires no order, and there is no mind so dull that it could not stitch together some nasty descriptions [médisance] of his peers and add something that he thinks might make one laugh.
The vocabulary is astonishingly close to that used against Molière. Like the playwright, La Bruyère does nothing but "stitch together" portraits without conscious design ("ordre"), and furthermore he does so in the style of social gossip, of médisance--a term frequently applied to Molière. There is no doubt that the classical moralist like La Bruyère--that specialist in "the science of describing mores" ("Discours sur Théophraste" 3)--cannot escape the tensions between lifelike imitation and literary construction, between duplication and transcendence, which haunts all those writers who claim to hold a mirror to their public.

And yet the comparison between the moralist and the playwright may simply not occur to La Bruyère. There is no doubt that in the period's aesthetic framework the comedy's representation as visual spectacle seems to differentiate it radically from a literary representation. La Bruyère carefully specifies generic particularities here: he speaks of a stage to be filled, not a page; of acts to be constructed, not chapters; of spectators to be diverted, not readers. What differentiates the two forms? The response lies in the classical imagination of representation, where the stage projects a more immediate image of the original, one more dangerously natural because it passes directly through the eyes. This is what Pascal suggested when he warned:

All grand entertainments are dangerous for Christian life; but among all those the world has invented, nothing is to be more feared than theater. It is such a natural and subtle representation of passions that it engenders and agitates them in our heart. (Pensées, Br. no. 11).
This presumption of the superlative immediacy of theatrical representation is no doubt what causes La Bruyère to situate comedy at the heart of the quarrel over depiction. Though his own portrait of the efféminé shows the extent to which moralist writing is rife with the same tensions between transformation and duplication, there is nevertheless no doubt that for the classical age comedy--linked as it is with visual portraiture--is the privileged battleground for competing norms of mimesis.

Although La Bruyère is generally thought to target here Molière's protege Baron, the commentary seems to invite application to Molière himself. On an anecdotal level, one can compare La Bruyère's efféminé with Molière's own fatuous creature, the petit marquis. Of course it can be argued that no character sketch of a petit marquis ever formed the principal action of a Molière comedy. Nevertheless, we have already seen Les Fâcheux described by Donneau de Visé as nothing but a similar collection of such little portraits of characters who, if they conform to the eponymous title of the play (best translated as "The Bores"), hardly merit our attention. The pr´cieuse, a seeming counterpart in affectation to La Bruyère's efféminé, also holds the principal role of a comedy, in which, we might add, the action of looking in a mirror (the famous "conseiller des grâces") forms a highlight.

The fact is that years before La Bruyère's commentary, critics rehearsed the same argument against Molière. I return again to Donneau de Visé, who comments here on Molière's characters, called "the fools that one paints from nature" [fous que l'on peint d'apres nature]:

These portraits are not difficult, one remarks quite easily their [the models'] posture; one listens to their speech; one sees their clothes; and without any effort one can finish their portrait. ("Lettre sur les affaires du théâtre" 306)
The playwright as realistic portraitist is reduced to the status of a banal observer, the equivalent of any reasonably perceptive social being who contemplates his peers, and who possesses no particular art. The prestige of the playwright is effaced by the facility of copying. Donneau de Visé's commentary is a response to Molière's own justification of comic portraiture in La Critique; I now return to the passage in its entirety to examine the relationship between playwright and portraitist:
When you paint heroes, you can do what you want. They are portraits of fancy [à plaisir], where one does not look for likeness; and you have only to follow the lines of a soaring imagination, which often departs from the true toward the incredible [merveilleux]. But when you paint men, you must paint from life. People want these portraits to be lifelike; and you haven't done anything if you don't make the audience recognize the people of your times. (I: 661; sc. 6)
The distinction between painting "heroes" and "men" is that between tragedy and comedy. In Aristotelian terms it is the difference between painting humans as they are and painting them better than they are. Molière pushes this distinction by taking the radical step of aligning comedy with verity (vrai) rather than verisimilitude (resemblance), that is, with reality over essence. Tragic verisimilitude, generally considered the highest form of imitation, is here belittled by Molière as a purely imaginary essence, and thus, paradoxically an arbitrary essence. The tragic portrayal is arbitrary because it is not submitted to the only test that counts for the spectator: the test of a comparison with life. Comic portraiture is the difficult art because it must pass the proof of recognition.

To return to the question of the mémoires, we can now understand how Molière turned to his advantage the accusation of copying those portrait sketches written by the nonprofessional public about itself. By abandoning his role of poet to an untrained public, he guarantees the fidelity of his depiction. If the goal of the comedy is to replace the screen of artistic representation with the immediacy of social presentation, what better way to succeed than to replace poetic mediation with direct social observation? The transparency of the depiction is thus incarnated in the transparency of its creation: the public crafts its own self-portrait, undiluted by the hand of the artist. It is nature--here, the unmediated social commerce of self-presentation--that generates not a portrait of itself but a second reality on stage.

Molière can thus embrace the social practice of observation as the best means toward delectable recognition, that is, a recognition whose pleasure results from the identicalness of copy and original.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Larry F. Norman

Larry F. NormanLarry F. Norman is assistant professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. A specialist in seventeenth-century French theater, Norman is the author of The Public Mirror: Molière and the Social Commerce of Depiction (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

COPYRIGHT | Excerpted from pages 35-41 and 44-5 of The Public Mirror: Moliere and the Social Commerce of Depiction by Larry F. Norman, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 1999 The University of Chicago.

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