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26 June, 2013
Letters To Dead Authors
LETTER--To Monsieur de Moliere, Valet de Chambre du Roi
by Lang, Andrew


Monsieur,--With what awe does a writer venture into the presence of the great Moliere! As a courtier in your time would scratch humbly (with his comb!) at the door of the Grand Monarch, so I presume to draw near your dwelling among the Immortals. You, like the king who, among all his titles, has now none so proud as that of the friend of Moliere--you found your dominions small, humble, and distracted; you raised them to the dignity of an empire: what Louis XIV. did for France you achieved for French comedy; and the baton of Scapin still wields its sway though the sword of Louis was broken at Blenheim. For the King the Pyrenees, or so he fancied, ceased to exist; by a more magnificent conquest you overcame the Channel. If England vanquished your country's arms, it was through you that France ferum victorem cepit, and restored the dynasty of Comedy to the land whence she had been driven. Ever since Dryden borrowed "L'Etourdi," our tardy apish nation has lived (in matters theatrical) on the spoils of the wits of France.

In one respect, to be sure, times and manners have altered. While you lived, taste kept the French drama pure; and it was the congenial business of English playwrights to foist their rustic grossness and their large Fescennine jests into the urban page of Moliere. Now they are diversely occupied; and it is their affair to lend modesty where they borrow wit, and to spare a blush to the cheek of the Lord Chamberlain. But still, as has ever been our wont since Etherege saw, and envied, and imitated your successes--still we pilfer the plays of France, and take our bien, as you said in your lordly manner, wherever we can find it. We are the privateers of the stage; and it is rarely, to be sure, that a comedy pleases the town which has not first been "cut out" from the countrymen of Moliere. Why this should be, and what "tenebriferous star" (as Paracelsus, your companion in the "Dialogues des Morts," would have believed) thus darkens the sun of English humour, we know not; but certainly our dependence on France is the sincerest tribute to you. Without you, neither Rotrou, nor Corneille, nor "a wilderness of monkeys" like Scarron, could ever have given Comedy to France and restored her to Europe.

While we owe to you, Monsieur, the beautiful advent of Comedy, fair and beneficent as Peace in the play of Aristophanes, it is still to you that we must turn when of comedies we desire the best. If you studied with daily and nightly care the works of Plautus and Terence, if you "let no musty bouquin escape you" (so your enemies declared), it was to some purpose that you laboured. Shakespeare excepted, you eclipsed all who came before you; and from those that follow, however fresh, we turn: we turn from Regnard and Beaumarchais, from Sheridan and Goldsmith, from Musset and Pailleron and Labiche, to that crowded world of your creations. "Creations" one may well say, for you anticipated Nature herself: you gave us, before she did, in Alceste a Rousseau who was a gentleman not a lacquey; in a mot of Don Juan's, the secret of the new Religion and the watchword of Comte, l'amour de l'humanite.

Before you where can we find, save in Rabelais, a Frenchman with humour; and where, unless it be in Montaigne, the wise philosophy of a secular civilisation? With a heart the most tender, delicate, loving, and generous, a heart often in agony and torment, you had to make life endurable (we cannot doubt it) without any whisper of promise, or hope, or warning from Religion. Yes, in an age when the greatest mind of all, the mind of Pascal, proclaimed that the only help was in voluntary blindness, that the only chance was to hazard all on a bet at evens, you, Monsieur, refused to be blinded, or to pretend to see what you found invisible.

In Religion you beheld no promise of help. When the Jesuits and Jansenists of your time saw, each of them, in Tartufe the portrait of their rivals (as each of the laughable Marquises in your play conceived that you were girding at his neighbour), you all the while were mocking every credulous excess of Faith. In the sermons preached to Agnes we surely hear your private laughter; in the arguments for credulity which are presented to Don Juan by his valet we listen to the eternal self-defence of superstition. Thus, desolate of belief, you sought for the permanent element of life-- precisely where Pascal recognised all that was most fleeting and unsubstantial--in divertissement; in the pleasure of looking on, a spectator of the accidents of existence, an observer of the follies of mankind. Like the Gods of the Epicurean, you seem to regard our life as a play that is played, as a comedy; yet how often the tragic note comes in! What pity, and in the laughter what an accent of tears, as of rain in the wind! No comedian has been so kindly and human as you; none has had a heart, like you, to feel for his butts, and to leave them sometimes, in a sense, superior to their tormentors. Sganarelle, M. de Pourceaugnac, George Dandin, and the rest--our sympathy, somehow, is with them, after all; and M. de Pourceaugnac is a gentleman, despite his misadventures.

Though triumphant Youth and malicious Love in your plays may batter and defeat Jealousy and Old Age, yet they have not all the victory, or you did not mean that they should win it. They go off with laughter, and their victim with a grimace; but in him we, that are past our youth, behold an actor in an unending tragedy, the defeat of a generation. Your sympathy is not wholly with the dogs that are having their day; you can throw a bone or a crust to the dog that has had his, and has been taught that it is over and ended. Yourself not unlearned in shame, in jealousy, in endurance of the wanton pride of men (how could the poor player and the husband of Celimene be untaught in that experience?), you never sided quite heartily, as other comedians have done, with young prosperity and rank and power.

I am not the first who has dared to approach you in the Shades; for just after your own death the author of "Les Dialogues des Morts" gave you Paracelsus as a companion, and the author of "Le Jugement de Pluton" made the "mighty warder" decide that "Moliere should not talk philosophy." These writers, like most of us, feel that, after all, the comedies of the Contemplateur, of the translator of Lucretius, are a philosophy of life in themselves, and that in them we read the lessons of human experience writ small and clear.

What comedian but Moliere has combined with such depths--with the indignation of Alceste, the self-deception of Tartufe, the blasphemy of Don Juan--such wildness of irresponsible mirth, such humour, such wit! Even now, when more than two hundred years have sped by, when so much water has flowed under the bridges and has borne away so many trifles of contemporary mirth (cetera fluminis ritu feruntur), even now we never laugh so well as when Mascarille and Vadius and M. Jourdain tread the boards in the Maison de Moliere. Since those mobile dark brows of yours ceased to make men laugh, since your voice denounced the "demoniac" manner of contemporary tragedians, I take leave to think that no player has been more worthy to wear the canons of Mascarille or the gown of Vadius than M. Coquelin of the Comedie Francaise. In him you have a successor to your Mascarille so perfect, that the ghosts of playgoers of your date might cry, could they see him, that Moliere had come again. But, with all respect to the efforts of the fair, I doubt if Mdlle. Barthet, or Mdme. Croizette herself, would reconcile the town to the loss of the fair De Brie, and Madeleine, and the first, the true Celimene, Armande. Yet had you ever so merry a soubrette as Mdme. Samary, so exquisite a Nicole?

Denounced, persecuted, and buried hugger-mugger two hundred years ago, you are now not over-praised, but more worshipped, with more servility and ostentation, studied with more prying curiosity than you may approve. Are not the Molieristes a body who carry adoration to fanaticism? Any scrap of your handwriting (so few are these), any anecdote even remotely touching on your life, any fact that may prove your house was numbered 15 not 22, is eagerly seized and discussed by your too minute historians. Concerning your private life, these men often speak more like malicious enemies than friends; repeating the fabulous scandals of Le Boulanger, and trying vainly to support them by grubbing in dusty parish registers. It is most necessary to defend you from your friends--from such friends as the veteran and inveterate M. Arsene Houssaye, or the industrious but puzzle-headed M. Loiseleur. Truly they seek the living among the dead, and the immortal Moliere among the sweepings of attorneys' offices. As I regard them (for I have tarried in their tents) and as I behold their trivialities--the exercises of men who neglect Moliere's works to gossip about Moliere's great-grand-mother's second-best bed--I sometimes wish that Moliere were here to write on his devotees a new comedy, "Les Molieristes." How fortunate were they, Monsieur, who lived and worked with you, who saw you day by day, who were attached, as Lagrange tells us, by the kindest loyalty to the best and most honourable of men, the most open-handed in friendship, in charity the most delicate, of the heartiest sympathy! Ah, that for one day I could behold you, writing in the study, rehearsing on the stage, musing in the lace-seller's shop, strolling through the Palais, turning over the new books at Billaine's, dusting your ruffles among the old volumes on the sunny stalls. Would that, through the ages, we could hear you after supper, merry with Boileau, and with Racine,--not yet a traitor,--laughing over Chapelain, combining to gird at him in an epigram, or mocking at Cotin, or talking your favourite philosophy, mindful of Descartes. Surely of all the wits none was ever so good a man, none ever made life so rich with humour and friendship.

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