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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.