ESTIMATE OF MOLIERE The Man and His Work.—Of Moliere it may be said with confidence that he was not only a great author but a great man.
His life has a dramatic quality which makes it possible to think of it as perhaps the greatest of his plays. Apart from the many legends, to which only a passing reference and very little credit has been allowed in this article, the events and productions of his career speak for themselves. He not only represents the most vital and enduring qualities of his race, but his works are a protest against and a correction of the defects to which the French genius is peculiarly liable. His mind is without prejudice ; he rejects nothing till it threatens to limit the free exercise of a sane intelligence, or to distort a reasonable conduct. He is thus the natural scourge of academies and sects, the enemy of all excess. The logic of his race pushed to extremes results in a rationalism and a formality which it was his peculiar mission to expose and to deride. His plays represent a survival of the old Gallic spirit, near to earth and the realities, into the classic period of French literature which was in danger of becoming too limited and remote from ordinary social experience. His comedies are a constant plea for sanity and the golden mean, and his life was spent in chal lenging bigotry, imposture, and exaggeration in every class and profession of society. The perfect balance of the mind and dispo sition of Moliere is most clearly shown by the fact that he could take his own misfortunes and sorrows for a comic theme as sweetly and evenly as the vices or foibles of other men. There is never a trace of malignancy in his satire. It is always generous in inspiration and inexhaustibly vivacious. He found only one constant and effective supporter, without whom, for all his courage and pertinacity, he could never have ridden the storms which he raised. Louis XIV. considered himself sufficiently above the society of his time to view with equanimity its just correction. To Louis XIV. we must accord the merit of recognizing in Mo here the greatest of his subjects, though we must at the same time deplore the unconscious insolence with which he imposed upon his favourite tasks which were so obviously beneath him.
The plays, as we have seen, fall roughly into three groups; first, the farces of intrigue, based on the conventional figures of the comic theatre which he inherited from the old classic or the contemporary Italian stage; secondly, the episodic and spectacular entertainments which he was called upon to organize for the court ; thirdly, the social comedies in which he fully expressed his in dividual attitude to life and which he filled with the deathless characters of his own creation. There is no fixed boundary between
the three types. In the most conventional of the farces there are passages to which the genius of Moliere gives an individual turn, and in some of the comedie-ballets, notably Le Bourgeois Gentil homme, we find some of his best characters and scenes. Towards the close of his career Moliere contrived to meet the demands of the king for spectacle and at the same time to write the comedies he desired. Le Malade Imaginaire, for example, was a comedie ballet, but it was also a supreme gesture of the comic spirit—the play in which the great comedian passed from a counterfeiting of death to death itself.
The Epicurean sanity of Moliere, with its persistent correction of all extremes, has often exposed him to criticism more formid able than that of the sectaries. Men of a generous habit have felt its limitations, complaining that Moliere seems often to be no more than a champion of prudence and the middle way and that there are whole tracts of human experience which lie beyond the scope of his art. But this is only to say that Moliere is a comedian. He is not a mystical philosopher, or even a poet of passion. His subject is man in society. The answer to those who accuse him of an excessive worldliness and moderation is to be found in the fact that the critics of his own age charged him with anarchism, atheism and impiety. To the people of his own time he was a splendid or an infamous revolutionary according as they championed him with La Fontaine or censured him with Bossuet. The critics of the 19th century complained that he cared for no truth or principle sufficiently to be either a moral or a religious revolutionary, and it cannot be disputed that the morality of Moliere is that of a man who wisely avoids adventurous extremes.