in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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Molière’s Les Précieuses Ridicules: Satire, the Satiric, and Comedy

  From Chapter 8, “Molière,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp. 114-121.


Molièrean comedy has been routinely analyzed as the comedy of an unusual central character who deviates from the norms of society. This deviation makes the character dangerous both to society and to himself. The plot develops around the revelation of the character’s eccentricities and society’s disapproval of his actions. The “humorous” or eccentric character, having been set in opposition to society, is either excluded from society or laughed back into social normalcy in the denouement.

As a formula for successful playwrighting, this description of Molière’s work is perhaps sufficient. The real intricacies of Molièrean technique, however, are overlooked in such an analysis. Only a consideration of the complex interrelationship between comedy and satire allows a deeper understanding. Molière is not only the heir of a long comedic tradition; he is also the heir of an ancient satiric tradition that stretches back through Rabelais to Horace and Juvenal and ultimately to Aristophanes.

A few comments on satire, then, are appropriate as introduction to even a brief look at the comedic achievement of Molière.  Abstractly, comedy and satire have nothing in common. A comedy is a representation of life patterned throughout to assert a faith in human survival and the qualifications and conditions on that survival. A satire is a patterned denigration of a person, institution, attitude, or characteristic.

If we look at the patterned form of a whole work, it should usually be fairly clear whether the work is intended as a comedy or as a satire, though a work can contain overlapping patterns, one of which is comedic and the other satiric. “The Rape of the Lock” and “A Modest Proposal” fall clearly within satire, while most comedy, like Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and even The Skin of Our Teeth offer little occasion for confusion. Something like Tom Jones is more complex, being a general satire on the foibles of mankind while seeming to exist comfortably within comedic form.

Far more common than the jointly satiric and comedic pattern of Tom Jones is work that is essentially satiric but that tacks on a comedic ending. We have seen that just such a practice was typical of Aristophanes. Such an approach may yield true examples of satire—that is, true examples of a work of patterned denigration—even while they are only deceptively comedic. A good deal of the time, however, the work is neither patterned comedy nor patterned satire; it is only a series of denigrating attacks with a tacked-on ending. Such unpatterned denigration we have already called satiric, to differentiate it from patterned denigration, which we are naming satire. While Aristophanes normally engages in satire, a patterned denigration of a few targets, most modern stand-up comedians are practitioners of the satiric, stringing together a series of one-line jokes that randomly hit anything the comic decides to ridicule. In between lies a large grey area in which it is more or less a subjective decision whether the work is satire with multiple but patterned targets or simply satiric with no real patterning. Several comic strips fall into this category, ranging from “Li’l Abner” to “Pogo” and from “Blondie” to “The Wizard of Id.’

With these distinctions between comedy, satire, and the satiric, it is easier to see how Molière’s plays, from his first smash hit, Les Précieuses Ridicules, to his greatest play, Tartuffe, experiment along the satiric borders of comedy.  We will also be able to see more clearly when and how Molière’s plays differ from the traditional formula ascribed to them, at least in small matters of fact and emphasis [thus CSTI’s chapter on Molière as reprinted in ITCHS will be three separated discussions, starting with Les Précieuses as at best minimally comedic, followed by L’Avare as comedic and close to traditional interpretation, and Tartuffe, continuing Molière’s satiric interests beyond comedy.]

In Les Précieuses Ridicule (The Precious Damsels), we are introduced at the opening curtain to two young Parisian noblemen—La Grange and Du Croisy—who have just been badly used by two young country ladies they have courted in the traditionally materialistic French style. The ladies, Cathos and Magdelon, are appalled to find themselves the objects of financial bargaining rather than romance.

The noblemen vow revenge and arrange to send lackeys disguised as aristocrats to court the romantically headstrong damsels. The scene shifts to the ladies’ sitting room, when Mascarille, La Grange’s manservant, shows up disguised as a marquis, soon to be joined by Jodelet, De Croisy’s manservant, disguised as a vicomte. Both are as bookishly romantic as the young ladies, and soon compliments and counter compliments in the most distortedly elegant French are being bandied about. The fun of the play, in fact, resides not in the plot but in the idiocies of style the four protagonists display. Finally, La Grange and Du Croisy break in just as Mascarille has called for a dance. They beat their servants, who for a time attempt to continue the disguise. Finally, Mascarille and Jodelet are systematically stripped of their fine clothing until they are revealed in the attenuated attire of a valet and a chef. The ladies are left at the final curtain to bear the abuse of a society made well aware of their follies and disgrace.

The traditional formulations of Molière’s comedy do not accurately describe Les Précieuses Ridicule. While the difference may appear to be slight matters of emphasis only, these differences transform the pattern and suggest a different import for the play as a whole. An obvious difference is that the traditional formula proposes a single eccentric individual at the center of the action; in Les Précieuses there are at least four. In the traditional formula, the eccentric character is seen in contrast to a “normal” society. Eventually, the eccentric is either isolated from that normal society or forced to accommodate himself to it. It cannot be said, however, that Les Précieuses follows either pattern, for no normal society is presented. Even if we stretch the meaning of normal to say that La Grange and De Croisy represent normal society, the women cannot be said either to be isolated from them or conformed to them. They simply collide with each other. In addition, the two noblemen do not come off well, being little more than bullies to their servants and mercenary aristocrats and house-crashers to the young damsels.

Faced with such discrepancies, it is easier for traditional criticism to explain away the differences than to consider the significance the differences make for import—to say that the short length of Les Précieuses and its farcical nature account for its deviation from the normal formula without considering what else the differences might signify. In such an explication, the necessities of one-act structure are taken as sufficient reason for the absence of any true social norm in the play; the bullying characterization of the young noblemen is supposedly explained by the play’s relationship to the traditions of Punch-and-Judy farce.

It is certainly true that Les Précieuses is a one-act farce with Punch-and-Judy overtones. But art is art because it is the result of choice. It is not random or forced. Valid criticism ultimately rests on this basic assumption. Without compelling historical evidence to the contrary, we must assume that Molière wrote a play that differed from the pattern ascribed to all his plays because he chose to do so freely and because he wanted to say something that the traditional pattern would not allow him to say.

The basic import of the traditionally ascribed pattern is fairly obvious. The eccentric central character who is either forced back into social conformity or ostracized implies a message that people cannot all be programmed into a socially acceptable pattern. As deviants, they threaten to incite social anarchy, and anarchy threatens to destroy society. The “successful ending,” in which deviants are forced into isolation or conformity, asserts the faith that when significant and potentially destructive deviation from social norms occurs, society and the nature of things move to isolate the deviant and destroy his social power. Some of Molière’s comedies do make such assertions, (L’Avare, The Miser), for example. Les Précieuses, however, makes a different though important assertion about the society of France under Louis XIV.

Les Précieuses faces the important social fact that society is made up of subcultures, rather than individuals. In Molière’s day, a rising middle class, increasing literacy even among the servant classes, and an increasing centralization of French cultural pursuits in Paris were building strong new subcultures. Louis XIV himself did much to encourage such subcultures to the extent that they could be used to support and strengthen the centralized monarchy.

When a culture breaks down into subcultures, the individual finds himself largely at liberty to flout the general standards of society and to pretend that the subculture to which he belongs is the only culture that matters. But such atomism leads to anarchy—an especially virulent anarchy, because everyone can claim as allies the other members of his subgroup. Such anarchy not only destroys all social norms; the also leads to our destruction as social animals.

In this play, the girls and the servants all believe that a fantastic subculture can replace cultural realities. The young damsels have been reading a great many novels, through which they have become aware of a subculture that no longer respects the crass arrangements of marriage and social life that provide cohesion for the upper classes. They have come to expect that they will have substantial and sufficient support in challenging the arrangements Magdelon’s father is making for their futures. The two masquerading servants are under similar delusions. They are both men who have learned to read and have caught sight of an ideal of social advancement through self-education and self-improvement. Both the damsels and the servants look to each other for respect and acceptance, not as members of the general society, but as members of a subculture so advanced that it cannot be held accountable to the standards of the culture around it.

In delineating the four protagonists’ pretensions, Molière is writing not a comedy but a social satire aimed at systematically exposing, through a patterned literary work, the outlandishness and foppery of self-deluded social climbers. To create a pattern, Molière first limits his targets to the pretensions of social climbers rather than all social evils. Second, he carefully balances the two girls against the two servants, with their corresponding and complementary foibles. Third, he exposes the foibles equally, the servants’ under the beatings of their masters, the girls’ under the belaboring of Magdelon’s father. The patterning that is apparent in these elements of plot could be traced through in patterned staging, tone, and symbol as well. In fact, the climax of the satire is not a matter of plot at all, but rather is Mascarille’s famous “impromptu” poem and the girls’ equally extravagant and nonsensical admiration of it. Clearly then, Les Précieuses Ridicules is a well-executed satire, not an example of the satiric. Our question is whether this satire can also be a comedy.

If Les Précieuses is a comedy as well as a satire, then it has a pattern throughout that asserts human survival. At first glance, the play might seem only a satire, denigrating the foibles of social climbers without holding out hope for societal survival. While the play is close to being a satire only, a minimal case can be made for it as a comedy. A key to the comedic element in Les Précieuses is ironically, the minor-character noblemen. They are systematically played off against the four protagonists. One can imagine Molière, the bourgeois with an aristocratic education, looking askance at the nobility and satirizing them as well as the social climbers. Probably he felt that a great deal of the aristocracy was incapable of living truly aristocratic lives, that most could not even live up to the standard of the honnête homme (honest man) then coming into vogue. His two stage noblemen, far from representing some societal idea of even society in general, are virtually stage villains, maintaining the outworn privileges of class.

Les Précieuses then pits the absurdities of the social upstarts against the selfish, brutal pretensions of the established aristocracy.  No one in the play represents “right-thinking society.” If we recognize this clash as part of the total comedic patterning, we can find a minimal comedic social import in the play [minimal here refers to the amount of patterning, not to the significance of the comedic import].

As already suggested, society can break down into subcultures that act as mutual aid and admiration societies. As long as they are left to themselves, such subcultures are self-perpetuating. They are also progressively self-distorting. Living entirely within a subculture, the individual becomes more and more a caricature, less and less a rational, intelligent being reaction to objective realities. The comedic question is, Can anything is social life inhibit the formation and progressive deterioration of such subcultures and allow the human race to survive by forcing people back to reality?

Some authors may have a fairly uncomplicated and basically optimistic response to such a question, but Molière’s answer is characteristically cynical: Yes, there are very great forces that tend to ensure Man’s survival by bringing him back to his social senses. Unfortunately, these forces are not particularly gentle or admirable. In Les Précieuses, Molière shows that such subcultures, strong as their delusions may be, are weak social structures. The subculture’s strength is the combined social strength of its individual members; its weaknesses are the weaknesses of each member. When La Grange and Du Croisy crash the dance at the finale of Les Précieuses, we see how weak the fantastic subculture of the social climbers really is. Despite absolutely despicable and even totally illegal acts of the aristocrats, there is no recourse for the précieuses and the masquerading servants.  The illusion of social support vanishes in an instant to be replaced by a clear perception of the weaknesses of all the central figures. Mascarille and Jodelet are physically exposed as the lackeys they are rather than the aristocrats of the spirit they have imagined themselves to be. The damsels are shown to be the country girls they are, unaware of the ways and the cruelties of the city to which they have come with such high hopes. Their final humiliation, at the hands of Magdelon’s father, is only a reassertion of their true station as country wenches whose parents have made a good deal of money, but who have no intention of letting financial affluence change the social standards of their heirs.

Society is thus saved from the ridiculous perversions of one subculture by the cruelty of another more powerful and established one. The assertion is not that society has the right answers, only that society at large has hope that the distortions of faddist subcultures will not be allowed to destroy all social reality. An upper class, Molière contends here, earns its keep not by its gentility but by its barbaric cruelty in putting down any rival subculture that threatens to assert new and opposing standards.

While the lesson is brutal for the women and servants, it is necessary. Because they have been taught to see reality again, however rudely, they have new hope for undistorted survival, as does society.

This is marginal comedy because so much of the patterning of Les Précieuses has been directed to satire. But there is enough comedic—though darkly comedic—patterning to argue that the ending is not entirely tacked on to the satiric fun, that a comedic pattern running throughout the play suggests a consistent virtual future in which both women and servants conform to social realities, and that the pattern of the whole asserts that the threat of subcultural insanity will be met by strong if brutal social correction.