Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere
Here is a comedy about which much noise has been made; which was persecuted for years, while the persons it ridicules proved that they were much stronger in France than those I had hitherto laughed at. The marquises, the learned women, the luckless husbands, and the doctors had meekly borne their representation; in fact, they made believe to be amused, with the rest of the world, by the portraits made of them. But the hypocrites cannot bear ridicule. They were alarmed at once; and thought it monstrous that I should dare to make fun of their cant and attempt to decry a trade which so many honest folk are concerned in. That was a crime they could not pardon; and they all armed themselves against my comedy with dreadful fury.
If any one will take pains to examine my comedy candidly, he will see that my intentions are wholly innocent; that the play does not, in any sense, laugh at those things which we ought to revere; that I have treated my subject with the precautions which its delicacy required; and that I have used all the art and all the care I possibly could in distinguishing the character of the hypocrite from that of truly pious men. For this very purpose, I employed two whole acts in preparing the way for my scoundrel. The audience is not kept for one moment in doubt; he is known for what he is from the start; and, from end to end, he does not say one word, he does not do one act, which will not show to the spectators the nature of a bad man, and bring into relief that of the good man to which I oppose him.
I know that these gentlemen insinuate, by way of answer, that the theatre is not the place to discuss these matters; but I ask, with all due deference to them, on what they base their theory. It is a proposition which they simply suppose; they have not tried to prove it in any way. It would not be difficult to prove to them, on the other hand, that comedy, among the ancients, had its origin in religion and made part of its Mysteries; that our neighbors the Spaniards never celebrate a church festival in which comedy does not take part; that even among ourselves, it owes its birth to the help of a religious fraternity who still own the Hotel de Bourgogne, a place formerly set apart to represent the most important Mysteries of our faith; that we may still read comedies written in black-letter by a doctor of the Sorbonne; and finally, to go no farther, that in our own time the sacred plays of Monsieur de Corneille have been acted, to the admiration of all France.
If the purpose of comedy is to correct the vices of men, I do not see why some comedies should be privileged to do so, others not. To allow this would produce results far more dangerous to the State than any other. We have evidence that the stage has great virtue as a public corrective. But the finest shafts of serious morality are often less effective than those of satire; nothing corrects the majority of men so well as a picture of their faults. The strongest means of attacking vice is by exposing it to the laughter of the world. We can endure reproof, but we cannot endure ridicule. We are willing to be wicked, but not to be absurd.
I am reproached for putting pious language into the mouth of my impostor. Hey! how could I help it, if I truly represented the character of a hypocrite? It is enough, I think, to have made quite clear the criminal motives which make him say these things. I have cut out all sacred terms which might be painful when used by him in a shocking way.
Now, in as much as we ought to discuss things, not words, and most of our contradictions come from not understanding each other and using the same words to cover opposite meanings, we have only to strip off the veil of ambiguity and look at what comedy really is, to see whether or not it is condemnable. We shall discover, I think, that, being neither more nor less than a witty poem, reproving the faults of men by agreeable lessons, it cannot be censured without great injustice. If we are willing to listen to the testimony of antiquity, it will tell us that the most celebrated philosophers praised comedy, even those who made profession of austere virtue and rebuked incessantly the vices of their age. It will show us that Aristotle devoted his evenings to the theatre, and took pains to reduce to precepts the art of writing comedy. It will also inform us that its greatest men, the first in dignity, made it their glory to write plays themselves; while others did not disdain to recite in public those they wrote; that Greece paid homage to the art by glorious prizes and the splendid theatres with which she honored it; and that in Rome the art was welcomed with extraordinary honors, — I do not mean in debauched and licentious Rome, under its emperors, but in the disciplined old Rome, under its consuls, in the days when Roman virtue was vigorous.
I will admit that there are places it were better to frequent than the theatre. If blame must indeed be cast on all things that do not look directly toward God, the stage must be one of them; and I should not complain were it condemned with all the rest. But let us suppose - what is true — that the exercises of religion must have intervals, and that men have need of relaxation and amusement; then I maintain that none more innocent can be found than that of comedy.
But I am writing too much. I will end with the re-mark of a great prince on the comedy of Tartufe.
Eight days after it was forbidden, a play was acted before the court entitled Hermit Scaramouche, and the king, as he went out, said to the great prince whom I have mentioned: ` I should like to know why the persons who are so scandalized at Moliere's comedy have never said a word against Scaramouche.' To which the prince replied: `The reason is that the comedy of Scaramouche laughs at heaven and religion, about which those gentlemen care nothing at all; but Moliere's comedy laughs at them; and that is a thing they cannot endure.'