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To Monsieur De Molie're, Valet De Chambre du Roi

Valet De Chambre du Roi.

Monsieur,--With what awe does a writer venture into the presence of the great
Molie're! 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 Molie're--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 ba'ton 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 Molie're. 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 Molie're. 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
civilisalion? 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 Agne's 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 Ce'lime'ne 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 'Molie're 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 Molie're 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 Molie're. 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 Come'die Francaise. In him you
have a successor to your Mascarille so perfect, that the ghosts of play-goers
of your date might cry, could they see him, that Molie're 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 Ce'lime'ne, 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. :\re not
the Molie'ristes 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 write 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. Arse'ne
Houssaye, or the industrious but puzzle-headed M. Loiseleur. Truly they seek
the living among the dead, and the immortal Molie're 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 Molie're's
works to write about Molie're's great-grandmother's second-best bed--I
sometimes wish that Molie're were here to write on his devotees a new comedy,
'Les Molie'ristes.' 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.


Andrew Lang