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Review of Michael Call _The Would-Be Author. Molière and the Comedy of Print_

Article Citation: 
17 (2016), 75–76
Author: 
Ralph Albanese
Article Text: 

 

Call, Michael, The Would-Be Author. Molière and the Comedy of Print. West Lafayette, IN, Purdue University Press, coll. “Purdue Stud­ies in Romance Literatures,” 2015. ISBN 978-61249-385-5. Pp. 292. $45

In response to René Bray’s provocative question in Molière homme de thé­âtre (1954): “Molière pense-t-il ?,” Michael Call, in this well-documented and perceptively argued study, repudiates the traditional im­age of Molière as the exemplary “philosophe/farceur,” i.e., the actor, author, and thinker seemingly disinterested in the publication process. He draws attention to the ironic interplay of these roles throughout the play­wright’s career. More specifically, he sheds light on the multiple permutations of Molière’s printing career. This results in the construction of his authorship via his continuous interactions with the Parisian publish­ing world, notably the legal implications underlying the workings of the seventeenth-century book trade: for example, the relationship between cul­tural capital and literary property in early modern France. The history of these battles is intimately linked, Call argues, to the emergence of Mo­lière’s authorial persona.

Jean Ribou’s pirated editions of several of the dramatist’s early plays con­stitute the major struggle of the aspiring playwright during the early part of his career (1659–1661). Taking legal action against Ribou, and begin­ning with L’Ecole des maris, Molière crafts a privilege which will protect him more effectively against illegal editions of his work. He thus establishes his play as his exclusive intellectual property guaranteed by royal authority. Having been granted a royal pension in 1663, Molière’s authorship was clearly valorized and his popularity as the première court entertainer was officially acknowledged. The publication of his Oeuvres in 1666 represented the ultimate vindication of Molière vis-à-vis his adver­saries and the triumph of his authorial strategy or, more precisely, his professional legitimacy.

Examining the evolution of the authorial persona in a great number of the comedies, Call highlights the problematic of reading and writing in Molière’s theater. His compelling comparison between Molière the play­wright incapable of exerting complete control over his script and the frustrated, solitary status of his protagonists at the end of several plays (e.g., Arnolphe, Sganarelle, Alceste) evokes the comic defeat of author­ity/authorship. Call thereby illustrates the triumph of the author/craftsman behind the scenes. He clearly delineates in L’Ecole des femmes the textual identity of both Arnolphe and Agnès, including Arnolphe’s ironic refer­ence to the authorship of the maximes and their religious dimension as well. Agnès’ liberation is based not only on her discursive talent vis-à-vis Ar­nolphe but also on her access to authorship, and her italicized letter matches Arnolphe’s italicized maximes. Call rightly underscores the farci­cal dimension of the play, but also points to Donneau de Visé’s contention, during the querelle, that L’Ecole des femmes exemplifies the principal tenets of la grande comédie. Even though Molière thus suc­ceeded in bringing the comic genre to its point of perfection, de Visé sought to create a wedge between the dramatist and the courtly aristocrats by undermining his attempt to satirize members of the Court. Downplay­ing the originality of both Ecoles, he aimed to turn the rieurs into adversaries of the comic playwright. Moreover, although Molière was a superb comic actor, critics such as Montfleury called into question his skills as a writer.

As for the significance of the role of authorship in Le Misanthrope, Call aptly notes the complementarity of reading and writing as intellectual competencies. Given Alceste’s intransigent notion of authorship, Molière no doubt projected upon his comic protagonist his own misgivings concern­ing seventeenth-century publishing practices. Oronte appears as a burlesque poetaster, and his sonnet is pertinently compared to Mascarille’s off-the-cuff poetic reading in Les Précieuses ridicules. Although Alceste’s “vieille Chanson” is, as Call argues, devoid of authorship, it nonetheless offers an ironic commentary on the protagonist’s relationship with Cé­limène and a subtle foreshadowing of the dénouement. Regarding Alceste’s rhetorical artifice during his altercation with Oronte (I, 2), it should be noted that he seriously equivocates (“Je ne dis pas cela”) before revealing his true opinion of Oronte’s sonnet. And although it is beyond debate that Célimène’s choice of the epistolary form leads to her final undo­ing, we should not neglect the fact that her duplicity is perfectly acceptable to Alceste since he is willing to believe—“Efforcez-vous de paraître fidèle” (IV, 3)—her untruthful assertion that she has been faithful to him.

Despite these interpretive differences, Michael Call’s The Would-Be Au­thor. Molière and the Comedy of Print represents a significant contribution to Molière studies. It offers a systematic and persuasive treat­ment of the authorial strategies underlying the playwright’s remarkable success. All moliéristes stand to benefit from this analysis of the profes­sional side of “le premier farceur de la France.”

Ralph Albanese, University of Memphis

 

 

 

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