Sunday, 1 February 2009

Madame Molière

I'm doing a great deal of research right now into the theatre world of 17th century France. My focus is on Claude des Oeillets, the daughter of an actress, but along the way I've been encountering many wonderful characters. So many stories! One, in particular, is that of the actress Armande Béjart, Molière's wife. He was 40 when they married, she only 17. She had known him all her life, and must have regarded him as something of a father and teacher. Indeed, he had taken charge of her education as a child.

They were a miserable couple. It is said that Armande was heartless and vain. She was considered a frivolous, giddy flirt, and was quite likely unfaithful (possibly to Lauzun, and possibly to the comte de Guiche); certainly Molière was consumed by jealousy. After the birth of a son, and then a daughter, they lived apart — yet they continued to work together closely on the stage. Molière could simply not stop doting on her . . . and neither could the public. She was a brilliant actress, and Molière was inspired to write many roles specifically for her.

A mutual friend eventually persuaded Armande to reconcile with her increasingly-consumptive and love-sick husband. She did, putting him on a meat diet, yet he continued to decline. On the day of the 3rd performance of "The Imaginary Invalid," in which he starred, Armande begged him not to play. He refused, knowing how many depended on the performance for their livelihood.

At the end of play, Molière (ironically playing the part of a hypochondriac) had a coughing fit, which he tried to disguise with a harsh laugh. The curtain was hastily lowered and he was carried to his house. Always a comedian, he said on his deathbed: "I have set a detestable example. From now on, no playwright will be content until he has killed an actor."

After her husband's death, Armande proved herself to be anything but giddy and frivolous, fighting passionately for her husband's right to be respectfully buried by the church (a fight she sadly lost), and then running Molière's theatrical company with astonishing confidence and aplomb, making a number of difficult decisions that proved to be very successful. He would have been pleased.

I love her saucy attitude, but most of all I love how capable she proved to be as a widow.

Sandra Gulland

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Armande was the much younger sister of Moliere's original leading lady, Madeleine Bejart, and some malicious gossips suggested that she was his daughter by Madeleine.
I find it remarkable that, despite his worries about her infidelity, Moliere went on writing the plays in which Armande was the leading lady and he played the foolish old lover or husband whom the young lovers outwit. I guess that was what sold theatre tickets!

Kate Bunting (Derby, UK)