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Moliere is one of the historical authors about whom his contemporaries wrote most. Barely a year after having definitively set up shop with his troupe in Paris in 1658, that is, just after the creation of Les Précieuses ridicules, something akin to a modern-day media frenzy manifested itself and would accompany him to the end of his life. Very early on, he was admired as much for his qualities as an author of comedy as for his talent as an actor of it, and progressively his skill as an author came to be more celebrated. Less than five years later, an abrégé de l’abrégé de la vie de Molière was published (inserted in Jean Donneau de Visé’s Nouvelles nouvelles, – see the “Abrégé de l’abrégé de la vie de Molière”, 1663) and is testament to the exceptional influence of Moliere around 1662-63: it was the first time that biographical sketch had been devoted to a living artistic and literary figure, and this sketch, while manifesting an ironical distance from Moliere by assembling the principal criticisms that had been made of his most recent play (L’École des femmes), never ceased to accentuate his aura as an author and as an homme d’esprit, thus presenting him as exceptional.
In addition, Moliere is the French author who, during his lifetime, made the most enemies because of his way of writing (he was attacked for his Précieuses ridicules and again for his École des femmes) and because of the content of his writings (he was accused of atheism and libertinage for his Tartuffe and Don Juan). His detractors would take any opportunity to condemn him as an actor (treating him as a mere farceur and fool) and as an author, accusing him of debasing the comic genre, of writing mere “rhapsodies”, of plagiarising his predecessors… in sum, any pretext was sufficient for denouncing him as a follower, an imitator, a bad author; but to do so was, in spite of everything, to recognise him as an author.
The paradoxes of contestation
And yet, by an astounding paradox, this man who, in his capacity as author, found himself at the centre of attention in his own time, is the only author in French literary history whose status as a writer is contested today. Ever since in 1919, nearly two hundred and fifty years after his death, a poet and novelist who admired Corneille and had contempt for Moliere, Pierre Louÿs, decided that an actor could not possibly write a literary masterpiece, some people have in their turn been persuaded that Moliere did not write his own plays but that they were secretly written by Corneille in Moliere’s name. Essentially, Louÿs made an affirmation that goes against everything that Moliere’s admirers and adversaries wrote about him in his own time: an affirmation also contradicting the evidence and testimony left by contemporaries which attest to a certain animosity between Corneille and Moliere during the first five or six years after the latter’s definitive return to Paris… a double contradiction which Louÿs’s disciples brush aside. What counts for them is not what Moliere and Corneille’s contemporaries might have said or written: what counts “proving” that Louÿs was right, and that everything took place in the most utter secrecy.
By a second and equally remarkable paradox, one can observe that in the decades that followed Moliere’s death, a certain number of actors wanted to follow in his footsteps and become comic authors in their turn. Many of these actors, in particular Baron, Dancourt and La Thuilerie, were accused of having “borrowed” some of their plays, of having bought them, of having published someone else’s work in their name, etc., while foreign publishers printed comedies by another famous actor of the period, Champmeslé, under La Fontaine’s name. An era of suspicion had emerged, and it was all the easier to enter into this era since the overall climate lent itself to such suspicion, as is proven by the fact that one of the most notable scholars of the period, Adrien Baillet, devoted an entire book to the question of disguised authors and, more broadly, anonymity: Auteurs déguisés sous des noms étrangers, empruntés, supposés, feints à plaisir, chiffrés, renversés, retournés, ou changés d’une langue en une autre (Paris, 1690). Yet in spite of the enemies that Moliere had kept even after his death — in particular in ecclesiastical and devout circles which continued to criticise his atheism, including Adrien Baillet, who had presented Moliere as a “dangerous” author in one of his books entitled Les Jugements des savants —, no one ever suggested that Baron and Dancourt had done anything but continue a practice inaugurated by Moliere: not the slightest voice was raised, not the slightest pamphlet was written suggesting (in this era where the ill-willed suspected several actor-authors) that Moliere should also be suspected. Moreover, the issue was a dividing line: those who were suspicious were so because they felt that only Moliere was capable of elevating himself above his initial status of actor to become a great author; and Moliere’s successors were all the more worthy of suspicion since Moliere himself was above suspicion, as many contemporaries had seen Moliere create his comedies. An unfortunate paradox, clearly: Moliere is the man that, in the very era of suspicion, contemporaries did not think for a minute that there was reason to suspect; yet it is he who was transformed into an object of suspicion two and a half centuries after his death by a crazed author, Pierre Louÿs, who had come to persuade himself that virtually all 17th century texts had been written by Pierre Corneille.
Let us then ask the question that we will formulate again and again over the course of the following pages: who should we believe? Moliere’s contemporaries, or the recent inventors of a “Corneille theory” which rests solely on the personal convictions of those who practice it?