The apparition of the “théorie Corneille”

Origins of the theory: Shakespeare in question

It would take until the 20th century for the idea that Corneille was the author of Moliere’s works to emerge, in the mind of Pierre Louÿs. The idea was not so audacious: for several decades, some Englishmen and Americans had already claimed that a mere actor could not write a masterpiece, and thus that Shakespeare was not the author of his own plays. Several candidates were proposed, in particular the philosopher Bacon, the Count of Derby, the Count of Oxford, and it is this last candidate that has dominated for the past few decades. Even in France, the game of denouncing even the greatest works of western literature as shams had been going on for two centuries: a professor of rhetoric famous at the beginning of the 18th century, the Père Hardouin, had thus “demonstrated” that the bulk of Greco-Latin literature had been written by 13th century monks, that most of the writings of the Church Fathers had been forged by French jansenists of the 17th century, and that even the Divine Comedy was not by Dante, but by a forger from the late 14th or early 15th century. It is worth reading this text, which prefigures exactly the outrageous way of reasoning and “proving” adopted by Louÿs and his followers. Then, throughout the 19th century, certain scholars repeated that the Memoirs of Casanova were fake, and one scholar who wrote and gave his opinion on everything (including Moliere, unfortunately), Paul Lacroix (referred to as “le bibliophile Jacob”), declared that these Memoirs were in fact the work of Stendhal. As for Pierre Louÿs himself, he never ceased to play with pseudonyms and it is known that he became famous by passing off his Chansons de Bilitis as the personal translation of a forgotten Greek poetess that he had discovered.

In such a context, general and personal, the decisive element for Pierre Louÿs, seems to have been the publication in 1918, by the publisher Payot, of the first volume (the second appeared 1919) of a book by Abel Lefranc, professor at the Collège de France, entitled Sous le masque de William Shakespeare: William Stanley, VIe comte de Derby [Beneath Shakespeare’s Mask: William Stanley, 6th Count of Derby]. In effect, the coincidence is remarkable: Abel Lefranc’s two volumes appeared one after the other in 1918 and 1919, and it is in August 1919, in the journal l’Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et des Curieux, that Louÿs published his first article entitled, “Corneille est-il l’auteur d’Amphitryon” [“Is Corneille the Author of Amphitryon?”]. The clamour caused by Lefranc’s publications gave Louÿs — at that time incapable for the past several years to bring success to any of his projects, out of money, more or less forgotten —, the confidence needed to remake a name and some semblance of fame for himself. And he succeeded, for the scandal that his theory provoked was of a scale altogether different from Lefranc’s theory on Derby. While this latter author attacked a foreign writer whose literary paternity had been under scrutiny for a long time, Louÿs was attacking a French icon, no doubt the principal icon of the time, and he was the first to do so. The consequence of his weak arguments, however, was that there was little echo of his theory once the initial scandal had passed; a situation which led Louÿs, very much diminished mentally, to isolate himself in a sort of delirious brooding in which he progressively came to attribute an ever greater portion of the French literature of the 17th century to Corneille.

Curiously, no one takes Louÿs’s entire “Corneille theory” seriously, and his current followers are careful to skip over the fact that, in the end, he saw the hand of Corneille in thousands of poems and even in Charles Sorel’s Francion. But the fascination for the most provocative part of the théorie Corneille persists which, though it may not be as remarkable as the theories advanced by the Père Hardouin, has the good fortune of concerning itself with Moliere, one of the most famous French authors, and of being spread on the internet.

The theory

Concerning Moliere, the particularity of the théorie Corneille invented by Pierre Louÿs and promoted by his followers consists in the application of three complementary approches:

  1. claiming that all of the contemporaries that affirmed or thought that Moliere was an author were victims of a plot hatched by Corneille, Moliere and no doubt Louis XIV, a situation which prevented them from knowing about the secret or, if they were of aware of it, speaking out (for fear of the royal despote)
  2. dismissing as untrustworthy, suspicious or tendentious all evidence or testimony that presents or even describes Moliere as an author, as well as testimony and evidence that underlines the heavy degree of hostility that separated Moliere and Corneille for many years
  3. putting together various elements which, when deftly presented and linked together, can appear to function as “évidence”,
  • The first element, is that no document in Moliere’s hand remains with the exception of a few signatures on legal documents and other contracts. There are neither letters nor manuscripts. We will explain below that this is not surprising for a man who lived in the 17th century, but we understand that one might take advantage of this almost complete disappearance to create a mystery and thus suspicion (what is this disappearance hiding?).
  • The second element, is that here or there a word, a figure of speech or of versification can be found in plays by Corneille and Moliere. We shall see, in our section on lexicometry, that if we found our argumentation on such superficial similarities, we obliged to attribute most of the comedies and tragedies of the 17th century to Corneille; but we understand that it is easy, by isolating a handful of similarities between Corneille and Moliere and forgetting to mention the similarities between their other contemporaries, to create a sensation of perplexity.
  • The third element, is that Moliere and his troupe performed, on numerous occasions, plays by Corneille and even created two of his new works, Attila in 1667 and Tite et Bérénice in 1670. We will see that Moliere and his troupe sought to have the same type of dramatic offerings as the other Parisian theatres and that in this context of exacerbated competition, it was common to “steal” authors and actors from other theatres, with all the alliances, breakups and reconciliation that such a game could entail. In other words, Moliere’s troupe played fewer of Corneille’s plays (and created far fewer of his new plays) than other troupes, but we understand that it is tempting to ignore the practices of other troupes in order to give the impression of a special bond between Moliere and Corneille.
  • The fourth element, is that in 1671, a tragédie-ballet by Moliere entitled Psyché, on which Corneille officially collaborated, was performed and published. More precisely, in the published volume, a note to the reader specified that, given the rush in which the project had been carried out in order to satisfy Louis XIV’s impatience, Moliere, after having drafted the entire play, had only had time to versify the first act, the first scene of act II and of act III. Corneille had thus versified the rest of the play in the space of two weeks (see the real collaboration between Moliere and Corneille). In other words, in order to avoid a situation like the Princesse d’Élide (1664) recurring — at which time Moliere had only had time to versify the first two acts and had had to leave the remainder of the play in prose, to the satisfaction of Louis XIV and the whole court —, Moliere called upon one of the greatest versifiers of his time, Pierre Corneille. There is nothing mysterious in that, as we will see further along: in the years that followed, the younger brother of Pierre, Thomas Corneille, would in his turn versify all or part of plays already drafted and composed in prose by Antoine Montfleury and Donneau de Visé, and he would even versify Moliere’s Don Juan (Le Festin de pierre. Mis en vers sur la prose de feu M. de Molière 1) four years after the playwright’s death, at the request of his widow, Armande Béjart, and the troupe, a task duly rewarded and recorded in the troupe’s accounts. There is nothing mysterious, then, about this sort of collaboration between the author of a play written in prose and a collaborator versifying all or part of the work; but we understand that it was easy for Pierre Louÿs to decide that an official collaboration hid a secret collaboration, and to affirm, wrongly, that Corneille had in essence written Psyché, when he had in fact only versified three quarters of it.

Thus, if one had to summarise the théorie Corneille in a sentence, one might do so in three clauses: 1/ a collaboration between Moliere and Corneille is officially documented in 1671 regarding Psyché; 2/ one must that conclude that it hides an earlier, secret, collaboration; 3/ any pretext to “prove” this deduction must be seize.

Towards refutation

Let us take as a starting point the théorie Corneille laid out by Pierre Louÿs and taken up by his followers, as we have summarised it: 1/ a collaboration between Moliere and Corneille is officially documented in 1671 regarding Psyché; 2/ one must that conclude that it hides an earlier, secret, collaboration; 3/ any pretext to “prove” this deduction must be seize.

Thus, on the canvas of Louÿs’s sketchy affirmations and deductions, his disciples knit an accumulation of new affirmations, of words or events taken from their context, and other hazardous deductions. They thus discovered letters from a correspondent of Corneille and Moliere’s, a certain François Davant, who, in a letter to Corneille, qualifies Moliere as “votre associé” and “votre second” (your associate and your second in command). Far from citing the entire correspondence 1, where one learns that Davant is speaking only of Psyché — that is to say the unique official, public, and known collaboration —, the disciples of Louÿs only mention the words associé and second (taken quite out of context) as the purported “proof” of a general collaboration and a subordination of Moliere to Corneille.

This is why in this site we always cite all texts mentioned in their entirety: it is by taking words from their sentences, sentences from their paragraphs and paragraphs from their overall context that texts are made to say the opposite of what they mean.

Conversely, it is enough to read in their entirety the texts that the followers of Louÿs cite in a truncated or biased fashion to discover that they all confirm that Moliere is the author of his own works.

To conclude this introduction in a word, we have seen that Louÿs and his followers

  1. affirm that Moliere was too ignorant to have been able to write the masterpieces ascribed to him
  2. invoke at the same time Psyché as the sole veritable proof of collaboration between Moliere and Corneille.

But they neglect to mention that this proof absolutely contradicts their starting hypothesis: it is officially stated in the notice to Psyché not only that Moliere composed the play down to its slightest detail, but also that he himself versified the whole of act I and the first scenes of acts II and III. So which is it: either Moliere was ignorant and, in that case, incapable of versifying even the slightest scene of Psyché (and yet the scenes that he versified are as gracefully written as those versified by Corneille), or…

We shall see that this is not the least of the contradictions to which the negation of Moliere’s authorship leads.