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The School for Wives: Molière's Obsession

By Lawrence Henley

 

Molière (a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was the preeminent writer of seventeenth century French stage comedy, acknowledged today as the prime force that advanced the genre beyond the unidimensional farce and commedia influences preceding him. Molière (1622–1673) brought his characters out of greyscale into full, living color. In his hands, the French stage became a vehicle for social commentary, examination of character (mostly flawed), and an intellectual look inside the shortcomings of human nature. Molière’s success vaulted French comedy to its apex. Now France possessed a comedic master to equal any of his European contemporaries.

To avoid falling into disfavor with his royal patrons (most notably King Louis XIV), Molière primarily targeted the French upper classes as the object of his magnificent humor. The lead role in The School for Wives exemplifies his best characters: myopic males, mostly gentrified, that focus too heavily on belief in the very thing that will, ultimately, lead to their undoing. These characters are usually foiled in their obsessive attempts to manipulate the world, often through schemes that backfire. Because they adhere so firmly to their own narrow view of the world, a negative result is inevitable, and by play’s end they are made to look foolish.

Mostly, the focal points of Molière plays attempt to victimize or control other characters through manipulative behavior, usually for personal gain. Due to an intense focus on the character’s “Achilles heel,” the audience’s field of vision expands, making the character’s capacity for ridiculous behavior seem as wide as a football field. In The Misanthrope, Molière portrays Alceste, a man who despises hypocrisy, and can do nothing but see all of society as corrupt. In Tartuffe, Molière’s best-known work (1664), Orgon can’t see that he has come under the spell of the parasitic title character that usurps everything of value to him, including his own family. Toward the end of his career, an increasingly ill Molière created Argan (The Imaginary Invalid, 1673). Argan’s stupefying hypochondria manifests itself in an obsession whereby his health neuroses inspire him to force his daughter to marry a physician.

The School for Wives (L’Ecole des Femmes), written in 1662, was the companion piece to The School for Husbands (1661). The earlier work features two husbands with completely opposite approaches to marriage. The first man takes an enlightened approach, but the second behaves like a paranoid and jealous husband. In The School for Wives, parasite and victim become one in the same person.
Arnolphe (alias Mssr. De la Souche) is the vehicle for Molière’s merciless humor. Despite being a wealthy forty-two year-old property owner, Arnolphe’s greatest desire is for marriage. At the same time, it’s also his greatest fear! In Arnolphe’s eyes, adultery by the female partner is virtually unpreventable, and the potential for his own victimization is what’s kept him a bachelor longer than most.

As a younger man, Arnolphe claims to have stood witness to his fellow men becoming the object of universal cuckoldry. His strong tendencies toward jealousy and possessiveness are exceeded only by his desire for control over his intended. As such, Arnolph has convinced himself that he can avert all chances for becoming a cuckold himself. Naturally, Moliere’s pretense guarantees that Arnolphe’s plan is headed for the same fate he is so fiercely trying to dodge.

Chrysalde, Arnolphe’s close friend, serves as Molière’s antithetical mouthpiece in The School for Wives. Chrysalde advocates devilishly at length to the viewpoint of the lead character. With heroic futility, Chrysalde attempts to persuade his friend to come to his senses. Arnolphe is unswayed, decreeing that the only way to avert being cuckolded is to enact a thorough brainwashing of his intended, the youthful ward Agnes.

Having seen so much feminine cheating ruin the marriages of his contemporaries, Arnolphe years ago avowed bachelorhood until the perfect bride could be found (or, in this case, trained). In his view, the only foolproof marriage is to a bride who is naïve, completely unsophisticated, and wholly uneducated. She must be sheltered entirely from a corrupt culture in which infidelity runs rampant.

At this point, Arnolphe believes that the ideal spouse in training (essentially a blank canvas) can be quickly schooled in the proper ways of marriage by employing a ridiculous textbook entitled The Maxims of Marriage: or The Duties of a Married Woman, Together With Her Daily Exercises. The effect of such devolutionary training, he believes, will result in eliminating any possibility of Agnes committing adultery. Pygmalionesque? Stepford Wivish? Impossible? Perhaps, but that’s Arnolphe’s vision.

To fulfill this unlikely plan, Arnolphe has chanced upon the perfect candidate to end his stoic bachelorhood. Fourteen years previous to the action of the play, he consented to sponsor and raise Agnes, whom he believed to be an orphan. Arnolphe placed Agnes in a convent, with specific instructions for the nuns relating to the enforced limits of the girl’s education.

At the beginning of The School for Wives, Agnes has turned eighteen, and is now ready for life at Arnolphe’s estate, unaware that she awaits special grooming for marriage to her guardian. Arnolph reasons that she will be forever ignorant to the ways of other wives—but, will Agnes’s feminine instincts take over, foiling his grandiose plan? Naturally, the plot plays out with extreme hilarity, and many surprises await poor Arnolphe, whose dreams (of course!) are dashed.

This was Molière’s first great work written entirely in verse. The question is: for whom is this debate over readiness for marriage really intended? Was Molière carrying on an investigation of wedded life with himself? In creating the buffoonish Arnolphe, was Molière actually examining his own relationship?
On the one hand, critics have noted similarities between many of Molière’s characters and those of the commedia d’ell arte genre. A great number of his creations closely resemble the stock characters found in that genus. As a prime example, The School for Wives employs the standard Innamorati (young lovers) and the cranky elder (Vecchio) who tries to obstruct their path to marriage. On the other hand, there is a more biographical slant to the fabric of this play, and commedia influences were not Molière’s exclusive basis for character.

Historically, many critics have noted a palpable connection between Arnolphe and Molière himself. There has long existed a believable view that strong parallels existed between the relationship of Arnolphe and Agnes and the real marriage of the playwright and his own youthful wife, Armande Bejart. The actress and Molière were wed in 1662, the same year in which The School for Wives was penned. Armande, not unlike Agnes in The School for Wives, was only seventeen years of age on her wedding day. Coincidence?

Armande Bejart (Madame Molière as she became known) was the youngest member of a noted family of French actors with whom Molière was long associated. In his day, it was strongly rumored that Armande was actually the illegitimate daughter of her elder sister, Madeleine: fathered perhaps by an Italian count, or possibly even by Molière himself! Madeleine Bejart, one of Molière’s leading ladies, had long been a member of his acting troupe, and was indeed at one time linked romantically with the dramatist. Further insight can be gleaned through accounts that Madame Molière was further suspected of having at least two love affairs during the early years of marriage with Molière!

While it certainly is insightful that the characters in The School for Wives may have an interesting basis in history, the most important characteristic of this show is it’s vintage, uproarious comedy. Molière truly had amazing instincts for where the rarest comedy could be found: within the human condition, and within himself.


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