The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83
Some years ago, the management of the little Vaudeville Theatre, in London, was disheartened by the failure of a new piece, upon which authorship and upholstery had both taxed the exchequer. For a stop-gap they put up the "School for Scandal," with old scenery and dresses, and it ran 400 nights. We think "Moliere" was on the back of one of our covers, as an article to come, but it was pigeonholed and dusty. We took it off the roster. What could be said fresh about Moliere? Is he not embalmed in stiff brocade, from Voltaire to Saintsbury?
Yesterday we were revolving and balancing in mind a sentence from Buckle, where he says that the writer is wanted with a new stand-point, some literary Archimedes, who will fulcrum the lever in another place. See, now, if we cannot make a fresh start with Moliere.page 29
It is strange that the two greatest names in the literature of England and France are those of playactors, Shakespeare and Moliere. Both were favourites at Court, Shakespeare with Queen Elizabeth, and Moliere with Louis XIV—Louis the Superb. Each had a trifle of the snob about him, and perchance a faint suspicion of the cad—but we withdraw that.
Moliere's ignorance of Shakespeare's plays was unfortunate. The author of "Le Misanthrope" must have been lifted a stage higher by Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth, while the "Merchant of Venice" would have infused something more into L'Avare. No one supposes that Shakespeare could ever have shot a higher bolt than he did, but we feel convinced that Moliere did not score his one niche the highest with the works mentioned, and Tartuffe, L'Ecole des Femmes, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.
The philosophic current of Moliere's mind was as marked as that of Shakespeare. But look at the poisonous and choking atmosphere in which he lived. We have a most interesting edition of Moliere, published just on the verge of the outbreak of the French Revolution. There is a fascination about the copious notes through this circumstance, and the complacent unconsciousness of any volcanic movement at hand which will dynamite an order of society unbroken for eight hundred years, just as that in England has grown on from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria, also eight hundred years.
Perhaps the most catching of these notes is one in which the speculations of M. Rousseau are referred to, in the same way as Henry George is written about at the present day. The writer says: "But France is too deeply wedded to its monarchy, and to those noble institutions which have stood the test of ages. In vain do such authors," etc. Rousseau had been writing in a very deprecatory style of Moliere, as snob, cad, and all that was bad, from the common people's point of view.
However, the balance can be held nowadays. We can admire Moliere, as we do Homer, Virgil, Horace, and Shakespeare—by the way, Virgil is the prime snob. A careful student of Homer can discern the underlying ridicule behind the vauntings of Achilles, Agamemnon, Ulysses, Hector, and Diomed. We can see clearly that this noblest of all poets is a lover of peace, harnessed unwillingly to the war chariot. He appears to try all he can to lay on the gruel of slaver so thick and slab as to be absurdly and palpably overdone. Yet his patrons would persist in gulping it all in. Tennyson is superior to Milton, but not quite equal to Swinburne. Roberts is superior to Wellington, but not quite equal to Wolseley.
Shakespeare says: "I have to put in some snobbery, and I'll do it with frankness, and without any humbug." But Moliere seems to gloat in it—though it must be only seeming. He would page 30 say to his cronies, "I must give the King, Le Grand Roi, another dab of the butter-knife." Louis, however, treated him with the same genuine kindness which the First Gentleman in Europe, George IV., extended to his favourite comedians.
Shakespeare and Moliere drew much from the same sources, the Italian fictionists. We may give a paper on Boccaccio, one of Shakespeare and Moliere's chief wells. Boccaccio is reported to have considerably purified his stories from the sources whence they came. A late Duke of Marlborough gave £2260 for one dirty little old volume of Boccaccio. We suppose he would have given £5000 for one of the sources.
The purity of Moliere's writings is wonderful. It is the best indication of the noble strains in his nature. Nevertheless, though Shakespeare is occasionally coarse, we cannot help feeling how immeasurably the tone of his works is above that of Moliere. Shakespeare invigorates. We cannot say that Moliere deteriorates one's mind, but there is an oppressive atmosphere of courtliness, artificiality, over-refinement, and those things which are not good for the spirit.
Then there is the lack of sound, healthy humanity. The lurking melancholy of Shakespeare is only that which we are not angry to find in our own minds. We are not displeased with our mentally vulnerable heel of Achilles, because it is the reminder, in the midst of our summer happiness, that "This too, shall pass away." We are, indeed, afraid to be all content.
Dean Milman decried Thomas-a-Kempis, because he said that such a monotone of abasement and mournfulness was un-Christian, and not the spirit of the Bible. This is correct One's general impression of the Bible, all that is called up by the word Bible, is not a wail in the minor key, but the full rounded and complete notes of the whole organ.
The Misanthrope is Moliere's finest work, and the key to all. There is no abandon in his comicality. It is that of the French comique we see at the theatre, or the circus, as distinguished from the roast beef and plum pudding Old English fun of Grimaldi. The portrait of Moliere, with his round thick nose, sallow visage, heavy black eyebrows, and searching eyes, indicates his genius. He is strikingly like Irving's make up for Mathias, in The Bells."