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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From ‘Letter to Monsieur de Molière, Valet de Chambre du Roi’
By Andrew Lang (1844–1912)
 
In ‘Letters to Dead Authors’

Monsieur:
WITH what awe does a writer venture into the presence of the great Molière! As a courtier in your time would scratch humbly (with his comb!) at the door of the Grand Monarch, so I presume to draw near your dwelling among the Immortals. You, like the King who among all his titles has now none so proud as that of the friend of Molière—you found your dominions small, humble, and distracted; you raised them to the dignity of an empire: what Louis the XIV. did for France you achieved for French comedy; and the bâton of Scapin still wields its sway, though the sword of Louis was broken at Blenheim. For the King the Pyrenees (or so he fancied) ceased to exist; by a more magnificent conquest you overcame the Channel. If England vanquished your country’s arms, it was through you that France ferum victorem cepit, and restored the dynasty of Comedy to the land whence she had been driven. Ever since Dryden borrowed ‘L’Étourdi,’ our tardy apish nation has lived (in matters theatrical) on the spoils of the wits of France.
  1
  In one respect, to be sure, times and manners have altered. While you lived, taste kept the French drama pure; and it was the congenial business of English playwrights to foist their rustic grossness and their large Fescennine jests into the urban page of Molière. Now they are diversely occupied; and it is their affair to lend modesty where they borrow wit, and to spare a blush to the cheek of the Lord Chamberlain. But still, as has ever been our wont since Etherege saw and envied and imitated your successes—still we pilfer the plays of France, and take our bien, as you said in your lordly manner, wherever we can find it. We are the privateers of the stage; and it is rarely, to be sure, that a comedy pleases the town which has not first been “cut out” from the countrymen of Molière. Why this should be, and what “tenebriferous star” (as Paracelsus, your companion in the ‘Dialogues des Morts,’ would have believed) thus darkens the sun of English humor, we know not; but certainly our dependence on France is the sincerest tribute to you. Without you, neither Rotrou, nor Corneille, nor “a wilderness of monkeys” like Scarron, could ever have given Comedy to France and restored her to Europe.  2
  While we owe to you, monsieur, the beautiful advent of Comedy, fair and beneficent as Peace in the play of Aristophanes, it is still to you that we must turn when of comedies we desire the best. If you studied with daily and nightly care the works of Plautus and Terence, if you “let no musty bouquin escape you” (so your enemies declared), it was to some purpose that you labored. Shakespeare excepted, you eclipsed all who came before you: and from those that follow, however fresh, we turn; we turn from Regnard and Beaumarchais, from Sheridan and Goldsmith, from Musset and Pailleron and Labiche, to that crowded world of your creation. “Creations” one may well say, for you anticipated Nature herself: you gave us, before she did, in Alceste a Rousseau who was a gentleman, not a lacquey; in a mot of Don Juan’s the secret of the new religion and the watchword of Comte, l’amour de l’humanité.  3
  Before you where can we find, save in Rabelais, a Frenchman with humor; and where, unless it be in Montaigne, the wise philosophy of a secular civilization? With a heart the most tender, delicate, loving, and generous,—a heart often in agony and torment,—you had to make life endurable (we cannot doubt it) without any whisper of promise or hope or warning from religion. Yes, in an age when the greatest mind of all, the mind of Pascal, proclaimed that the only hope was in voluntary blindness, that the only chance was to hazard all on a bet at evens, you, monsieur, refused to be blinded, or to pretend to see what you found invisible.  4
  In religion you beheld no promise of help. When the Jesuits and Jansenists of your time saw, each of them, in Tartuffe the portrait of their rivals (as each of the laughable Marquises in your play conceived that you were girding at his neighbor), you all the while were mocking every credulous excess of faith. In the sermons preached to Agnès we surely hear your private laughter; in the arguments for credulity which are presented to Don Juan by his valet we listen to the eternal self-defense of superstition. Thus, desolate of belief, you sought for the permanent element of life—precisely where Pascal recognized all that was most fleeting and unsubstantial—in divertissement; in the pleasure of looking on, a spectator of the accidents of existence, an observer of the follies of mankind. Like the gods of the Epicurean, you seem to regard our life as a play that is played, as a comedy; yet how often the tragic note comes in! What pity, and in the laughter what an accent of tears, as of rain in the wind! No comedian has been so kindly and human as you; none has had a heart like you to feel for his butts, and to leave them sometimes, in a sense, superior to their tormentors. Sganarelle, M. de Pourceaugnac, George Dandin, and the rest—our sympathy somehow is with them, after all; and M. Pourceaugnac is a gentleman, despite his misadventures.  5
  Though triumphant Youth and malicious Love in your plays may batter and defeat Jealousy and Old Age, yet they have not all the victory, or you did not mean that they should win it. They go off with laughter, and their victim with a grimace; but in him we that are past our youth behold an actor in an unending tragedy,—the defeat of a generation. Your sympathy is not wholly with the dogs that are having their day; you can throw a bone or a crust to the dog that has had his, and has been taught that it is over and ended. Yourself not unlearned in shame, in jealousy, in endurance of the wanton pride of men (how could the poor player and the husband of Celimène be untaught in that experience?), you never sided quite heartily, as other comedians have done, with young prosperity and rank and power.  6
 
 
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