Facts about Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière
1. Molière died shortly after collapsing on stage during one of his own plays. Molière’s play Le malade imaginaire, known in English as The Imaginary Invalid or, alternatively, The Hypochondriac, was first staged in February 1673. Molière acted in the production, taking the lead role of Argan (the hypochondriac of the title). Ironically, given the role he was playing in the production, Molière in fact collapsed in a fit of coughing during the performance. He insisted on finishing his performance, before suffering another massive haemorrhage and dying shortly after. He had been suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis for several years.
2. In fact, the nature of Molière’s death is probably the origin of a well-known theatrical superstition. The idea that the colour green brings bad luck to actors is thought to derive from the fact that Molière was wearing green in that final, fatal performance of The Imaginary Invalid.
3. The play now widely regarded as his masterpiece, Le Misanthrope, was a flop during Molière’s lifetime. His play Le Misanthrope was a commercial failure when it was first performed in 1665; it would only be after Molière’s death that it would come to be seen as perhaps his finest achievement. Indeed, not everyone has been a fan: the great actor and director Laurence Olivier thought him ‘funny as a baby’s open grave’. Molière’s great innovation in stage comedy was to combine elements of Italian Commedia dell’arte with the more genteel aspects of French comedy of the day.
4. One of his characters has become shorthand for a certain kind of person. Just as Dickens gave the world Scrooge for all tight-fisted misers and Shakespeare gave us Romeo as the name for all romantic male lovers (though Shakespeare did not originate the name; he merely popularised it), so Molière has given us Tartuffe, a person defined by the OED as a ‘hypocritical pretender to religion, or, by extension, to excellence of any kind’ (first cited in 1688).
5. Fellow French playwright Jean Racine ran off with one of the actresses in Molière’s theatre company. It’s thought that the two playwrights, formerly on friendly terms with one another, fell out after Molière discovered that Racine had offered one of his plays, Alexandre le Grand, to a rival acting troupe as well as Molière’s company.