Short history review

The “Corneille-Molière” problem was first examined in 1919 by the famous French poet P. Louÿs, who was an expert on 17th century poetry (Louÿs, 1919). Having made an in-depth analysis of the works of the great French playwright P. Corneille (1606-1684), who wrote 34 plays in verse, Louÿs made the unexpected conclusion that there was a large similarity between Corneille’s verse and that of J.-B. Poclain (1622-1673), another famous playwright who worked under the pseudonym of Molière. Molière’s theater consists of 33 works written in both verse and in prose. Judging by the stylistic characteristics of the works of the two playwrights, Louÿs suggested that P. Corneille was the author of such Molière masterpieces as “Le Misanthrope”, “L'École des femmes”, “Tartuffe”, and “Dom Juan”. P. Louÿs stated the assumption that one of the reasons why P. Corneille could have refused authorship of his own works in favor of the actor Molière was his desire to speak of his love, his life, and his feelings in his comedies, but to do so anonymously, without revealing his real name.

The main theses stated in P. Louÿs’ articles were further developed and justified in 1957 in the book of A. Poulaille, a novelist, entitled “Corneille under the Mask of Molière” (Poulaille, 1957). A. Poulaille wrote an alternative biography of Molière, starting from the latter’s early childhood. The researcher compares the facts from the biographies of Molière and P. Corneille, and notes the times when the two playwrights met, thereby proving the possibility and likelihood of their creative union. According to A. Poulaille, one of the main reasons forcing P. Corneille, one of the greatest poets of his time, to use the services of Molière, was P. Corneille’s desire to settle scores with his many enemies, using them as characters in topical satirical plays.

This research work did not receive much attention in its day either from simple admirers of the talent of Molière and P. Corneille, or on the part of professional researchers of Molière and Corneille. Only a handful of researchers of French literature of the 17th century had heard of P. Louÿs’ hypothesis until 1990, when the problem of the authorship of Molière’s theater was brought up once again by two lawyers from Brussels, I. Wouters and C. de Ville de Goyet.

In their work I. Wouters and C. de Ville de Goyet gave a detailed analysis of the ideological-stylistic characteristics of such plays as “Les Précieuses ridicules”, “Les Fâcheux”, “L'École des femmes”, “Tartuffe”, “Dom Juan”, and “Amphitryon”, and, also taking into account the histories of the writing of these plays, prove the impossibility that these plays were written by Molière (Wouters, 1990). Writing the large numbers of plays signed by Molière would have required working non-stop from morning till night, but there is no way that Molière had so much time since he worked constantly as a theater director, as a director-producer, and as an actor. Researchers have also pointed to P. Corneille’s difficult financial situation, which was connected to his dependence on cash payments from the king. Corneille’s financial dependence on the court, in the two researchers’ opinion, forced the playwright to make fun of his enemies under a pseudonym. Besides P. Corneille, the two researchers also name the playwright F. Quinault as one of the possible authors who worked under the name of Molière, since Quinault’s style is close to the comedies and ballets attributed to Molière.

The appendix to this book features a work by the great ethnologist F. Vernaud. Having made a lexicological and stylistic study of the plays, Vernaud found a strong resemblance between the texts of Corneille with those written by Molière in their words, versification and style. For example, in Molière’s plays Bernaud found Norman words and a large number of terms and expressions connected to jurisprudence. Only P. Corneille, a resident of Rouen and a famous lawyer, could use these terms. Furthermore, these plays use quotes from little known works in Latin and make reference to religious literature, which is absent from Molière’s library. P. Corneille, on the other hand, being a very religious man, would certainly have studied these works. F. Vernaud finds coincidences between the texts of the plays written by Molière and P. Corneille, such as references to Aristotle and Horatio, the mention of Armenia or Armenians, the use of the rare name Nicandre, and others.

Modern literary and theater critics have had a very critical view on these research works, and have made their own counterarguments. J. Forestier, the head of the department of 18th century theater studies in the Sorbonne, made the most in-depth critical review of the main assumptions made by supporters of the idea that there was cooperation between Molière and P. Corneille. In Forestier’s opinion, Molière’s theater is rather uniform in its content despite the fact that there are many genre subtypes: one can find the influence of farces in any large comedy written by Molière. Also, Forestier explains Molière’s ability to write a large number of plays in a short period of time by the fact that many of Molière’s works are short divertissements and are written in prose.

However, besides ideologic-stylistic and biographical arguments, the supporters of attribution of Molière’s plays to P. Corneille also now have the first mathematically based indication of such cooperation.

In 2001 D. Labbé, a professor at the Institute of Political Research in Grenoble, and a specialist in speech analysis, offered a mathematical method for attribution which calls for calculating “intertextual distance”. In 2003 D. Labbé started using a new method for researching the lexical content of the theater of Molière and P. Corneille. Calculating the “intertextual distance” allowed Labbé to attribute about 18 comedies signed by Molière to P. Corneille (Labbé, 2003).

D. Labbé’s research received a great deal of attention in France and abroad, and created a large interest on the part of specialists of various scientific fields, including both mathematicians and literary critics. Furthermore, D. Labbé’s work served as an impulse for new research on the problem of authorship of Molière’s theater.

The hypothesis of secret cooperation between Molière and P. Corneille was proven by the results of research by F. Vidal, who made an analysis on the basis of biographical data of the two playwrights (Vidal, 2001).

Then D. Boissier wrote what is the most in-depth and structured study on the Molière case. Following previous research of the works of Molière and P. Corneille, D. Boissier suggests that the plays that make up Molière’s oeuvre came from three different sources: part of the plays were put together by actors who read French, Spanish, and Italian comedies; another part was bought from various poets who needed money, or from their widows; and lastly, part of the plays were ordered from P. Corneille (Boissier, 2004).

The idea of P. Corneille being the author of Molière’s plays was accepted by researchers of P. Corneille: in 2006 the Association of French Researchers of the Work of P. Corneille launched an official web-site on the “Corneille-Molière” case in honor of the 400th anniversary of Corneille’s birth (www.corneille-moliere.org).

Heated discussion over the “Corneille-Molière” problem continues both in France and outside the country to the present day.

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