Analysis of the play by Molière

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 7. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 215-217.

In The Miser (L'Avare), a five-act comedy in prose, we have the most typical product of Molière's many-sided genius. In each of his other plays he had given special prominence to one of his qualities as a dramatist; here they are all laid under contribution in about equal degrees. Much of the power revealed in Don Juan is displayed side by side with the finest humor, the tenderest sentiment, the most exquisite ridicule, the most searching satire. Indebted to the Aulularia for the general conception of the piece, Molière deviated from it in several important respects, and in the result left the comedy of Plautus far behind. Harpagon is preferable to Euclio, not only in being free from anything like extravagance, but in depth and force of characterization. He is generally regarded as the most vivid embodiment yet in existence of the sordid passion which absorbs his mind. Many of his actions and sayings have passed into proverbs. He is the bourgeois miser who steals the oats from his horses; who is distracted by the suspicion that his children intend to rob him; who, from a constitutional objection to the word "give," will only say "I lend you" good day; who will sacrifice his daughter to a stupid old man rather than give her a modest dowry; who, on finding it necessary to entertain ten persons at supper, provides for eight only; who counsels his gambling son to lend out at good interest the money he wins; whose love for a young woman yields in the end to avarice; and who, unlike Euclio, is anxious to increase as well as hoard what he possesses. Every scene in which he appears serves to throw fresh light upon his character. Yet, repulsive as is the vice he represents, his presence throws no gloom over the play, partly because he is held up to derision as well as hatred, and partly because all his surroundings are treated in the spirit of the liveliest comedy.

For the groundwork of the piece, which also differs from that of the Aulularia, we have a double love intrigue, the personages being numerous enough to bring on the stage the entire company of the Palais Royal. Many incidents and scraps of dialogue are borrowed from Plautus and from modern Italian farces. Molière himself played Harpagon, though the increasing weakness of his chest; now shown in a chronic, hacking cough, rendered him unable, at least without a dangerous effort, to portray the anguish of the miser on discovering the loss of his treasure. Béjart, who was cast for La Flèche, the valet, was also laboring under an infirmity conspicuous enough to become a part of the play. Not long before, in the Place Royal, he had surprised two of his friends doing their best to run each other through the body. He impulsively rushed between them, and was so badly wounded in the foot as to make him lame for the rest of his life.



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