Molière's first performance before the king took place in the guard hall of the old Louvre, and the players may well have been unnerved as they peeped through the little hole in the curtain at the audience. No such gathering had ever assembled to watch them. The court of France--the most splendid in history--was present in all its strength. Here was Louis XIV, now twenty years of age, an ardent votary of pleasure, yet stately and reserved, with strength of character plainly written in his face; here was his brother, dressed more like a girl than a boy; here was Anne of Austria, still regent of France, and though grown somewhat stout, retaining much of her celebrated beauty; here, conspicuous by his red robe, his finely-cut features and long, white hair, was Cardinal Mazarin, who for many years had guided the vessel of the State. To the rear was a host of the butterflies belonging to the court, together with a few actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, all anxious to see of what stuff these favored rivals were made. The play bespoken for the evening was Corneille's Nicoméde. We may suspect that, as the performance went on, a feeling of disappointment stole over the audience, the actors from the Bourgogne excepted. Molière and his companions were, of course, far less at home in the stately lines of Corneille than in the quick and vivacious dialogue of Molière, and the trepidation incident to the occasion must have rendered them unable to do anything like justice to themselves. Nicoméde finished, Molière, sensible to their shortcomings, took a very unusual step. He made a speech from the stage; he thanked his majesty for his goodness in bearing the defects of the troupe, who had naturally felt some agitation on finding themselves before so august an assembly, and who, in their eagerness to have the honor of playing before the greatest king in the world, had forgotten that he had already much better actors in his service. "As," continued Molière, "his majesty has so far endured our country manners, I venture, very humbly, to hope that I may be permitted to give one of the little pieces which have procured me some reputation, and with which I have been fortunate enough to amuse the provinces." The king assented by retaining his seat, and the audience, who but a moment before had been preparing to disperse, resumed an attitude of attention. The piece referred to was Le Docteur Amoureux, one of Molière's earliest farces. The result must have more than equalled his anticipations. He quickly converted failure into triumph, and everybody present had much ado to restrain his loudest laughter. The actors from the Bourgogne must have felt that in Molière they had a dangerous rival in comedy--an impression considerably deepened when, an hour or two later, it was found that the king had requested him and his comrades to establish themselves in Paris under the style and title of the "Troupe de Monsieur."
And now the goal was won. After a probation of twelve years, representing the best period of his life, Molière had fully justified his abandonment of the career once prepared for him. His self-imposed exile from Paris, an exile which, as might have been expected of a Frenchman born and bred there, he had felt very deeply, was at an end. He had appeared before the king, had won his favor and had received from him a substantial guarantee of future support. No longer was it necessary for him and those who had cast in their lot with his to trudge from one provincial town to another, to bow low for permission to regale the populace with the choicest productions of French dramatic genius, and then, as was often the case, to be received with apathy by a throng incapable of appreciating the value of what he set before them. Nor was his exultation materially dampened by a want of cordial recognition from his family. Even after he had become famous, his brother omitted his name from a genealogy which, in the pride of their mother's descent, they caused to be drawn up; but old M. Poquelin, actuated by an almost superstitious faith in the judgement of kings, to say nothing of his paternal affection, welcomed him with open arms. Next came social recognition; the doors of many exclusive houses were open to the man on whom the sun of Court favor had begun to shine. If only his mother, the devout Marie Cresse of thirty years before, who had been pious enough to thrash him for mimicking a priest, could have lived to join in the welcome! As for the troupe, he had endeared himself to them by his good-will and generosity, and a sense of the fact that they owed their present position to his gifts served to strengthen the ties which bound them to him. No leader was ever regarded with more affectionate loyalty by his followers than Molière.
The theatre assigned to him was the Hôtel du Petit Bourbon, where, by the influence of Mazarin, a new troupe of Italian players had begun to appear three times a week in farce. The rivalry of these foreigners was not to be despised, especially as they showed a very strong tendency to use French, in preference to their own language. From one point of view, no doubt, their entertainment had a rather monotonous aspect. Its personages, as in bygone times, were nearly always the same--harlequin, pantaloon, columbine and the rest--but to the delight of the cardinal, who probably supported it as a means of establishing opera in France, the more it was shown the better it seemed to be liked. Frequently novel in plot, it was animated throughout by a joyous spirit, to which ample effect was given on the stage.
Molière took the off-days of the Italian comedians--Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Before his campaign opened he was joined by L'Epi, of the Marais, and an actor of great excellence in both tragedy and comedy, Guillaume Marcoureau, Sieur de Brécourt, formerly an officer in the army. Unfortunately, the latter had an ungovernable temper, and his engagement in the troupe had hardly been signed when, having run an insolent coachmen through the body on the Fontainbleau road, he sought refuge in Holland from the vengeance of the law. Molière began with Héraclius and other tragedies by Corneille, but it was not until L'Etourdi and Le Dépit Amoureaux were played that his troupe won the town they were permitted to woo. The charms of these pieces, set forth by clever and disciplined acting, were acknowledged with enthusiasm, and nothing was wanting to the triumph of the dramatist but the presence of the king. Alive to the mistake he had made in giving, at the outset, a succession of tragedies, Molière instantly proceeded to confirm the advantage he had gained. He would write another comedy, and it occurred to him that by importing into his work some genial, yet incisive ridicule, of a popular folly, he would do himself no harm.