France marks 400 years of Moliere, master of stage and satire

France launches Saturday a year of events to mark the 400th anniversary of Moliere, the nation's most illustrious and ever popular master of the stage and satire.

A man cycles past the Theater institution La Comedie-Francaise. La Comedie-Francaise is the oldest theatre company in the world.
A man cycles past the Theater institution La Comedie-Francaise. La Comedie-Francaise is the oldest theatre company in the world. Photo: Loic VENANCE / AFP

Baptised on January 15, 1622, and probably born a day or two before, Moliere – real name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – remains as central to French culture as Shakespeare to the English-speaking world.

When the French refer to their native tongue, it is as the “language of Moliere”.

Many of the celebrations will be staged in places that marked his life as an actor, company director and playwright, but above all at the Comedie-Francaise, created by King Louis XIV in 1680, seven years after Moliere’s death.

His plays alone will be performed at the Paris monument to Moliere until July, starting from Saturday with the original censored version of “Tartuffe”, which will be shown live in cinemas too.

The play is considered to have practically invented the “comedy of manners” satirising the moral hypocrisies of high society.

“The Imaginary Invalid”, “The Miser” and “The Bourgeois Gentleman” will follow at the Comedie-Francaise, the longest-running theatre company in the world, performing his work every single year since it opened.

‘He’s everywhere in the air’

The theatre near the Louvre museum, “is anchored in the quarter where he lived and where he died and he’s everywhere in the air,” Comedie-Francaise actress Dominique Blanc told AFP.

“I have a relationship with him like a friend,” she said.

Actor Denis Podalydes said he was not “superstitious” about any presence of Moliere’s spirit at the theatre. “He sleeps in his works until we play them (and then) there’s something very lively,” he said.

In Versailles, where Moliere enjoyed Louis XIV’s patronage, several of the best known plays will be performed in their original versions as “comedies-ballets”, collaborations with Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.

The town on the western edge of Paris holds a Moliere month every summer and a statue by Xavier Veilhan will be unveiled in May following a Moliere exhibition opening on Saturday.

Moliere fled Paris at 23, spending the next 13 years with a travelling troupe and anniversary events will be held up and down the country. Saturday will see another statue unveiled at Pezenas, in the southwest, where Moliere stayed repeatedly in those early years.

The historic heart of the town will be taken over by scenes from the plays and his life. An official Moliere stamp will be offered as a pre-issue.

The CNCS national centre for theatre costume at Moulin, in central France, will open a “Moliere in costume” exhibition,  at the end of May.

The Paris Opera will celebrate the anniversary with “Moliere in Music” from September.

The playwright left little trace of his personal life and the only one of his four children to survive to adulthood, lost his manuscripts.

Despite the myth, Moliere did not die on stage, but shortly after a performance – as the hypochondriac Argan – at home on the Rue de Richelieu on February 17, 1673.

SEE ALSO: French TV viewers resent needless use of English

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Paris theatre fires its British artistic director in row over money and management style

One of the French capital's most important theatres has fired its British artistic director Ruth Mackenzie due to managerial and financial concerns, the theatre and sources said.

Paris theatre fires its British artistic director in row over money and management style
Ruth Mackenzie. Photo: AFP

Mackenzie confirmed she had been fired from the Theatre du Châtelet, but vehemently denied what she described as “false accusations” against her.

Mackenzie was appointed in 2017, just as the theatre prepared to close for nearly two and a half years for a €26.5-million refurbishment, and was given a mission to broaden the prestigious venue's appeal to include new audiences.

Speaking as the theatre reopened in November 2019, McKenzie told The Local that she was on a mission to shake things up and ensure that the theatre better reflected the diversity of Paris.

READ ALSO Meet the British woman on a mission to shake up French theatre

The theatre, one of the city's chief venues for classical music, opera, dance and also musicals, confirmed her departure in a short statement on Friday.

But a source said that the theatre's board had asked her to leave following complaints about her manner with staff and also handling of the finances of the theatre.

“There was a managerial problem with the staff and a financial problem due to an insufficient artistic season,” said a source with knowledge of the issue who asked not to be named.

“An independent audit was conducted which has led to her departure.

“The (issue) had been brewing for a long time and it is the board of directors who asked Ms Mackenzie to leave,” the source said.

Mackenzie confirmed to AFP she had been fired, saying she had received a letter on Thursday and her pay and email were cut with immediate effect.

“This was shocking, brutal and cruel… This was my dream job and somebody is hurling false accusations at me to justify their decision,” she said. 

She acknowledged there had been an inquiry into her management style, with staff apparently complaining that she did not say bonjour enough, but it “found me not guilty of any dismissable offence” while recommending management training and improving her French. She said she had “immediately” accepted this.

Some staff were “not sympathetic to my artistic vision” to find a new public, she said, adding that she would challenge her dismissal legally.

Mackenzie is a hugely prominent figure in the European arts scene.

She is known for running the Cultural Olympiad for the 2012 London Olympic Games, the Scottish Opera, the Manchester International Festival, and the Holland Festival until her appointment to the Theatre du Châtelet.

Her brief reign was marred by controversy, particularly a decision to host the immersive Dau project by Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who faced accusations in the French press of exploiting his cast and having a guru-like hold over them.