Studying Molière

From a tradition of literary scientists 

Just like his retreat notebooks mixing spiritual and scientific notes, his research notebooks relating to his study of Molière are not confined to literary notes, but accommodate, or are literally shared with, notes on scientific considerations. Thus, one side of the notebook deals with references to Molière whereas the other deals with machine code for the Elliot 802.

A true genius is not confined to one subject. Blaise Pascal, Albert Einstein, Antoine Lavoisier… Those scientists overran their domains and, inter alia, were attracted to the literary world. So it is not surprising to see Lemaître versed in theatre, above all given his personal history.

A tradition of challenging the attribution of works

Specialists in literature often call the authorship of certain works into question. Thus many authors, like Shakespeare, have rightly or wrongly seen their author status challenged by researchers. The case of Molière is also a source for debate. Among other elements, we note that aside from a few signatures, nothing has been preserved which had to have been written by Molière's hand and also that nobody has succeeded in establishing the origin of the pseudonym of J.-B. Poquelin. Whereupon Lemaître took up the theories circulating and dealt with them in a very critical manner. Scientificity obliges! 

Lemaître's own research

Lettre à Georges Lemaître à propos de la pièce de Molière

Lemaître was close to his nephews and nieces. He accompanied them over the course of their lives, was present at their baptisms or marriages - sometimes taking an active part. That sincere affection and proximity stand out in this letter of his niece Odette, testifying to awareness of Uncle Georges' contemporary interests.  

Georges Lemaître à son bureau de l'appartement à Louvain

Georges Lemaître in his office in his apartment in Louvain, Albert Street, across from the Saint Pierre Church. We see an adding machine, his bookcase and piano. His office as well as some of its furnishing are displayed in the Space Lemaître, a Study Hall of the Faculty of Sciences, UCLouvain. 

Despite his attraction, Molière and literature do not belong to Georges Lemaître's field of study and formation and he was aware of it. However, the works of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin and their possible connection with Louis XIV fascinated him from the late 1940's to the early 1960s. Who might have set him on that path?

  • The idea may have come from his niece Odette. She may have told him that there then existed research attempting to find another author behind Molière (in Paris, Maurice Garçon advanced the hypothesis that Louis XIV may perhaps have played an inspirational role for his plays).
  • Perhaps during conversations he shared with his colleagues and friends around the table at the Majestic, the subject was brought up and led him to want to know more.
  • Among his parents' friends, we find Doctor Théophile Hénusse. He was a Molierist and we know that Lemaître later sought his opinion on his theories. Perhaps he influenced Lemaître in his research? 
  • Since he asked a lot of questions, and his curiosity for any field was easily aroused, he may perchance have been directed towards that subject. 
  • Perhaps the second world war inclined him to be interested in other things than the sciences? We in fact know that occupiedBelgium's isolation distanced him from a certain type of research. 
  • He might have been influenced by the articles of Georges Lenôtre (“Molière était-il Louis XIV ?”, 1951) and by Maurice Garçon (“Louis XIV était-il Molière ?”, 1953). 

The canon remained nonetheless a scientist; he knew how to do research, and all the more so as he had already done something of the sort. For he had in fact focused on the works of Jan Ruysbroeck, a 14th century Flemish monk and poet, as well as on borrowed words. 

In his archives, we find research notebooks with his reflections. His attention first turned to Molière, Louis XIV and Racine and he documented them. There he relied on the works of Alexandre Dumas (Louis XIV et son siècle), of Hubert Méthivier (Le siècle de Louis XIV), Ramon Fernandez (La vie de Molière), in addition to articles by Lenôtre and Garçon. In a second phase, he focused on the plays themselves, involving the purchase of the complete works of Molière in 1963. Having read all the plays, he systematically analysed the texts in an attempt to determine who wrote what.

“I think that having resolved the double star only doubles my admiration for each incomparable star whose various bursts were too long confused. Nor do I flatter myself with having done anything definitive, or having proven anything. I merely wanted to show what can happen if an astronomer sets about reading Molière and imagines that in that literature, as in the sky, there are double stars” (Lemaître, Georges, Notebook on Molière's Plays).

His method


56 index cards gather information of various natures relating to Molière and his writings gleaned during his readings. Dates, notes, citations, statements and assessments are the first working tools, structured on cards to be linked to the already more elaborated notebooks.

"Une étoile double : Molière"

Starting from the hypothesis according to which two authors are hidden behind Molière, Lemaître began this particular research as he usually did.. He had recourse to various versions, took into account the notes and writings of contemporaries, studied the historical context, sought indices in authors approaching the subject, brought himself up to date on published analyses…

Carnet de notes relatives aux pièces de Molière

Lemaître also developed a reading grid providing him with an “objective” analysis of the versions. In parallel, he advanced a series of hypotheses that he tried to verify in holding them up to the texts. Play by play, chapter by chapter, he read, compared and noted. In so doing he reading that corpus through several times, which explains the erasures and other corrections at the very heart of his notes. But for him it was research done “on the margins” which made for the spontaneity of his writing and the many personal reflections.

He began his research by reading works concerning Molière or Louis XIV. He really wondered about the supposed authorship of the works and their chronology.

“Is it conceivable that Poquelin could allow himself a surprise the king did not know about beforehand? For that matter, are we sure that he never regaled the provinces with the mysterious docteur amoureux/doctor in love? But shouldn't the situation be reversed, that what was presented as accessory might have been the main thing? Didn't Poquelin come to Paris and didn't the king come to the Louvre precisely to perform and hear Le 'Docteur Amoureux' there? Mightn't Nicomède have been just a pretext? But what was this 'Docteur Amoureux' and why did Boileau regret its loss? Why did the king want to see it performed and did he have Molière come to Paris to perform it in front of him? Wasn't 'Le Docteur Amoureux's author - after all - Louis XIV?”. 

He subsequently turned to investigating each subject he approached (and the competency of each author to talk about it), on the plays' creation date, etc. In the early 1950s, after the publication of Maurice Garçon's article, he furthered his research in turning to the original texts of plays, as Father Bosmans had taught him to do, and analysed them systematically. He sought incoherencies and differences, etc, both on the level of contents and that of form. He considered that Molière's hand is detectable in certain extracts, and that others reveal the presence of a third person, more competent (as in Les fâcheux, the hunting party must have been written by or with the assistance of an expert - like the king). 

Regarding form, he carried out a grammatical, phraseological and structural analysis: 

  • He initially examined the scenes and acts: what is their length? What is their logic? Are there breaks or evidence of joining the various parts? That was done in the aim of revealing the presence of two authors.
  • He sought what he called “prefabricated plays”: ready-made extracts, distinct from the play's global structure, added afterwards and which hence have rather abrupt beginnings or endings. In the same procedure, he tried to distinguish the parts of texts which result from a first draft from those which were added, or text that was modified later on. Is there a change of style or form which distinguishes the primitive text from a text added a posteriori? 
  • He also compared the plays with one another and their critiques (as is the case between Sganarelle and Critique de l'école des femmes, a one act, prose comedy dating back to 1663). He thus managed to establish certain “double series”: Femmes savantes – Précieuses ridicules ; École des femmes – École des maris ; Médecin malgré lui – Amour médecin ; Mariage forcé – Sganarelle ; Don Juan – Tartuffe.
  • He investigated the style of writing, formatting and organization of the discourse.

An example. When he read a play, he decomposed it. He tried to understand if Molière had borrowed ideas or text from someone else (as in La Princesse d’Élide where took themes from a Spanish author to flatter the queens of France - who were Spanish). He tried to understand what the author's intention was: why did he write the play?  In the case of Tartuffe for example, Lemaître felt that Molière had wanted to do a whole comedy in prose. However certain parts of the text are in verse. Some are also less 'finished' than others. He then advances the theory alleging that the king must have asked for scenes in verse, beside the scenes written in prose. For Georges Lemaître, there are consequently two authors: one who wrote in verse, and the other who wrote in prose. The analysis of Tartuffe he did is rather pointed and the work is said be “characteristic of the two components of the double star Molière was” because we find a difference in style and discourse between the third and fourth acts, and because there is a difference of contents between the two. It favours the theory according to which Louis XIV must have written the first acts and Poquelin the last ones.

His analyses remain very personal: his style lets us think that his text is written in following his reflections and not necessarily in a logical order; he intended it first for himself before adapting it for what might possibly be a lecture. His reflection is not always easy to follow, since it is a continuous and personal thought process; he really notes whatever comes to mind as a theory at that very moment. So it may seem a bit disjointed at times.