Le bourgeois gentilhomme

Louis XIV was known as the Sun King for a reason. He and his court were frequently sought for influence.  It may however surprise one to learn that Louis XIV pursued others as well.

The King surrounded himself with a variety of significant political, military, and cultural figures, such as Mazarin, Colbert, Louvois, the Grand Condé, Turenne, Vauban, Boulle, Molière, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Lully, Charpentier, Marais, Le Brun, Rigaud, Bossuet, Le Vau, Mansart, Charles Perrault, Claude Perrault, and Le Nôtre.

It was at first sight unimaginable to me that Molière presented his play to the King of France. I would suspect it was an evening to be remembered! It is entertaining as well that the shocking disparity between the wealth of the French aristocrats and the balance of the public tolerated the infestation of those normally regarded at the end of the nobleman’s nose. Yet it points to the primary credential of wealth – namely, if you’ve got it, show it! Certainly there are those who are discrete about their wealth; but most are not.  The French aristocracy had yet to endure the humiliation of necessity brought about by revolution.

The French Revolution was a period of time in France when the people overthrew the monarchy and took control of the government.  Lasting 10 years from 1789 to 1799, it began on July 14, when revolutionaries stormed a prison called the Bastille – which is now the celebrated Bastille day.

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman or The Middle-Class Aristocrat or The Would-Be Noble) is a five-act comédie-ballet – a play intermingled with music, dance and singing – written by Molière, first presented on 14 October 1670 before the court of Louis XIV at the Château of Chambord by Molière’s troupe of actors.

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme satirizes attempts at social climbing and the bourgeois personality, poking fun both at the vulgar, pretentious middle-class and the vain, snobbish aristocracy. The title is meant as an oxymoron: in Molière’s France, a “gentleman” was by definition nobly born, and thus there could be no such thing as a bourgeois gentleman. The play is in prose (except for the ballet openings which are in verse).

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (15 January 1622 baptised – 17 February 1673), known by his stage name Molière

Through the patronage of aristocrats including Philippe I, Duke of Orléans—the brother of Louis XIV— Molière procured a command performance before the King at the Louvre

The coincidence of wealth with the less advantaged is as strategic as it is the other way around. There are few if any of us whose behaviour is ruled less by purpose than serendipity, whether one is rich or poor. Understanding the rules of court can however make the ephemeral alliance both useful and gratifying for all parties. The apex of recognition is that liaison is seldom an accident; that desire is driven by appetite. As with most appetites, once satisfied the erstwhile desire evaporates.

The preservation of the superiority touted by the rich – whether manifest or insinuated – is not to be disregarded. The vehicle for assurance of that reminder may be as delicate as a nod or as patent as a bow. This particularity is illustrative of a broader image of behaviour which encompasses a general acknowledgement of condescension on the one side, deference on the other.

A more perfect collegium contains strictly only the quid pro quo without the necessity (or pretence) of familiarity. Reciprocity is as much a feature of society as it is of commerce. Maintaining the courtesy of division between master/servant, trade/profession, retailer/purchaser, solicitor/client is standard conduct. Overstepping those bounds is an invitation for trouble.

The only prospect of revitalizing what is otherwise viewed as a farce is the alignment solely with the best of the worst; that is, seeking and sharing that which is qualitative and worthy of intellect, possession and art. As always, Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff spring to mind. If you haven’t the stomach for calculated thinking, you’ll never be a Bourgeois Gentilhomme.