Tuesday, January 15, 2008

MLK and the French - The Writer's Almanac

It was on this day in 1831 that Victor Hugo (books by this author) finished his novel Notre-Dame de Paris, known to us as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In this epic Gothic novel, Quasimodo, a grotesque, hunchbacked bell ringer, falls in love with a gypsy street dancer named Esmeralda. While the novel was being written, Hugo was asked to compose a poem in honor of Louis-Philippe, France's first constitutional king, who had been brought to power by the July Revolution. Because of the distraction, Victor Hugo had to keep asking his publishers for deadline extensions for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Once he finally sat down to write it, he finished it in only four months.

Victor Hugo, who said, "If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away."

It's the birthday of another French writer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, (books by this author) born in Besançon in the east of France (1809), seven years after Victor Hugo was born in the same town. Proudhon was a socialist journalist, and in 1840 he wrote the pamphlet What Is Property? In it, Proudhon said, "I am an anarchist" and "Property is theft." During the July monarchy, he narrowly missed being arrested for What Is Property? But he was brought to court when, two years later, he wrote the sequel, Warning to Proprietors (1842). He was not convicted, because his jury decided they couldn't condemn a man for making arguments they didn't understand.

In the late 1840s, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon edited four newspapers, all of which were destroyed by government censorship. He said, "The newspapers are the cemeteries of ideas."

It's the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (books by this author) born in Atlanta (1929). The leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King was a powerful speaker and strong leader even during his younger years. After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, King was urged by his father, who was a Baptist preacher, to enter the ministry. He enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he worked toward a Bachelor of Divinity degree.

While at the seminary, King was elected president of the student body, which was almost exclusively white. A Crozer professor wrote in a letter of recommendation for King, "The fact that with our student body largely Southern in constitution a colored man should be elected to and be popular [in] such a position is in itself no mean recommendation."

It was 1955, early in King's new tenure as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on one of that city's busses. King was elected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed with the intention of boycotting the transit system. He was young, only 26, and he knew his family connections and professional standing would help him find another pastorate should the boycott fail. So he accepted.

In his first speech to the group as its president, King said: "We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice."

The boycott worked, and King saw the opportunity for more change. He formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which provided him a national platform. For the next 13 years, King worked to peacefully end segregation. In 1963, he joined other civil rights leaders in the March on Washington—that's where he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

The following year, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and King earned the Nobel Prize for Peace. In his acceptance speech for that prize he said, "I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, was assassinated almost four years later, in Memphis. He was there to support a strike by the city's sanitation workers, and had told them the night before a sniper shot him dead on his hotel-room balcony: "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

It was on this day in 1622 that a third French writer, the playwright Molière, (books by this author) was baptized in Paris. He is known to be the father of French comedic theater, and wrote Tartuffe (1664), Le Misanthrope (1666), and Le Malade Imaginaire (1673). Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin to wealthy parents—his father was the royal upholsterer—Molière attended school at the well-respected College de Clermont and studied law at Orleans.

He was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, but, when he was 21, he became involved with a theatrical family, the Béjarts. He joined them and others to produce and play comedy as a company under the name of the Illustre-Théatre. The company didn't last long—it was a financial mess, and Poquelin spent time in debtor's prison. But it was during these first years with Illustre that two things happened: Poquelin developed a relationship with Madeleine Béjart, who was with him until her death and widely thought to have been his mistress. And, as a performer, he started using the stage name Molière.

Since there was clearly no room for another theater troupe in Paris, Molière, Madeleine, and their company ran off to tour the provinces. They did this for 13 years, giving Molière plenty of practice with all aspects of the theater: He was an actor, director, stage manager, and writer. In 1658, Molière and his company performed before Louis XIV on a makeshift stage in a guardroom of the Louvre. They chose a play that had been popular with provincial audiences, Le Docteur Amoureux (The Amorous Doctor). The King's brother Philippe loved it, and the troupe was invited to stay in Paris. Molière spent the rest of his life there, and died in 1673 not far from where he was born.

Molière was a womanizer and had affairs with several actresses in addition to Madeleine. When he finally married, at age 40, he scandalously chose 19-year-old Armande Béjart, who was either Madeleine's daughter or her sister. She was a flirt, and Molière was not only a womanizer but also a jealous husband, so they were unhappy. They separated after only two years, after she bore him a son, but she continued to work with him. One of her most important roles was Célimène in The Misanthrope, a coquettish character which was modeled after her. Molière played the role of Alceste, who is in love with Célimène.

The Misanthrope is widely considered to be Molière's greatest achievement. In it, the character Alceste says "I have the fault of being a little more sincere than is proper."

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