Wednesday, 6 January 1999

Molière: Tartuffe, or The Impostor (1664)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 180

Like The Misanthrope, Tartuffe is about hypocrisy; unlike the later play, Tartuffe aroused great indignation, and it was only after several re-writes (comemmorated in several prefaces) that the play was allowed to be performed in public. The Misanthrope was, in fact, written during the period that Tartuffe was banned.

The reason for the differing reactions to the two plays is based on the way that Tartuffe shows his hypocrisy: through feigned religious piety. Not having the earlier versions which originally aroused the anger of powerful group (apparently mainly strongly pious lay people rather than the church), one can only guess at what exactly in Molière's play was so outrageous. He specifically denies in one of the prefaces that he intended any attack on true religion; his target was those who pretend true religion. You do have to admit that the more pious members of Orgon's family, he himself and his mother, seem to be portrayed as particularly stupid.

The plot of Tartuffe is fairly simple. Tartuffe has wormed his way into the family of the wealthy Orgon, who believes his assumed piety and looks on him as a saint. Orgon will not believe the warnings of his family, all of whom see through Tartuffe with the exception of his mother. Orgon now tries to force his daughter Marianne to marry Tartuffe, breaking a contract he has already made to marry her to the man she really loves. Tartuffe attempts to seduce Marianne's stepmother Elmire; it is only when she arranges for him to repeat his propositions with Orgon hidden under a table that he realises Tartuffe's true nature. When Orgon tries to throw Tartuffe out of the house, the latter goes to the king with some documents to support an accusation of treason against Orgon (they are documents entrusted to Orgon by a friend who had fled the country). Just when it looks as though Orgon will lose everything, the king intervenes; he has recognised Tartuffe as a scoundrel and throws him into prison instead.

The flattery of the king by Molière and the way he is used as a deus ex machine is the only real weakness of this otherwise great play. The whole thing comes so close to a very unhappy ending that there was very little else that Molière could do to arrange the outcome required in a comedy of the day, intended to be a piece of light entertainment.

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