An introduction to a classic French play
Tartuffe is one of Molière’s masterpieces. The play was first performed as a three-act comedy in May 1664, and was immediately denounced for supposedly ‘attacking’ religion through its portrayal of the pious titular hypocrite, Tartuffe. The religious zealots who objected to the play eventually persuaded King Louis XIV (who had actually enjoyed the play) to have it banned. Sadly, this was not the last time religious people would take exception to comedy (and comedy that isn’t even poking fun at religion at all, but rather foolish devotion to a charlatan and impostor). Because of this early misinterpretation of Molière’s play, it is worth analysing Tartuffe more closely, to determine precisely what the play is saying about piety, hypocrisy, and gullibility.
The plot of Tartuffe is easy enough to summarise. We observe a man, Orgon, and his mother. Orgon has allowed himself to be duped by a fraud, Tartuffe, who hypocritically pretends to be pious and holier-than-thou, but is really a scoundrel who wishes to take advantage of the gullible Orgon. Orgon is prepared to marry his own daughter, Mariane, to Tartuffe, even though Mariane is in love with (and betrothed to) someone already. Although Orgon’s family try to make him see sense, he refuses to acknowledge that he has fallen under the spell of the roguish Tartuffe. His own son, Damis, even points out to Orgon that Tartuffe is trying to seduce Orgon’s own wife, Elmire.
But Orgon will hear nothing against the sainted Tartuffe. It is only when Tartuffe finally turns up on stage (not until Act 3) and Orgon, concealed under the table, observes Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of Elmire with his own eyes that he realises he’s been had by a rogue. He throws Tartuffe out of his house; Tartuffe tries to get his revenge by compiling a list of trumped-up charges against Orgon, in the hopes that Orgon will lose his house and Tartuffe will be given it instead. The plan almost works, but thankfully the King shows up, and, being a better judge of character than Orgon, recognises Tartuffe for the hypocritical cad that he is and has him arrested. Orgon’s property is restored. Everything ends happily, as you’d expect from a comedy.
How should we analyse and interpret Tartuffe, and what are the play’s key themes? Both Michael Billington and Eric Bentley have argued that the real centre of the play is not the titular Tartuffe but rather the credulous Orgon. The real theme of the play, then, is not so much hypocrisy as fervent religious belief that is unchecked by facts or reason.
Such an interpretation chimes with Molière’s own defence of Tartuffe, in his 1667 Lettre sur la comédie de l’Imposteur, in which he argued that comedy is a physical, external embodiment of ‘the unreasonable’, and so the play of reason against the irrational is the right – indeed, necessary – stuff of comedy. Such a defence of comedy also chimes with the neoclassical ideals of much French drama, with its focus on order, and on keeping tragedy and comedy as separate genres – something John Dryden remarked upon in his ‘Of Dramatick Poesie‘, where he contrasts such an approach with the English habit of mixing up tragedy and comedy (as in Hamlet or King Lear), rather than keeping them separate, along classical lines.
The response to Tartuffe from religious extremists and conservatives resulted in the play being banned shortly after it was first put on the stage. One tract called Molière ‘a devil clothed in human flesh’. The Archbishop of Paris – who led the campaign to get the play taken off the stage – threaten to excommunicate anyone who attended a performance of Tartuffe.
But the play’s stage history, like the play itself, has a happy ending: in 1669, five years after its debut and its suppression from the French stage, a revised version of Tartuffe was performed to much acclaim. The play is now viewed as possibly Molière’s greatest achievement and a classic of French comedy. The religious extremists who sought to consign the play to the dusty shelves of oblivion, lost. As they always will.