Whenever evoked in a modern or a postmodern cultural context, even outside France, Tartuffe still carries with it a considerable amount of polemical baggage. It may be argued that it delves far closer to the level of persistent cultural preoccupation than any of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, and that one must look to Don Quixote or War and Peace to find a literary text so thoroughly joined to a particular concept of nationhood.
—Ralph Albanese, Jr., “Tartuffe Goes to School”
On February 17, 1773, Molière coughed up blood while performing the title role in his final comedy, Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). That the already desperately ill Molière should end his theatrical career pretending to be a hypochondriac is one of the theater’s great dramatic ironies. He died a few hours after the performance at his home of a lung embolism. The priests at the parish of Saint-Eustache, where he had been baptized as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, refused him last rites and the opportunity for the conventional deathbed renunciation of his profession that would have allowed the excommunicated actor to be buried in holy ground. France’s greatest dramatist was finally buried, in the words of critic Nicholas Boileau, in a “piece of land obtained by supplication,” through the intervention of Louis XIV on behalf of his friend. The king managed to persuade the archbishop of Paris to grant Molière a Christian burial, but only in the dead of night, without a public ceremony of mourning. The clergy refused to forgive Molière for his presumed impious and blasphemous attack on religion in Tartuffe, which had been first performed almost a decade before in 1664, and only reluctantly bowed to royal persuasion.
Tartuffe is one of the most contentious plays ever produced and the subject of the 17th-century’s greatest censorship battle. Molière’s shockingly delightful drama about religious belief radically redefined the targets and ends of comedy. That Molière would comically treat such a subject in a religiously sensitive age that still dealt with heresy at the stake was daring in the extreme, if not foolhardy. That his critics misperceived the play’s exposure of false piety and religious hypocrisy as an attack on religion itself suggests that Tartuffe hit a sensitive nerve. It is easy to condemn the bias and blindness of Molière’s clerical contemporaries at the time of his death, still smarting from the stings of Tartuffe. However, the play retains its ability to shock and touch audiences on sore spots, and the need to be able to distinguish true piety amidst sham is no less urgent today than it was in 17th-century France.
Controversy, such as that surrounding Tartuffe and Molière’s passing, was a constant in the playwright’s career, beginning with his return to Paris in 1658 after a 12-year provincial tour as actor, manager, and playwright with a struggling theatrical troupe. During this apprenticeship period, Molière perfected his craft as a comic farceur and playwright, converting elements from traditional French farce and the Italian commedia dell’arte into a radically new comic drama that challenged tragedy as a vehicle for delivering the most serious and profound truths. If 17th-century French tragedy had formulated a clear set of rules and conventions, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid in the 1630s, French comedy was another matter when Molière took it up. The crude slapstick of French farce with its stock characters and exaggerated situations was enjoyed by the populace, while the sophisticated preferred the dignity, verisimilitude, and profundity of tragedy. Literary or high comedy needed to be similarly serious and refined. Molière, who developed his skills on the popular stage, would revolutionize French comedy by fusing the farcical with prescribed elements of neoclassical drama and the aspirations of serious drama. He showed that comedy, as well as tragedy, could reach psychological depths and essential human themes and that the caricatural distortions of farce aided rather than prevented the exploration of human nature and social experience. His was an innovative character comedy based on the lifelike portrayal of contemporary manners but with the theatrical inventiveness that provoked hearty laughter at human foibles and pretensions. Many were not amused.
In 1662 Molière presented L’École des femmes (The School for Wives), a play about a middle-aged man’s scheme to prevent becoming a cuckold by raising his bride from girlhood isolated from the corruptions of society. Despite great commercial success, his satirical comedy that exposed the excesses and unflattering inclinations of the beau monde prompted charges of the playwright’s immorality and defiance of dramatic decorum. The play touched off the so-called guerre comique, which became, after the controversy over Corneille’s Le Cid, 17th-century France’s second great debate over the ends and means of drama. To the charge that he had violated good taste by exposing the vices of the respectable and overturned the rules of dramatic decorum by provoking ridicule by his comic exaggeration of serious matters, Molière insisted that he had observed drama’s fundamental rule by pleasing his audience. Preferring to treat men as they are rather than as they ought to be, the playwright insisted that comedy must represent “all the defects of men, and especially the men of our own time.” Throughout the debate Molière insisted on a new realistic standard for drama that would extend the range of comedy with the goal of correcting men’s vices by exposing them, by instructing the neoclassical ideals of reason and moderation, and by wittily showing their violations.
The ultimate test for Molière’s conception of comedy would come with Le Tartuffe. A three-act version of the play was first performed for the king at Versailles during a lavish spring fete. It provoked shocked condemnation from the queen mother, from church officials, and from lay members of the Company of the Holy Sacrament, the era’s spiritual thought police engaged in the protection of morality and orthodoxy. In the grip of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church in France was divided into two dominant rival factions of the Jesuits and the puritanical Jansenists. Both sides saw themselves the target of Molière’s satire, and less than a week after its first performance religious and moral pressure groups forced a royal ban. Molière was condemned as “a demon dressed in flesh and clothed as a man, and the most outrageously impious libertine who has ever appeared in centuries” by one cleric who called for the playwright to be burned at the stake. The ban led to Molière’s five-year struggle to justify his play and his method and to get Tartuffe performed and published. He contended that his target was neither religion nor the truly pious but those who merely pretended to be and who used religion to conceal and justify their vices. Molière insisted that instead of belittling moral values his play was the most effective way to support morality by attacking “the vices of these times through ludicrous depictions.” In 1667 a five-act version of the play—with a new title, L’Imposteur, and a renamed title character (Panulphe)—premiered in Paris. It likewise was immediately banned. Molière’s theater was closed, and the archbishop of Paris decreed that anyone performing in, attending, or reading the play would be excommunicated. Molière appealed to the king, who was away from Paris with his army at the time, that the play was neither dangerous to religion nor the genuinely pious and threatened to stop writing comedy altogether if these “tartuffes” were unchallenged. Louis let the ban stand but agreed to reexamine the case upon his return to Paris. On February 5, 1669, the ultimate version of the play, entitled Le Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur, finally opened to great acclaim and commercial success, as well as lingering clerical resentment.
Tartuffe has gone on to become Molière’s most widely read and performed play. Its title character is among drama’s greatest comic characters, and the story of his rise and fall as a devious usurper in the respectable bourgeois house-hold of Orgon and his family is a masterpiece of characterization, social satire, and theatricality in its multiple discovery scenes and reversals. The basic elements of the comedy are inherited. The parasite, the tyrannical father, young put-upon lovers, and scheming servants recall the cast in Roman comedies. Tartuffe, the unctuous faux dévot, resembles the seductive Vice in the medieval morality plays. The uncovering of a fraud in which a cozener preys on the weaknesses of sinners and the gullible has its basis in the medieval and farce traditions, as well as such previous comedies as Ben Jonson’s Volpone and The Alchemist. Molière’s originality rests in the psychological and social uses he makes of these elements, working out believable motivations for his characters while embodying in their often ludicrous behavior serious social themes.
The most striking structural innovation in the play is keeping Tartuffe offstage until the second scene of the third act, the climax of most five-act dramas. His absence underscores Molière’s focus in the play not on Tartuffe but on his gulls and the consequence of Tartuffe’s deception. The opening scenes, recording the family’s breakdown through the patriarch Orgon’s falling for the lures of a religious hypocrite, was called by Goethe, “the greatest and best thing of the kind that exists.” The household has been ruptured by Tartuffe’s arrival into two warring factions: Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle, who have been taken in by Tartuffe’s cant and pose of fervent religiousness, and the rest of the household, including Elmire, Orgon’s wife; Cléante, his brother-in-law; Orgon’s daughter and son, Mariane and Damis; and Mariane’s maid, Dorine. Orgon’s household, a microcosm of society, has been perverted and inverted by Tartuffe, who has made himself “master in the house.” Orgon (originally played by Molière) is blinded by Tartuffe’s promises of spiritual salvation and neglects and violates the temporal demands of love and responsibility he rightfully owes to his wife and children and is unable to see what is so evident to the others, that Tartuffe is a hypocrite and self-seeking manipulator. The family’s patriarch prefers the illusions Tartuffe supplies to reality, and the opening scenes make clear the consequences of Orgon’s self-delusion. Dorine summarizes the per-verse overthrow of proper relations that afflicts Orgon: “He dotes on him, embraces him, and could not have, I believe, more tenderness for a woman he loves.” Cléante, Molière’s voice of reason and moderation, tries to get his brother-in-law to see clearly:
There’s a vast difference, so it seems to me,
Between true piety and hypocrisy:
How do you fail to see it, may I ask?
Is not a face quite different from a mask?
Cannot sincerity and cunning art,
Reality and semblance, be told apart?
Are scarecrows just like men, and do you hold
That a false coin is just as good as gold?
Ah, Brother, man’s a strangely fashioned creature
Who seldom is content to follow Nature,
But recklessly pursues his inclination
Beyond the narrow bounds of moderation,
And often, by transgressing Reason’s laws,
Perverts a lofty aim or noble cause.
Orgon has transgressed “Reason’s laws” and perverted religious faith by succumbing to its shows rather than its substance, while immoderately over-throwing judgment in his selfish pursuit of personal salvation. He thereby becomes a petty tyrant in his home, willing to sacrifice all he is responsible for—wife, son, daughter, and property—to his desires, while casting out all who dissent as damned heretics. Orgon’s violation of his parental responsibility is made clear when in act 2 he breaks Mariane’s engagement to Valère and orders her to marry Tartuffe, whom Mariane despises.
Having established a dysfunctional family as a result of Tartuffe’s deceptive manipulation, Molière finally brings the culprit on stage in act 3 with one of the stage’s greatest entrance lines: “Hang up my hair-shirt,” Tartuffe instructs his manservant, “put my scourge in place.” His orders are clearly to impress the encountered Dorine, whom he likewise orders to “Cover that bosom, girl. The flesh is weak.” The weaknesses of the flesh will become Tartuffe’s undoing, as he takes the stage at the height of his powers over Orgon and initiates his own downfall. Molière addressed the late arrival of Tartuffe by stating, “I have employed . . . two entire acts to prepare for the entrance of my scoundrel. He does not fool the audience for a single moment; one knows from the first the marks I have given him; and from one end to the other he says not a word and performs not an action which does not paint for the spectator the character of an evil man.” The preparation establishes the play’s delightful dramatic irony as the audience is in no doubt, despite Orgon’s blindness, of what lies behind Tartuffe’s every word, gesture, and action. Tartuffe’s downfall will come, as it does in most of Molière’s plays, from immoderation and succumbing to the illusions of power and control. So confident is Tartuffe in his power over Orgon that he risks exposure by attempting to seduce Elmire. His initial lustful attack, overheard by Damis, is reported to Orgon, and when confronted, Tartuffe blatantly confesses the truth: “Yes, brother, I am an evil, guilty, wretched sinner filled with iniquity, the greatest rascal ever.” Tartuffe’s confidence that he will not be believed is confirmed when Orgon instead disinherits his son and hands over his patrimony to his now-adopted son Tartuffe. Elmire realizes that Orgon, impervious to argument, must see Tartuffe unmasked, and she stage-manages the play’s comic triumph. With Orgon concealed under a table, Tartuffe renews his pursuit of Elmire; he reveals both his lusts and contempt for the morality he has espoused by urging Elmire to ignore both “Heaven’s wrath” and moral scruples:
No one shall know our joys, save us alone,
And there’s no evil till the act is known;
It’s scandal, Madam, which makes it an offense,
And it’s no sin to sin in confidence.
Tartuffe, however, finds himself in Orgon, not Elmire’s arms, and his unmasking is finally complete. Molière follows Orgon’s discovery of Tartuffe’s hypocrisy and the realization of his own gullibility, however, with a reversal. Orgon’s breakthrough is too late. Tartuffe is now legally the master of all that Orgon owns and controls Orgon’s destiny because he has been given a chest containing treasonable evidence against his patron. Villainy appears triumphant, and although Orgon is reunited with his family and chastened into the correct obligations toward them, the disorder and inversion that the hypocrite Tartuffe has unleashed appear complete with the family’s eviction. Again, it is Tartuffe’s immoderation and overconfidence in his ability to control all and complete his coup d’état that lead him to denounce Orgon as a traitor and thereby become known to the authorities as a wanted criminal. The king, able to see through Tartuffe’s schemes, serves as the play’s deus ex machina, and orders his arrest. It is the king, the wise and sensible patriarch of the French nation, who restores order in Orgon’s household (as he does in his kingdom) and allows Orgon to benefit by the sobering lesson of his errors and delusions. A marriage between the reunited lovers, Mariane and Valère, closes the comedy.
Although Tartuffe invites the complaint that its ending is overly contrived—that events so thoroughly motivated by the characters themselves are now imposed on them to produce the desired poetic justice (as well as flattery of a royal patron)—in a thematic sense the play’s ending is thoroughly satisfying. Orgon and the audience have been instructed in the difference between artifice and authenticity, appearance and reality, falsity and truth. The hypocritical religious zealot has been unmasked both by his own excesses and a monarch who possess both the ideals of reasonableness and moderation so needed by his subjects to insure that hypocrisy can be exposed and withstood and the good sense to allow Molière’s comedy a hearing.