Tartuffe, an odious hypocrite posing as a member of the clergy has ingratiated himself with the credulous Orgon and his mother Mme. Pernelle. He is taken into Orgon’s home. Both Orgon and his mother believe that Tartuffe’s pious example will be good for the other members of the family. But everyone else in the family, including even the outspoken servant Dorine, is perceptive enough to see through the impostor.
Despite the protestations of his sensible brother-in-law Cleante and his son Damis, Orgon determines that his daughter Mariane, who is in love with a young man named Valere, shall marry Tartuffe. When Orgon’s wife Elmire seeks out Tartuffe to beg him to refuse Mariane’s hand, he attempts to seduce her. Damis, who has overheard, denounces the impostor, but Orgon reacts by banishing his son rather than his guest and by signing over his entire property to Tartuffe.
Realizing the futility of reasoning with either Tartuffe or her husband, Elmire devises a way to expose the hypocrite to Orgon. She persuades Orgon to conceal himself under a table while she seduces Tartuffe, and thus witnesses the impostor’s advances to her.
Orgon’s eyes are opened a little too late, for he has already assigned all he owns to Tartuffe. When Tartuffe realizes his hypocrisy has been discovered, he promptly turns the family out of the house. Then by reporting to the authorities that Orgon possesses a strongbox containing the papers of an exiled friend, Tartuffe contrives to have his former host arrested. But by order of the King, the arresting officer apprehends Tartuffe instead, and the impostor is hauled off to prison for his treacherous behavior toward his well-meaning if too credulous host. The play ends as Damis is reconciled with his father and the wedding of Mariane and Valere is announced.
A hilarious study in evil, this comedy is about an emotionally fractured family being tested further by the ambition of an insidious and calculating house guest.
This farce — heeding the marvelous idiosyncrasies of French manners of the time — gallops towards its climax leaving an exhausting trail of laughter in its wake.
This play illustrates in a comic manner the neoclassical lesson of a man getting into trouble by failing to live by the neoclassical precept of moderation. It is an excellent example of using comedy to laugh people out of their foibles.
In this play it is possible to place most of the characters into two categories: those who embody the neoclassical ideals and those who violate the ideals. Think about how you would label each of the following: Madame Pernelle, Orgon, Elmire, Damis, Mariane, Cleante, Dorine.
In scene 1, what is bothering Madame Pernelle?
What do we learn about Tartuffe’s background in this scene?
What is Dorine’s analysis of the source of rumors about the family? (lines 103-140) What shrewd insight into human nature does she state?
In scene 2, Dorine speaks of Orgon’s activities in the recent political unrest (lines 9-13). How do these later facts figure into the resolution of the plot?
From scene 3, what complicated relationship do we discern among Damis, Mariane, Valere, and Valere’s sister?
Orgon first appears in scene 4. What is humorous about the questions he puts to Dorine? Cite some examples of sarcasm.
In scene 5 how is Racine able to make us see the hypocrisy of Tartuffe while Orgon, our source of information, cannot see it?
In scene 2, look carefully at the various methods Dorine uses to convince Orgon to change his mind about forcing the marriage of Mariane and Tartuffe.
In this scene, what excuse does Orgon give for breaking his promise to Valere?
In scene 3, what excuse does Mariane give for accepting her father’s plan for the marriage? Is Moliere saying something about virtue and moderation?
In scene 4, what is the cause of the spat between the lovers? What point is Moliere making here?
What is Dorine’s plan at this point in the play?
What do we learn about the character of Damis as scene 1 opens?
As tartuffe first appears on stage in scene 2, he is speaking of a “hair-shirt” and a “scourge.” What is the significance of these statements?
In scene 3, as Tartuffe attempts to seduce Elmire, what arguments does he make to justify his actions toward her?
What point is Racine making in having Damis leap from his hiding place, in scene 4, and accuse Tartuffe?
In scene 6, Tartuffe confesses, yet Orgon does not believe him guilty. How is Tartuffe able to accomplish this?
Orgon’s rash actions in scene 7 can be labeled as comic and tragic. Which is which?
Scene 1 shows Tartuffe perhaps at his cleverest. Look carefully at his justification for refusing to mend his quarrel with Damis and for accepting the wealth of Orgon.
In scene 3 what explanation does Orgon give for his failure to believe his own wife when Tartuffe was accused of trying to seduce her.
Scene 5, with Orgon under the table and Tartuffe making his advances toward Elmire is the paramount comic scene in this play. What are the elements of humor here?
In scene 7, Orgon confronts Tartuffe, saying, “I’ve long suspected you, and had a feeling/That soon I’d catch you at your double-dealing.” Why is this statement funny?
How did Tartuffe convince Orgon to hand over the strong box containing the incriminating papers?
What is Orgon’s opinion of “pious men” now that he knows Tartuffe’s true nature? What point is Moliere making in this transformation of Orgon?
In scene 2, what plan does Damis have for taking care of Tartuffe? What is Cleante’s response?
In scene 3, Madame Pernelle still believes in Tartuffe. Pick out the most humorous statement in this scene.
What finally convinces Madame Pernelle of Tartuffe’s villainy?
In scene 6, Orgon is offered the opportunity to escape. There must surely be deep humiliation for him in the escape plan. What is it?
On what charge is Orgon to be arrested?
In scene 7, as Tartuffe arrives with the Officer, what reason does Tartuffe give for turning Orgon in?
In Moliere’s comedy, Tartuffe, the central target of his ridicule is Orgon. Orgon is Moliere’s representation of how a man can be so blind in his devotion to a belief that he cannot make accurate judgment as to the sincerity of others who would use that belief to deceive him. This play fits into the concept of comedy because all of the elements of comedy are present. It happens that the title character is the villain rather than the hero and some of the elements are skewed. In Tartuffe, we have the classic comic scenario of two lovers, Valere and Marianne, trying to get together but being thwarted. However, instead of the villain, Tartuffe thwarting them, it is Orgon who gets in the way. Orgon tries to flatter Tartuffe by offering Marianne to be his wife. The other comic elements such as the unmasking of the villain and the happy ending are also present in Tartuffe.
It is in the duality of Orgon, the believing subject, and Tartuffe, the manipulating hypocrite ( or impostor ), that Moliere takes his digs at the extremes of enthusiastic belief. Tartuffe plays the role of a man whose greedy actions are cloaked by a mask of overwhelming piety, modesty and religious fervor. Orgon is the head of a household who has taken Tartuffe in. We laugh at Orgon because everyone else ( except his mother ) knows that Tartuffe is a fake. All of Orgon’s relatives warn him of Tartuffe’s gluttony and of the false nature of his pious proclamations. When Dorine tries to tell Orgon about Elmire’s illness, all Orgon can say is, “Ah. And Tartuffe?” When she tells him of Tartuffe’s unconcern and zealous consumption in spite of Elmire’s condition, he says, “Poor fellow!” Poor Orgon is so caught up in his own idealistic belief in Tartuffe’s saintliness that the reality of Tartuffe’s actions goes right over his head. When Damis tells Orgon that he has overheard Tartuffe’s advances towards Elmire, Orgon is so outraged that he disinherits Damis and banishes him from the house. In his obsession, Orgon is mentally deaf and blind. Only when he hides under the table and hears Tartuffe’s advances toward Elmire, does reality finally confront Orgon’s idealism and Tartuffe is unmasked.
Moliere was a moderate and against excess and obsession in all things. In Tartuffe, he has used Orgon as an example of how the obsessive need to believe can cause man to be taken in by those who would cloak themselves in, and manipulate with, those beliefs. The play is comic because Moliere shows how silly Orgon looks when his sincere belief is contrasted with the truth, which is seen by all but his blind self.
Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere was born in 1622 in Paris. His father was a furnisher dealer/upholsterer to the king, and had, in fact, purchased that same honor for his son, who had graduated with a law degree, to carry on in the business, when the then twenty-one year old Jean Baptiste got caught up in the theatre. His fledgling company toured for fifteen years through the provinces as well as Italy, where Moliere was exposed to, and greatly influenced by, the Italian commedia.
For those not familiar with commedia, you’ve certainly heard the word “slapstick” before. A slapstick was a device used extensively in the Italian commedia, which featured one piece of wood hinged against another. The two pieces would slap each other when the stick was swung and stopped suddenly. The stick, brought to a sudden halt by the backside of a victim, would make a loud smacking sound, as though the stick itself had made sharp contact. This says a lot about the style of performance that Moliere observed and fell in love with. It was, of course, evident to everyone in the crowd that the person was not getting hit, but that didn’t stop anyone in the audience from enjoying the humor of assuming that the character was getting slapped silly.
Other heightened elements of the style that Moliere used included elaborate wigs (which were also used in society to a great degree), thick, pasty makeup, stock characters, outrageous scenarios and heightened language.
There, at the age of twenty-one, Moliere formed his theatre company with Madeleine Bejart and her brother Joseph, and they toured for about fifteen years as the Illustrious Theatre. The relationship of Moliere and Madeline has always been a curiosity, and it is often assumed that they were lovers at some point. This gives way to the most scandalous rumor that followed Moliere through his later years, as he eventually married Madeleine’s 19 year old daughter. Few biographers credit the rumor that he may have married his own daughter as this was largely perpetuated by Moliere’s enemies, of which there were very, very many, including the church, members of the king’s court, and most of the learned professions, such as doctors and lawyers who were often spoofed in Moliere’s works.
It was the doctors for whom Moliere saved the sharpest satire, and several of his plays, including Love’s the Best Doctor, The Doctor In Spite of Himself and The Imaginary Invalid, generally supported the thesis that doctors do more damage than benefit. This was a time when some of the most revered medical faculties were still arguing vehemently against the notion of the circulation of the blood, and the most oft prescribed remedies featured bleeding and purging. Often, they would give “injections”, but that was simply their way of saying “enemas.”
It was, in fact, during the finale of The Imaginary Invalid in which Moliere suffered a violent coughing fit, and died within two hours. He died tempting fate. The very character he was playing on stage, would taunt the infamous Moliere, from within the play, for his impiety toward medicine, suggesting that, were he a doctor, he would never lift a finger to help this so-called “Moliere” with his illness.
Moliere died in 1673 without renouncing his profession. These were the days in which being an actor was regarded as little more than being a prostitute. He died as he lived, as an actor, which meant that he could not be buried in consecrated ground or with any Christian ceremony. Renouncing the stage was then a common process, and something that Moliere might have been able to do had he not been so determined to go on stage that night, aggravating his illness. But Moliere knew that the rest of the theatre depended on him for their paycheck every night, and he could not not go on stage. Eventually, Moliere was buried in the dead of night, with a thousand candle-bearing people in attendance, though history fails to record if those people were mourners or were protesting his burial.
In the course of his fifty-one years, Moliere wrote at least thirty-two plays. His company operated in Paris under the patronage of the King’s brother, and eventually King Louis XIV himself (who was godfather to his son, perhaps in an effort to quiet the rumors).
Many of Moliere’s plays caused a sensation in their initial performances, rattling the institutions at which they were aimed. The greatest scandal surrounding Moliere was over the then-three-act play Tartuffe, (written in 1664) which, after its initial production, was banned from the French stage for five years, and not allowed back until 1669, after it had undergone significant rewrites. Moliere was to suffer great financial loss from the inability to get his play on stage, and yet, the intervening years may have helped the development of the script, as the new five-act version that emerged from this struggle remains Moliere’s most produced play. Tartuffe, the story of a religious hypocrite caught in a sexual scandal, never seems to lack for modern recontextualizations. Almost every day the newspapers give us more fodder reminding us of just how on-target Moliere truly was.
Tartuffe was the first play for which I did a treatment, in the Spring of 1997, with the Stage Two Theatre Company. I had been involved as assistant director of a successful production of the play with the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1988, and had a vivid impression of the action as performed by that company ten years before. I could still hear the line readings and the comic timing of that company of actors. Drawing from several translations of the play, I explored for myself just how those characters would say the dialogue when making use of an array of language that would be available to them today, while avoiding obvious anachronisms.
Moliere’s plays, in their time, caused quite a stir. With regard to Tartuffe, Moliere was attacked as “a demon only fit for hanging.” His portrayal of the pious hypocrite was seen as an attack on piety itself, and the narrow-minded for whom the message cut a little too close to home, couldn’t separate the two concepts, and so condemned the work.
The dilemma of the adapter is that, more than a collection of words, plays are a series of experiences that audiences observe live. Audiences are a product of their culture and their time, and when they observe those experiences in the theatre, a unique reaction is set off to create an emotional response, such as: laughter, catharsis, anger, and delight. The simple repetition of the playwright’s words, over time, will not create this same emotional charge. While the script may remain the same, the world continues to change. While not necessarily looking for the violent outrage that greeted Tartuffe, I had no desire to create a sanitized museum piece of a play.
Also, the very process of shifting French into English demands rearrangement, first for sense, but also for rhetorical or rhythmic structure. Once we have determined to change the words for anything more than sense, we begin to look at the wide scope of verbal by-play to transform the play into a dynamic, living vehicle to enhance the language, to augment the comic situation with new dialogue that capitalizes on the modern wit, and actually to interject new jokes in place of wordplay that does not and cannot translate into English or into the modern vernacular.
Of course, there are limits. And the ultimate test of whether one has surpassed these limits is whether the audience continues to enjoy the work, and to find it funny. Now this is a notion that upsets many purists, who argue that a given standard is the ultimate expression of the play, and that departing from that for the simple criteria of audience enjoyment is a violation of the play.
Purists may be found everywhere, just like those doctors who fought so vehemently against the notion of the circulation of the blood. Moliere was not a purist. In h