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Comedy from Chaos: Tartuffe  in Context

Moliere Portrait

BANNED IN PARIS

When Molière’s comedy Tartuffe was first performed publicly in 1664, it was in the court of Louis XIV with an abbreviated version that contained just the first three acts of the play as we know it today. Though the king had heard the text before in a private reading and approved of it, the antics of Tartuffe scandalized the Archbishop of Paris and the Queen Mother, both devout. The king banned performances of the play within a week, and the prohibition on Tartuffe lasted five years.

The abuses of hypocritical religious zealots, such as Tartuffe, were a topical concern in 17th century France, echoing real-life incidents involving sham “spiritual directors” hired in wealthy households. The activity of these zealous directors centered around the secret society The Company of Blessed Sacrament, and they did not just direct churches or other religious institutions, but rather saw as their purview all of French society. “These men became involved in a whole range of affairs,” wrote French doctor Guy Patinin a 1660 letter. “They poked their noses into the running of great households,they warned husbands of their wives’ debauchery, and they interfered in politicsand were planning to bring the Inquisition to France.”1

Molière believed this cabal of faux dévots had bent the king’s ear towards outlawing Tartuffe, and he pleaded in a series of three public letters that the king save the play and, in doing so, rescue French society by using the comedy to scrub it clean. Molière wrote, “I thought I would be doing some small service to all the decent people of your kingdom if I wrote a play that discredited the hypocrites and showed all the calculated dissimulations of these excessively pious people, all the covert mischief of these counterfeiters of devotion, who try to entrap men with feigned zeal and insincere love of their neighbors.”2 In 1669, the king allowed the play to go forward in an expanded five-act version that features,and perhaps flatters, the king’s court in the course of the plot.

Whether publicly petitioning the king or writing new one acts to defend his own plays, Molière embraced controversy in his career; his style was inherently provocative, and the storm over his plays inevitably boosted the box office. His previous play The School for Wives also shocked society in its inversion of the morals and pretensions of the upper class. In a piece defending The School for Wives, Molière suggested that he saw comedy neither as an exaggeration ofreality nor as fantasy based on it, but as a “public mirror,” a fictional reflection that reveals the truth. “The finest points of serious morality are usually less powerful than those belonging to satire,” Molière wrote in the preface to the first published edition of Tartuffe. “And most men are scolded by nothing quite so well as bythe portrayal of their faults. It is a great blow to vice to expose it to everyone’s laughter. We can easily stand being reprehended, but we cannot stand being mocked. We are willing to be wicked, but we will not be ridiculous.”3

AN ENDURING CLASSIC

Molière’s play became a cause célèbre because it took aim at the false piety that plagued France in his time. But the play endures, and has been produced continuously around the world for more than three centuries, because of its piercing insight into how and why this house falls into the grasp of a madman. Every age has those eager to grasp power through hypocrisy, and every age fallsunder their mesmerizing spell.

“It was Molière’s insight that the bourgeois are scarred for existence […] by their insecurity, which makes them by turns irritable and idealistic,” writes Adam Gopnik forThe New Yorker on Molière’s enduring influence. “Molière grasped that the bourgeois family was a little replicating machine of prosperity but, lacking a firm spiritual basis,was at the same time terribly fragile. It did not believe in its own beliefs.”

Hypocrisy, Molière knew, comes in many forms — and engenders many responses.When can we embrace someone else’s hypocrisy? When are we blind to it? When do we abhor it? When do we find ourselves most desperate to have someone else’s hypocrisy acknowledged? (Have you ever gotten into an argument on the internet? Did it ever end well?) And most importantly, do we ever recognize our own hypocrisy? For the most recent revivalof Tartuffe at the Comédie Française in Paris, Galin Stoev and Sacha Carlson wrote in an essay, “Molière reveals to us the paradoxical nature of man. He digsup the hotspots, the ‘burning nerves’ ofman’s humanity.”

Tartuffe (Elmire and)

A NEW TRANSLATION

Molière was first and foremost a performer; he played Orgon in the original staging of Tartuffe, andhe even died onstage acting in his play The Imaginary Invalid. While Molière encouraged for his plays to be published and read, what was most important to him was that they were performed. Those original texts he created are still staged widely in France. In America, we depend ontranslations and adaptations to conveythe vibrancy of Molière’s work.

Molière wrote the original Tartuffe in rhyming alexandrine verse with 12 syllables to a line. Many English translations use pentameter, the 10-syllable form familiar to us from Shakespearean verse. In 1991, the Huntington produced the late Richard Wilbur’s elegant translation of Tartuffe that uses pentameter. For this production, director Peter DuBois chose the acclaimed translation of Ranjit Bolt, perhaps the most prolific translator of French verse in recent decades.

Bolt has created versions of Corneille, Racine, and Molière, and was awarded an OBE in 2003 for his contribution for literature. In the 1990s, Bolt had created a version of Tartuffe in pentameter. But when the National Theatre in London approached him about using his translation for their 2002 staging, Bolt believed he could create a version in octameter (eight syllables per line) that would morefully capture the spirit that he felt Molière strived for in the original. This version Bolt created closely follows the structure and argument of the original; in somecases, it does so more faithfully than previous English translations that flatten out contradictions of character that are revealed in the Bolt. Yet Bolt also uses modern language and syntax in an acknowledgment that chasing a perfect representation of the original is impossible. “I’ve heard people behind me in theatres say ‘Cen’est pas Molière,’ and then walking out,” Bolt says. “The fact is that change, eitherthrough excision or emendation (or to a lesser extent, addition) is inevitable.”

As Bolt points out, a house in chaos with a handful of characters all grappling for control is a perfect tension for comic verse. “Escape through anarchy into a surreal world,” Bolt said in an interview with The Guardian of the powerful tension that exists in verse. “The joy in verse is the contrast between the discipline of the formand the ludicrous nature of what’s being described.”

– CHARLES HAUGLAND

 

1 Translation by Julia Prest, Controversy in French Drama

2 Translation by Virginia Scott, Tartuffe: A Norton Critical Edition

3 Translation by Paul Lauter, Theories of Comedy


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