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Moliere,Tartuffe, and the Scandal that Created Modern Comedy

It is a rare comedy that can survive its own times; tastes in humor can change vastly across time and culture whereas tragic events are nearly universal. Molière’s Tartuffe, a 17th century French comedy about a religious hypocrite (Tartuffe) and his credulous follower (Orgon), has stood the test of time because of the way Molière combines wit, slapstick, psychological acumen, and elegant dramaturgy into a fast-paced package. The storyof Tartuffe and its author is one of foolish provocation andbold determination.

Early in the play, Orgon explains that Tartuffe has given him a new outlook on life: “…now I can see it’s all illusion, even love / That’s one disease he’s cured me of: Yes, I could see my family die / And not so much as blink an eye.” Molière specialized in writing and playing bourgeois obsessives who teeter on the edge of tragedy while giving the audience laughs. But Molière has a lot in common with Orgon in that he too was willing to throw everything away in pursuit of his own obsession: the stage. Time and again he would court scandal and conflict because of his own convictions. Ultimately saved by his talent, work ethic, and family connections, his story could just as easily ended up as tragedy instead of triumph.

Molière, né Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, was born in Paris in January 1622 to a wealthy family. He attended the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit school whose curriculum included drama for training in speech and Latin. By 1641 he had completed a law degree and was sent to the south of France to serve as a royal bedmaker, a ceremonial position. His staid bourgeois life didn’t last very long; around 1643, young Jean-Baptiste co-founded I’Illustre Théâtre with his lover, actress Madeleine Béjart, and three of her siblings. He funded this endeavor by selling his position as valet de chambre back to his father and then rechristening himself Molière. The theatre quickly went bankrupt and young Molière was hauled off to jail. Bailed out the next day by his father, Molière and Madeleine left Paris, joined a provincial troupe, and spent the next 13 years barnstorming around the country.

In the provinces, Molière learned all about the Italian comedies, specifically the improvisational style of the commedia dell’arte. Commedia takes a few stock figures — the old man, the pedant,the wily servant, the young lover, etc. — and places them in a few stock situations. The dialogue is largely improvised by the actors and the comedy is highly physical. While working in the provinces Molière began to write and perform in a series of short farces. He became an expert physical comedian who created some of the greatest slapstick performances ever. But he changed the direction of modern theatre when he synthesized the popular comic stock forms of commedia dell’arte with contemporary situations and psychologically recognizable characters.

In 1658, Molière and his company performed for King Louis XIV and from that point on they became a fixture in the cultural life of the court and Paris. In 1662, at the age of 40, Molière married Madeleine’s daughter, Armande, resulting in a noisy scandal and accusations of incest. Thumbing his nose at his critics, Molière capitalized on the scandal with his play The School for Wives, in which he played a bourgeois obsessed with marital fidelity who wanted to marry the young ward he had raised. The play waswildly successful and the following year Louis XIV awarded Molière with a pension.

His next play, Tartuffe, tells the story of Orgon, a bourgeois gentleman, the father and absolute ruler of his house, who has become spiritually enraptured with Tartuffe, a religious adviser who is an obvious fraud to almost all the other members of the household and to the audience as well. Over the course of the play, Orgon completely destroys his family only to be saved at the last minute by the king. Along the way, Molière treats the audience to every manner of comic delight — the clownish servant Dorine who serves up truth to her masters in a bold fashion, foolish lovers,and of course, many overheard conversations. While there were religious objections to the portrayal of a holy man as a fraud, more radical still is the portrait of Orgon’s obsession, which suggests the still controversial idea that the measure of good comes from anaction’s effect on others, not abstract ideals.

Even before its premiere in 1664, the first version of Tartuffe was already a subject of great concern in the court. The church and the state were intertwined and France was still in a state of recovery from violent religious conflicts. Powerful religious factions were disrupting society under the pretext of moral reform. Fanaticism had cost Molière his first patron, the Princede Conti, who experienced a religious awakening that lead him to condemn the theatre and foster an enmity toward Molière that continued through the Tartuffe scandal. Though the king approved the play for performance at court, he heeded protests of devout members of the court and clergy and forbade any further public performance. Molière’s company depended on public performances for their income so he quickly wrote another play, Dom Juan, which ridiculed religious hypocrisy among the nobility.That play, too, was quickly suppressed and never performed again in Molière’s lifetime. Next, he wrote The Misanthrope which, mercifully, was a hit.

During this time, Molière appealed to the king on behalf of his banned play Tartuffe, famously writing in his first appeal, “the purpose of the comedy is to correct the faults of men,” and arguing for the moral necessity of the play. Determined to get it back on the boards, he rewrote and retitled it The Imposter. That version played in 1667 and was immediately censored by the Paris authorities. Finally, the king intervened and on February 5, 1669, Tartuffe opened at the Palais-Royal with Molière in the role of Orgon. It was the most profitable of all of his plays, and it is still considered the best written.

Molière continued to write, perform, and innovate until his death in 1673. While performing in The Imaginary Invalid, Molière began coughing blood and died of tubercular hemorrhage several hours later. Molière was denied burial by his parish priest because hewas an actor. Once again, the king intervened to help his friend. Molière was buried at night with no ceremony.

– LISA TIMMEL


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