What Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. While there are differences between them, there are also similarities: both were practical men of the theatre; both were actors as well as playwrights; both had incredible insight into human life; both had a breath-taking mastery over language. As a writer of comedy, however, Molière is more closely akin to Aristophanes, Ben Jonson, and George Bernard Shaw than he is to Shakespeare, for his comedies not only entertain, but they also sparkle with satire and devastating criticism of society.
Civilization has never reached a higher degree of sophistication than it did in the Court of King Louis XIV during the time of Molière. One of the more admirable features of this court was its stress on the intellect. In theory (although there were glaring exceptions in practice) man was expected to be reasonable. Bad temper and violence were properties of the lower classes; whereas, logic and laughter were the critical tools of the aristocrats; and although Molière was not an aristocrat, he possessed the qualities aristocrats most admired: wit, brilliance, taste, and balance. Yet, in spite of Molière’s favorable reputation and in spite of support from the king himself, Tartuffe created a storm of protest that has seldom been equaled, and the battle to gain public presentation raged for almost five years.
From our present point of view, the violent opposition that Tartuffe engendered seems surprising. Critics insisted that the play was an attack upon religion, but Molière quite rightly maintained that he was attacking hypocrisy, not religion. As a matter of fact, Clèante, the character who speaks most clearly for the author, is as distressed when Orgon reacts violently against the whole “religious brotherhood” as he was when Orgon was doting with blind faith upon the religious hypocrite, Tartuffe. Clèante exclaims accusingly: “Ah, there you go—extravagant as ever! / Why can you not be rational? You never / Manage to take the middle course, it seems, / But jump instead between absurd extremes.”
Indeed, Clèante, the shrewd little maid, Dorine, the sensible young wife, Elmire, and the whole action of the play itself make it abundantly clear that Molière is against extremes, that he is satirizing not faith but “blind faith”--the same irrational, unseeing faith that still generates problems today. Although in Tartuffe the playwright’s immediate focus is upon faith as it related to the church, the extensions of that focus are dramatic and manifold. Today it is the political rather than religious world that the eyeless, almost fanatic faith of the “true believer” is so vexatious and disturbing--a world in which “isms” provide painful evidence of the common man’s passion to believe blindly, to fight blindly for his belief, and to turn a deaf ear to anything that threatens--and perhaps ought to threaten--that belief.
As Tartuffe so dramatically exemplifies, once blind faith has entered the scene, it becomes a weakness of character to waver, strength of character to persist--even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. In fact, strong evidence to the contrary is usually translated by the mind as temptation, and the true believer would rather die than yield. What is much worse, he does not hesitate to cause others to die--all in the firm and righteous conviction that he is showing courage and strength of character. War and most of the other really hideous crimes are seldom the machinations of rascals and renegades, but usually the handiwork of dedicated, self sacrificing true believers like Orgon and his dear old mother, Madame Pernelle. Professional hypocrites like Tartuffe seem instinctively to sense this and prey upon willing victims. It matters little whether their belief relates to religion, philosophy, politics, poetry, or art.
It was, therefore, a case of foolish, mistaken identity for Molière’s critics to see Tartuffe himself as a symbol of religion. He is an obvious opportunist, a renegade, and a con man, who will play any kind of a trick to gain his desires. Religious piety simply happens to be the cloak that best conceals his motives from the gullible Orgon. He is smart enough, and actor enough, to make the most of his opportunities.
So deep has been the concern about the meaning of Tartuffe that its brilliance as exciting and thoroughly entertaining theatre is often forgotten. The characters are especially alive; the plot is skillfully constructed; the action is charged with suspense; and the characters use delightfully comedic language. Regardless, it is difficult in this day and age to comprehend the opposition from both the ecclesiastical and secular authorities that Tartuffe encountered when originally written. A powerful religious fraternity of laymen, known at the time as the Compagnie du Saint Sacrement (and later as the Cabale des Devots) seemed to identify itself with the pious hypocrisy ridiculed in the play, and it was natural for this sensitive group to take strong exception. The eventual success of Tartuffe made it the drama celebre of the author’s career, and it is interesting to note that the offended organization was dissolved shortly after the public premiere of the play.
In comedy of humors (made popular earlier in England in the work of Ben Jonson), a ridicule is aimed not so much at the follies of society (as it is directed in satire to a large extent and in comedy of manners to some extent), but rather at the foibles of individuals within a society. The concentration is on human behavior that strays from an acceptable “mean” and veers toward an extreme in either direction. The dramatic technique in this type of comedy in part involves the selection of a dominate human trait, preferably a foolish or dangerous one, and developing that trait in an exaggerated fashion in one of the leading characters, who is, it would follow, more often than not, an eccentric. Nearly all of Molière’s plays can be properly labeled comedies of humors. Tartuffe is not an exception. In this play, there are really two leading characters, Tartuffe and Orgon. In the former we find the embodiment of religious hypocrisy, in the latter we find stupidity incarnate. Even some of the minor characters, such as Dorine, whose insolence probably is unsurpassed by that of any servant in the world of comedy (save Mosca in Volpone), are supplied with distinct human peculiarities. Molière is not particularly concerned with why his characters behave the way they do. The influences of heredity and environment (later to become such importance considerations in the naturalistic movement) are virtually ignored. Molière has simply observed his fellow man and has probed deeply into his idiosyncrasies. But his probing is always in the comic spirit, and exaggeration of character, one of the main controls in comedy of humors, is fully employed for the evocation of laughter.
The play has been faulted by some for its rather unbelievable denouement, in which Tartuffe is discovered to be a notorious criminal. But unprepared-for endings and the use of a deus ex machina never disturbed Molière and apparently delighted rather than bothered the sensibilities of his audiences. In the case of Tartuffe, the additional poetic justice and the restoration of normalcy in a complicated situation make the contrived solution not only palatable but even pleasing.
When skillfully performed by professionals or by gifted amateurs, Tartuffe can provide a rare entertainment in the theatre.