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A Memorable Imposter

A Memorable Imposter

By James Mills

Molière first presented Le Tartuffe at the “Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle,” a royal extravaganza held at Versailles under the auspices of Louis XIV, as the second featured play after his Princess of Elide. Performed on May 12, 1664, on the sixth day of the fête, under the title, Tartuffe or the Impostor, the unfinished three-act play initially received the king's approval, but not that of the church, which condemned its treatment of the “subject of abuse and religious zeal by a confidence man and his victim” (Hallam Walker, Molière [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1971], 81). Its portrayal of credulity, distorted faith, and blind obedience earned the censure of the archbishop of Paris, who was irate over its possible bad effects on society, as well as the disapproval of the Queen Mother, who similarly expressed her strong dismay.

Molière was obliged to battle for the next five years against great odds to have his play accepted and was reduced to giving private readings because of legal sanctions against it. In an attempt to curry favor, he offered a revised version in five acts in 1665, which was rejected. In 1667 he presented another version under the title, Panulfe or the Impostor, in which he attempted to mollify his enemies by modifying Tartuffe's near clerical garb and changing his name to Panulfe. However, his efforts were in vain, for the play was suppressed by the archbishop of Paris who forbade involvement with it on pain of excommunication.

It was not until 1669 that the present format was offered on stage in a published version with official approval at the Palais-Royal Theatre. Although scholars disagree as to what was contained in the earlier versions, most feel that they differed substantially from the 1669 play (James F. Gaines, Social Structures in Molière's Theatre [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984], 199).

It was during the “Quarrel of Tartuffe” that Molière came to realize that he was no longer able to count fully on the political backing of the king nor the moral support of the public (Ronald W. Tobin, “Tarte à la crème”—Comedy and Gastronomy in Molière's Theatre [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990], 46). However, this period also witnessed the appearance of the masterpieces of his maturity: Dom Juan (1665), The Misanthrope (1666), Amphitryon (1668), George Dandin (1668), and The Miser (1668).

Tartuffe is a contemporary play that mirrors the religious struggles of the seventeenth century. Only recently (1647-1650), there had been violent conflicts called “Frondes” during which religious groups sided with the various factions of nobles vying for power. And France still felt the repercussions of the bloody civil strife between Catholics and Huguenots that witnessed the massacres on Saint Bartholomew's Day in 1572 and continued in Molière’s time with the ongoing harassment of the Protestants. The Jesuits continued to oppose the heretical Jansenists, a conflict whose fires had been recently stoked by Blaise Pascal's Provincial Letters (1656-1657) which served as an apologia for the Jansenists and as an indictment of the Jesuits. Gallicans, who sought greater French autonomy from Rome, opposed the Ultramontanists, who gave primary allegiance to the Pope. Quietists fought to worship in private without church control, while various cults practiced their secret rites, including black magic, at all levels of French society.

Religion and politics were inextricably bound together, with the way to temporal power being ecclesiastical. Cardinal Richelieu had cemented that symbiotic relationship during the reign of Louis XIII, while Cardinal Mazarin, who had just died in 1661, had continued the centralization of power during the early ascendancy of the maturing Louis XIV.

The sources for Tartuffe are unclear. Although Philip Wadsworth indicates that Flaminio Scala's Il Pedante, published in 1611, is the only serious source still considered, he nevertheless dismisses it and suggests instead that a novel by D'Audiguier and a Spanish novella adapted in French by Scarron are more contemporary to Molière and offer many of the same features as those found in Tartuffe (Molière and the Italian Theatrical Tradition [French Literature Publications Company, 1977], 20-23).

Molière spent fifteen years on the road working his early plays and sketches for commedia dell’arte skits. The Italians and Spaniards taught him elegance and cynicism, as well as the use of disguises, trap doors, stock characters, and mysterious happenings. Reflections of his formative training appear in Tartuffe in his use of such theatrical devises as Orgon hiding under the table, the clowning of Dorine, and the quarrel between Mariane and Valère.

He made fun of royalty, criticized society, admired the common sense of the lower classes, saw the similarities in life, presented a nobility that was not always admirable, and offered his own views of life. Finely wrought comedy was for Molière a disrespectful attitude to a potentially tragic situation (Albert Bermal, trans, One-Act Comedies of Molière, [New York: The World Publishing Company, 1964], 5).

The themes of knowledge and blind ignorance, reality and appearances, and love and its distortions served as social criticism designed to educate society (Walker, 83). Tartuffe is an essentialist view of men and women. It has to do with “a city morality, where life is more a matter of perpetual contact with others than with nature or things” (Percy A. Chapman, The Spirit of Molière [Russell and Russell, Inc., 1965], 232). Ultimately, the whole play tends to be greater than the sum of its parts as its appeal is largely attributable to its coherence and wholeness as a comic structure (Wadsworth, 112 113).

Tartuffe is probably Molière's most sinister character. While the name is apparently from the Italian tartufulo, meaning “truffle,” there is a subtle hint of deception in the French verb truffer, which could mean “tromper,” or “to deceive” (Gaston Hall, Molière: Tartuffe [London: Arnold, 1960], 24).

The play's ominous quality has been emphasized by Harold Knutson, who has discussed its sense of imminent defeat and ritual death. He sees a symbolic death for Mariane when she ponders extinction at the prospect of a forced marriage to Tartuffe and metaphoric suicide in her pleas to enter a convent. Orgon “murders” Damis when he replaces him with Tartuffe as his legal heir. Ironically, he, in turn, experiences ritual death when he tries to expel Tartuffe only to have the latter demand that he leave his own home. The overall mood is one of perfidy, betrayal, and despair (Molière, an Archetypal Approach, [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976], 77 78).

It is significant that Du Croisy, the actor who usually played comic roles, played Tartuffe, while Molière played Orgon. Where Tartuffe is “a country boor aping Town manners, especially in his effort to play l’honnête homme amoureux” (Knutson, The Triumph of Wit [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988], 91), Orgon has high social standing, is wealthy, owns his own home, has an abundance of money, is a man of power, and perhaps a royal officer or officier de longue robe, either of the sovereign courts or the financial administration (Gaines, 200 206).

In fact, Lionel Gossman treats Orgon as the pivot of the play and suggests that a true understanding of it is based on the relationship of the blind obedience of Orgon and the hypocritical wickedness of Tartuffe. He observes that “dupe and deceiver—and which is which?—are seen to be partners in the same enterprise” (Men and Masks, A Study of Molière [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1963], 101). It is his opinion that Orgon, a Christian who is unable to give love or receive it, views Tartuffe as a kind of Christ-figure and is not interested in the real qualities of his guest but only in the authority that he commands (104).

This is a play about authority and power, and the reality is that “Orgon himself is largely responsible for Tartuffe's imposture” (Gossman, 112). Even Madam Pernelle, who is possessive and tyrannical, seeks to usurp her own son's place in his home and covets power over others through Tartuffe.

It also has to do with the family and its potential destruction by an intruder. The play takes place indoors with the word, “céans,” which means “on these premises,” being used an unprecedented fourteen times. It is Molière's first realistic picture of a bourgeois interior. It revolves around a traditional bourgeois family consisting of three generations, as well as extended family. The unity of the family, a symbol for continuity and social renewal, is temporarily threatened and destabilized by the presence of the intruder.

Molière's intent was not to destroy society but to teach the lesson that false power and false piety were not for the public good. When the officer of the king arrives during the dénouement, he enters a home filled with confusion, usurpation, treachery, and despair. It is his duty to restore order in the name of Louis XIV. He functions as deus ex machina, or rex ex machina, in order to reinforce the ultimate power of the monarch over his people to restore authority to where it properly belongs in an orderly society (Tobin, 113).

Ironically, while Tartuffe seeks honor and glory in Orgon's home, it is the king who symbolically takes it away from him to return it to Orgon, and, indirectly, to himself. Yet, as Knutson points out: “Whatever the comic force of many scenes, the ominous mood that hangs over the play remains with us long after the dénouement. A cancer of bondage and corruption has set into the play's society, and, even after it is extirpated at the comic reversal, the concluding verses speak more of relief and gratitude than of exultation and victory” (Archetypal, 76).

Molière's was a vision of reconciliation, with the family unit serving as an emblem for societal harmony. His was a ritual view of comedy that celebrated regeneration. It is nevertheless ironic that in Tartuffe the dénouement is the fantasy, while the body of the play represents the reality of life. In other words, the komos reveals the fantasy, while it is the tragic that is the real world. Ultimately, Molière sought to paint a France “in which some sort of compromise is hit upon between vigor of personality, stability of custom, and enlightened acceptance of authority” (Chapman, 248). In Tartuffe he succeeds in creating one of his most successful and best-loved masterpieces and one of his most memorable characters, even if he is an impostor.