Moliere’s Tartuffe– 17th Century Sitcom

51g1w3toNjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_SPOILER ALERT… This play is approaching four hundred years old… You’ve had plenty of time to read it… So don’t think I feel guilty in the least for giving away the ending…

I read Tartuffe by Moliere.  I absolutely did not like it.  It’s an exercise in telling and not showing.  There’s much standing around and preaching and attempting to score witty points.  The rhymes of this rhyming play are bland and horrid, and the dialogue is very wordy– everyone takes a very long time say things very little worth saying.

The play centers around a charlatan of a religious man (Tartuffe) who has insinuated himself into a household by getting on the good side of the man of the house (Orgon)– whereas all the rest of the family sees right through the fake.  Tartuffe actually put me in mind of Rasputin in the household of the last Tsar of Russia (Nikolaus… perhaps the second?) during World War One… several hundred years after the play was written.

The shenanigans and hi-jinks Moliere writes here would embarrass most T.V. sitcom writers if they had to claim the stuff as their own.  And the family-saving, bad-guy-punishing, deus ex machina arrival of the French king– the KING!– at the end of the play was very hard to swallow [correction:  actually the King’s herald arrives with the King’s msg– Thanks L.W. for the clarification! — H.S.].

But what really gagged me were the words the playwright Moliere writes in order to kiss-up to the real-life King of France, who would have heard of– or actually seen performed–  Moliere’s play.  Speaking through a minor character, Moliere speaks to the king through puckered lips…

“We serve a Prince to whom all sham is hateful, / a Prince who sees into our inmost hearts, / and can’t be fooled by any trickster’s arts. / His royal soul, though generous and human, / views all things with discernment and acumen; / his sovereign reason is not lightly swayed, / and all his judgments are discreetly weighed./ he honors righteous men of every kind, / and yet his zeal for virtue is not blind, / nor does his love of piety numb his wits/ and make him tolerant of hypocrites.”

Moliere often has philosophical points he wants to make while entertaining his audience.  Here, the idea he brings up (and one he will hit on again in The Misanthrope) is that when people can’t (for social, mental, or physical reasons) do an activity other people can, they may condemn that activity out of envy– even subconscious envy.

One character, talking about an older woman who looks down her nose at dances and the like, states it this way…  “So long as her attractions could enthrall, / she flounced and flirted and enjoyed it all, / but now that they’re no longer what they were / she quits a world which fast is quitting her.”

Moliere shares with all the great playwrights the ability not only to discern and show us human folly, but to present us the mirror in such a way that we laugh at the silly reflection we see.  Probably a good third of the population can see that humans are ludicrous beings (at least when it comes to people other than themselves).  The talent comes in being able to represent observed foibles to us in such a way that we recognize them without rejecting them, that we neither defensively slap them away or nervously back off from them.  The messenger who presents the right message in the wrong way will do little more than earn people’s odium– whereas the talented messenger is able– and this is his genius– to make people love him the more, the more he insults them.

When Moliere has Madame Pernelle (Orgon’s mother) defend Tartuffe, he is really using her to poke us under the ribs in a way that is uncomfortable and yet tickles… “You all regard him with distaste and fear / because he tells you what you’re loath to hear, / condemns your sins, points out your moral flaws.”

Later Dorine — the smart-mouthed lady’s-maid of Orgon’s daughter, Mariane — defends Tartuffe, too– but with sarcasm dripping from her lips…  Tartuffe, who has gotten the upperhand on the family, has managed to have the family evicted from their home.  Says Dorine…  “You must not take offense/ at this new proof of his benevolence. / he’s acting out of selfless love, I know. / material things enslave the soul, and so / he kindly has arranged your liberation / from all that might endanger your salvation.”

Moliere also takes a swipe at that sort of cold-bloodied religion which turns life into a kind of living-death…  When Orgon delivers a speech praising the sermons of Tartuffe, his words –though spoken by Orgon in complete sincerity– are meant to be ingested by the audience bathed in a sauce of irony…  “To keep his precepts is to be reborn, / and view this dunghill of a world with scorn. / yes, thanks to him I’m a changed man indeed./ under his tutelage my soul’s been freed / from earthly loves, and every human tie: / my mother children, brother, and wife could die, / and i’d not feel a single moment’s pain.”

Toward the end of the play, when Tartuffe’s true lustful nature is revealed, he tries to justify his leering and groping in religious terms… “Our senses are quite rightly captivated by perfect works our Maker has created.  Some glory clings to all that heaven has made.”

Doing his best to seduce Elmire, wife of Orgon, he promises her, “love without scandal, pleasure without fear.”  Immediately upon reading that winner of a line, I had it engraved upon the headboard of my bedframe.

Another “quotable Tartuffe moment is what he exclaims to the much-younger Dorine, “Cover that bosom, girl!  The flesh is weak.” 

I’ll leave you with one of my other favorite quotes from the play.  This one is about how the sight of someone we’re crushing-on can cause our pulse to quicken.  It is said by Orgon’s wife Elmire…

“That which our lips deny, our pulse confesses.”

—   —   —

More from Hammering Shield on Moliere…

Moliere’s Imaginary Invalid– 17th Century Meta

The Misanthrope — Moliere’s Best Play


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