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HALL OF FAMEon November 11, 2003
I often taught Moliere's "Tartuffe" as an example of the neoclassical form of comedy in contrast to the romantic comedy represented by Shakespeare. We would read "Twelfth Night," a play set in a faraway exotic land where the point was simply romance, and then turn to "Tartuffe," where the contemporary society becomes one of the primary concerns of the comic dramatist. During the neoclassical period society was concerned with norms of behavior, and in a Moliere play you usually find a eccentric individual, out of step with the rest of society, who is laughed back to the right position. Moliere was concerned with social problems, which was while this particular play, dealing with the issue of hypocrisy, was banned for years. Keep in mind that originally hypocrisy was specific to religion, although today it can be used with regards to politics, sex, or even uncontroversial subjects.
The central character in "Tartuffe" is not the title character, but Orgon, a reasonably well to do man of Paris who is married to his second wife, Elmire, and has a song, Damis, and a daughter, Mariane, from his first marriage. He also has the misfortune of living with his mother, Madame Pernelle. Tartuffe is a religious hypocrite who worms his way into Orgon's confidence in order to take him for everything he is worth. Orgon is completely duped, and disinherits his son when Damis tries to prove Tartuffe is fraud. The other key character in the play is Dorine, who is Mariane's maid and the smartest person in the house, which allows her to both manipulate the action and comment on the play.
There are three crucial scenes in the play that readers should appreciate, even if it will not be covered on a future exam. The first is the opening scene (in Moliere's comedies the scene changes every time a character enters or exits) where we are introduced to Madame Pernelle, who promptly proceeds to criticize everybody in Orgon's household while praising Tartuffe. The result is that because she is so obnoxious, we have a low opinion of Tartuffe before he ever appears on stage. So, in addition to being a funny scene, it serves an important function in terms of the play. The second key scene comes when Orgon realizes he has been duped, and instead of continuing to ridicule his central character, Moliere turns him into a sympathetic figure. We laugh at Orgon while he does not have a clue as to his culpability in his coming demise, but once he starts to lose everything we stop laughing.
The final scene of interest, for mostly reasons external to the story, is the conclusion, where Moliere pulls what could only be called a "roi ex machina." This is because instead of dropping a god out of the sky in the manner of Euripides, Moliere has a representatative of the King arrive to set everything to rights. Tartuffe might pull the wool over the eyes of ordinary folk, but the King--in this case, King Louis XIV--is not fooled. The play "Tartuffe" was banned by the clergy after its first performance because it was seen as a thinly veiled attack against the Jansenists (a rather puritanical Catholic sect), and Moliere literally spent years rewriting it before the King gave his approval. It is not surprising that the playwright makes his patron the hero at the end of the play.
If you are only going to read (or teach) one Moliere play, then my choice would be "Tartuffe," even over "The Misanthrope," "The Imaginary Invalid," or "The Bourgeois Gentleman." I would argue that "Tartuffe" is the paradigmatic Moliere play, which best represents his comic techniques while also having a historical context that speaks to the tenor of the times in which he wrote. I also think it is the funniest of his plays.
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on January 16, 2001
Fast-paced and oft hilarious; Moliere's "Tartuffe" was one of the most controversial plays of its day. However, I myself do not believe it to be so much a satire on religion (contrary to what was believed at the time) as a satire on religious hypocrisy. Not once in the play is a specific religion or religious belief eluded to, and Cleante (who serves as the play's voice of reason) praises piety (so long as it is honest) in the beginning of the fifth act. What the play is satirizing is how easily people follow and accept what they are told by their leaders, whether religious, political, or otherwise.
In the play Orgon places so much faith in the mischevious Tartuffe that he nearly gives away everything (including his own daughter) to him. Both the strong-willed, weak-minded Orgon and the devious Tartuffe (of whom one could say "thinks with the wrong head") as well as the quick-tempered Damis, the clear-minded Cleante, and the wise-cracking maid Dorine are memorable characters all of whom are wonderfully developed despite the brevity of the play. The rhyme scheme makes for a quick and enjoyable read as well. A classic!
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on May 2, 1999
The most amazing thing about this play is the skill of its author. The story is original and interesting. The actual writing is what captivated me. So witty is the dialogue, so humorous it is at times, that I laughed out loud. It is quite amazing that such ancient text sounds like something you would hear on a sitcom. This is not boring or confusing speech, like in Shakespeare; this is very down-to-earth. Aside from the alluring rhyme, Moliere has an incredible ability to take a page-long theme and express it perfectly and succinctly in one sentence, and with poignancy. If I were given the task of writing dialogue about the theme of hypocrisy, I would write page after page of ineffective, watered-down, wordy dialogue that repeatedly misses the mark of expressing the point well. Moliere's lines, however, are so well-crafted that the ideas are ingeniously short and accurate. He fits so many good points into one entertaining, rhythmic, memorable sentence. Tartuffe is my favorite play of all!
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on February 23, 2003
I'm writing because the negative reviews unduly attack, and positive reviews fail to credit, the strongest selling point of this particular edition--Richard Wilbur's skillful and supple translation. A U.S. Poet Laureate and great literary intellect in his own right, Wilbur's clear language and, for the most part, effortlessly natural couplets make Moliere immediately accessible to the modern reader. His language does make the link between Moliere and Restoration comedy quite explicit, as one critic of the edition has noted here. But since Restoration was in fact inspired by the spirit of French farce, all this proves is that Wilbur's translation is not only readable, but historically adept (the whole idea of the Restoration was that Charles II brought French culture back to England with him on returning from France--the link isn't imaginary). Of course read the French if you can--but read Wilbur's translation as well, because it's also a valuable literary work in its own right.
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on June 27, 2003
Pulizter-winning poet Richard Wilbur has chosen to dedicate years of his life to making worthy English translations of the plays of Moliere with the idea no one will have to again for a hundred years. His confidence in his own translations is enormous, and correct. This is Moliere in the language of today -- direct, witty, insightful, hilarious. Tartuffe sends up hypocrisy, religious and otherwise, in a bourgeois farce of escalating absurdity.
This particular translation won the prestigious Bollingen Prize. The only thing going against it is that you can essentially get two-for-the-price-of-one by getting Wilbur's Tartuffe and The Misanthrope together in another book. That book even contains the same introduction. But why stop there? I can't praise Wilbur's Molieres highly enough. If you like The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, check out the other ones, like The School for Wives and Amphitryon, two personal favorites.
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on April 8, 1999
Tartuffe is, without doubt, one of the works responsible for placing Molière alongside to the geniuses of Aeschilus and Shakespeare. Here, the human imposture and hipocrasy is not just seen as a way for corrupting others lives, but of also corrupting the own love for all which really matters in life. Tartuffe surpasses the means of a simple comedy of ways to become itself a drama of human being; every time someone laughs of Tartuffe, he/she must do it recognizing that something has to be changed so that he/she does not become laughable.
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on October 6, 1999
I dropped in here to see how Monsieur Moliere was doing with the online reviewers, and was glad to see that most people are still delighted by this masterpiece -- particularly in Richard Wilbur's supernaturally brilliant translation. I've been using this translation in a dramatic lit course for several years, and all of the best and brightest students LOVE the thing. The plot is insane, the satire is edgy, and the couplets are delicious. Buy it today; read it as soon as it arrives.
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on July 23, 2001
Moliere is one of the most unique and individualistic writers ever to grace the pages of literary anthologies. His characters are as memorable as any ever created, and perhaps no play better demonstrates his humorous capabilities that "Tartuffe," which is as light-hearted in the face of somber themes as anything ever written. An All-Time Classic!
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on April 20, 2000
Tartuffe was one of many plays assigned to me in a college literature class, but I found Tartuffe to be more enjoyable than others. The characters were well developed and the dialouge was somewhat comical. The play read fairly quickly but was not boring. I think this was a good literature assignment and I would recommend it as a great comic play.
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on April 19, 1999
I loved "Tartuffe." Dorine was a fantastic representation of a maid who sticks her nose in too much for good purpose. Mariane was great as a "dutiful daughter." The play kept me in suspense, especially when Tartuffe admitted his lust for Elmire, and Orgon thought he was being hard on himself.
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