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Moliere's paradigmatic neoclassical comedy, "Tartuffe"
on 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.