Here we have yet another hysterically funny play by the seventeenth-century French playwright known as
Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin). As is typical in his plays, mockery of pretentiousness is the main theme. In this case, it is not of society, but of
those who pretend religious fervor. This got Molière in a bit of trouble in his day, but fortunately the play survived so we can still enjoy its sassy humor.
And under the right direction, it could be quite bawdy! As in The Imaginary Invalid,
Tartuffe features a really smart-ass maid, in fact this one never keeps her
opinions to herself. And also, comparing the two plays, Tartuffe also features a scene where someone is hiding in order to
see the truth about what another is doing behind his back. Throw a romance in, and you have all the ingredients for lots of laughs.
One thing about this particular edition is that the translation is really Anglicized. I'm not sure I totally like that. It certainly made it easier to read without struggling through the archaic language of some of his other plays in Dover editions, in which the translations are English, but keeping closer to the original French in style. But I also wonder if some of the sparkle and wit was lost. The way one uses words is as important as the meaning behind them. And Molière was a master of words!
The play begins as Orgon's family, his wife, his son and daughter, his brother-in-law, and his mother are lamenting the fact that he has not only taken in this scoundrel, Tartuffe, but is unable to see through his phony religious devotion and phony everything else. Well, all except Madame Pernelle, Orgon's mother, who thinks Tartuffe's piety is something that the whole family must imitate. There is a big argument going on, but the others have trouble getting a word in over Madame, all except Mariane's maid, Dorine. Finally Madame Pernelle walks out in a huff, not wanting to be associated with the household. The others stifle giggles.
Orgon returns after having been away. Elmire, his wife retires to await him, but Cléante, his brother-in-law and Dorine have some fun. Upon inquiries of the household, Dorine makes up stories of his wife's illness, yet Orgon seems to care only for the welfare of Tartuffe, who is eating them out of house and home. Mariane, Orgon's daughter is to be wed to Valère, and though Orgon had given his approval, he now seems to hesitate. Cléante attempts to pin him down, but soon the family learns of his plan. Orgon has decided to wed Mariane to Tartuffe!
Mariane submits like a good daughter, but when her father leaves, confides in Dorine that she will wed Tartuffe, then kill herself. But Dorine has other plans and sets the family to work. She confronts Tartuffe:
Tartuffe. [Upon seeing Dorine speaks aloud to his servant who is in the house] Laurence, lock up my hair-cloth and scourge, and beg of heaven ever to enlighten you with grace. If anybody comes to see me, I am gone to the prisons to distribute my alms.
Dorine. [Aside] What affectation and roguery!
Tartuffe. What do you want?
Dorine. To tell you—
Tartuffe. [Drawing a handkerchief out of his pocket] Oh! Lack-a-day pray take me this handkerchief before you speak.
Dorine. What for?
Tartuffe. Cover that bosom, which I can't bear to see. Such objects hurt the soul, and usher in sinful thoughts.
Dorine. You mightily melt then at a temptation, and the flesh makes great impression upon your senses?. Truly, I can't tell what heat may inflame you; but for my part, I am not so apt to hanker. Now I could see you stark naked from head to foot, and that whole side of yours not tempt me at all.
What Dorine had wanted to tell Tartuffe is that Elmire, Orgon's wife wishes to speak to him alone. And when they are alone, Tartuffe's morals take a different spin when he comes on to her. Fortunately, Damis, Orgon's son, is hidden in the room and witnesses the whole affair:
Tartuffe. [Taking Elmire's hand and squeezing her fingers] Yes madame, without doubt, and such is the fervor—
Elmire. Oh! You squeeze me too hard.
Tartuffe. 'Tis out of excess zeal; I never intended to hurt you. I had much rather—[Puts his hand upon her knee].
Elmire. What does your hand do there?
Tartuffe. I'm only feeling your clothes, madame; the stuff is mighty rich.
But Elmire plays along in the hopes of dissuading Tartuffe from accepting the marriage offer of Orgon to Mariane.
Damis, however, immediately goes to Orgon to tell him Tartuffe is making love to Elmire. Orgon, of course doesn't believe him, in fact, throws him out and
disinherits him. The funniest scene follows, when Elmire convinces Orgon to hide under the table while she is alone with Tartuffe. What makes this scene so
hysterical is that she is so obvious. Every time Tartuffe says something compromising, she coughs to get Orgon's attention, even resorting to pounding
on the table.
Finally, Orgon realizes how stupid he has been to have believed this lying scoundrel Tartuffe. But not before he has signed away his whole estate to him!!
This play is Molière at his best! If you're looking for lots of laughs, definitely read Tartuffe.
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