Tartuffe, by Molière
by Paul Mathers
And so we go from stodgy agnostics to mockeries of religious hypocrites (although, in all fairness, I am once again breaching the intended order of reading. The library, where this volume of continental drama resides, was closed for the weekend and so I went to the bookstore to try and buy as many of the plays included in the volume as I could. I only succeeded in finding two. So while Tartuffe is in the middle of this volume, I read it first). Religious hypocrisy is an issue, especially to those who tend towards pietism. There is no greater fall and, I daresay, none so satisfying to watch than the fall from a high horse. This, however, is likely but another manifestation of our universal slavery to the way of all flesh.
The version of Tartuffe that we read today is not the original. The original was, for reasons we are left to imagine and with the precise sort of irony that the universe likes to play in these matters, censored. I chose to read the Virginia Scott translation. It strives to preserve the sing-song rhyming couplets of the original (the Harvard Classics translation does not for reasons I cannot imagine). It is not a terribly complex story, but its greatness rests in its simplicity and clarity.
The story is of one Orgon who brings into his home a man who claims and attempts to parade the deepest of piety. Everyone sees through this except for Orgon and his mother. Tartuffe (who does not appear on stage until the third act) connives to marry Orgon’s daughter, to attempt to commit adultery with Orgon’s wife, and ultimately to usurp Orgon’s estate, fortune, and standing. It is probably worthwhile to note that Tartuffe, who poses as one who is concerned about the highest aspirations of humankind, soaks in some of the basest of instincts, that of the rutting animal.
As I said, these are universal themes which translate seamlessly to our time. Orgon is now the person who sold everything before Harold Camping’s end time date or the well meaning shut-in sending their general assistance check to Benny Hinn. Just as in the days of Moliere, the media loves Tartuffe because religious hypocrisy makes us feel better about our own shortcomings. I would add my own two cents that genuine Christian values do not make for obedient consumers and so the media flaunts every scrap of religious hypocrisy they can muster to undermine any quest for meaning outside of said media.
There are a few bits that do not translate quite so well. The deus ex machina is, in this case, a rex ex machina and in an increasingly libertarian and anti-monarchist west, it is difficult to imagine this playing anything but ironic today. Molière ends the piece in one great genuflection towards the throne which I found to be charming if a bit archaic and utilitarian from a man whose previous version of the play had been censored by that very same king.
When the sack of money inevitably falls from the sky onto my head or the wealthy distant relative with no heirs dies, and I found the Chico Classical Theater Company, Tartuffe is on my short list of shows I would direct as soon as possible. I think the value is in the quality of the play, but is also in the opportunity for reflection. We laugh at the lead characters, but, hopefully, we also look at Orgon and Tartuffe and look in our own hearts to see where we are behaving just like them.