By Michael Valdez
We may never know what Tartuffe looked like – in its original form, that is. Copies of Molèire’s 1664 script were banned, burned, and lost to history after leaders of the Catholic church condemned the comedy as an attack on religion. In Europe, there had always been a tempestuous relationship between the church and the stage, but Tartuffe arguably set a new precedent. Its first performance at the inaugural festival of Versailles – with King Louis XIV in attendance – was reportedly an instant hit to all but the church and the upper crust of French society. Nobility saw themselves parodied in Orgon, the infinitely gullible patriarch, while Catholic leaders detested Tartuffe as vice parading around as virtue. This kind of religious satire (as it was later deemed) had no place in public life, lest it provoke undesirable behavior in its audience. Hailed as a mockery of hypocrisy and derided as a send-up of piety, Molière’s controversial masterpiece enjoyed numerous private performances at parties, salons, and festivals up until the public ban was lifted in 1669. The play you’re about to see is the product of heavy censorship, multiple rewrites, and the artistic tenacity of France’s most famous farceur.
Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in 1622, Molière, who helped plan the festivities at Versailles, was a remarkably prolific French poet, actor, and playwright. Though he expressed a personal preference for classical tragedy, the genius of his social commentary shines brightest in his comedies; The School for Wives, The Misanthrope, The Learned Women, and of course, Tartuffe, or L’imposteur have shaped French culture much like Shakespeare has for English. Also like Shakespeare, Molière has contributed his share of neologisms to the French vernacular: to this day, to call someone a tartuffe is to accuse them of feigning their virtue. The Comédie-Française, the premiere live theatre in Paris, is even referred to as La Maison de Molière, where he remains the most often performed playwright.
In Tartuffe, Molière exposes and plays on the obsession with spectacle, pomp, piety, and social standing that defined high society under the reign of Louis XIV. Orgon’s dupability is on full display when he opens his house to Tartuffe, a con artist in priest’s clothing. The rest of the family meet the newcomer with an understandable dose of skepticism as they see Tartuffe making grand displays of his religious devotion, and their father falling for every act. Tensions come to a boiling point when Orgon offers Tartuffe his daughter’s hand in marriage, breaking off a previous engagement between Mariane and her betrothed, Valère. To save Mariane from a loveless marriage (and themselves from welcoming the hypocrite into their family), Damis, the fiery son, Dorine, the streetwise maid, and Elmire, Orgon’s patient and loyal wife, concoct a plan to expose Tartuffe for the imposter he is.
Michael Valdez (Dramaturg) is a second year MA Theatre Studies candidate. He received his BA in Theatre and Literature from New College of Florida, where he was a proud founding member of the Windmill Theatre Company. Select directing and dramaturgy credits include Howard Barker’s 13 Objects, Lucas Hnath’s nightnight, Caryl Churchill’s Softcops (Windmill Theater Company), and Arthur Feinsod’s adaptation of The Rainmaker (Crossroads Repertory).