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Molière's Humor in "Tartuffe, ou l'Imposteur"

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Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622—1673)—better known by his stage name Molière—was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be among the greatest masters of comedy in world literature due to his unique talent for social satire and mocking wit. His play Tartuffe, or The Impostor, or The Hypocrite is one of the most famous comedies in the history of the European theater. The French text of Tartuffe, ou l'Imposteur consists in its entirety of 1,962 twelve-syllable lines of rhyming couplets called “alexandrines.” The French alexandrine (alexadrin) is a syllabic poetic meter of twelve syllables with a medial caesura (pause) dividing the line into two hemistichs (a half-line of verse) of six syllables each. It was the traditional long line of verse in French poetry throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Soon after its premiere at the Palace of Versailles in 1664, Tartuffe was banned by King Louis XIV at the urging of the local hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. The French prelates even issued an edict threatening excommunication for anyone who watched, performed in, or read the play given its presumed anti-religious and anti-Catholic Church overtones. This act of royal censorship explains the effusive and overdone praise for the “great wisdom” of the Sun-King in the comedy's finale which is quite obsequious and humiliating for an immensely popular artist like Molière. While arresting Tartuffe at the end of the play for fraud and deceit, the Exempt (a royal officer of the law) lavishly lauds the sagacity of Le Roi Soleil: “We're fortunate in leadership and laws. / We have a king who sees into men's hearts, / And cannot be deceived, so he imparts / Great wisdom, and a talent for discernment. / Thus fraud are guaranteed a quick internment. / Our Prince of Reason sees things as they are, / So hypocrites do not get very far. / But saintly men and the truly devout, / He cherish and has no doubts about” (5.7.48-56). In spite of the playwright's abject servility, Louis XIV did not lift the ban on the public staging of Tartuffe for five years—until Molière converted Tartuffe from a "costumed" cleric into a lay Catholic and also praised the King to heaven in the play's third revision (p. 539). But probably what mattered the most to Louis XIV is not the author's conversion of Tartuffe from a frocked priest into a Catholic layman, but Molière's very generous praise for the "wise" rule of the Sun-King in the surviving latest edition of the play, which proves that—like Orgon—Molière was a bourgeois loyal to the crown. It looks like such excessive kudos for the crown is exactly what Le Roi Soleil liked to call "verisimilitude" in French neoclassical drama.

 

Comedy of Manners

In Tartuffe, wealthy French bourgeois Orgon's family is in total panic because he and his very religious mother have fallen under the spell of Tartuffe, a devious and professedly “pious” con artist. Tartuffe pretends to be a most devout lay Catholic who speaks with divine authority, so Orgon and his equally gullible mother no longer make any important decision without his saintly advice. Orgon even decides to marry Tartuffe to his young and beautiful daughter from a previous marriage, Mariane, who is however horrified by the idea because she detests Tartuffe and is already engaged to her beau Valère. In his mind-boggling delusion and imbecilic admiration for Tartuffe, Orgon goes as far as transferring to him all his earthly possessions, including his Paris mansion. In a desperate effort to prove to Orgon that Tartuffe is a lying fraud, the rest of the family devises a scheme to trap Tartuffe into openly confessing his carnal desire for Orgon's current wife, Elmire, who is very attractive. But even after the hypocrite is caught openly doing so, Orgon still trusts the “holy” and “honest” Tartuffe far more than any member of his household, including his young wife.

Taking matters into her hands, Elmire promises her husband to show him the ugly truth about Tartuffe. She makes Orgon hide under a table and summons Tartuffe into the room. When the latter arrives, she does her best to seduce him. Tartuffe is skeptical at first, given the sudden about-face in her attitude towards him, but soon becomes emboldened and tries to have sex with her on top of the very table under which Orgon is hiding. But Elmire is increasingly nervous and asks him to check outside the door to make sure her husband is not around. When he does so, Orgon pops out from under the table, enraged at Tartuffe's duplicity and treachery. Elmire asks her husband to hide again under the table so that Orgon can witness the full extent of Tartuffe's lechery and thus make sure he is not mistaken about the imposter's lustful intentions towards her. But Tartuffe returns before Orgon can hide again. When Orgon confronts him, Tartuffe reminds him that he has the newly-acquired rights to all of Orgon's properties, including his stately house. Tartuffe also threatens to get his revenge on the entire family by revealing to the authorities the contents of some incriminating letters (written by a family friend) which Orgon has foolishly entrusted to his treacherous house-guest.

In terms of comic spectacle, this is by far the funniest visual part of Tartuffe—with the “devout” hypocrite groping and molesting Elmire while her husband is hiding under the table and spying on Tartuffe's sexually aggressive behavior. (To judge which of its scenes is the most comical visually, you may watch a Tartuffe video, without turning on the sound). If you watch it in Spanish (a language that I do not speak), this particular scene (4.4-7) is still the most hilarious visual part of the comedy even if you don't understand a single Spanish word spoken (to watch Tartuffe in Spanish, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gUFKCVagpc). In the printed text, Elmire even ridicules and taunts her still doubtful husband by telling him not to come out from under the table too early—before he could “be sure the evidence is strong” (4.6.9). Of course, there is the implied danger in this entire comic scene that if Orgon hides too long underneath the table, his wife may soon start yelling at him NOT to come out from under the table at all—or at least not until she signals him to (by coughing loudly).

 

Dorine

Another interesting comic technique in Tartuffe is the satirical use of the maid Dorine. The character of Dorine is a major source of humor in the entire play—she often chooses to act and react in ways not appropriate for a household maid. She is the source of much of the comedy's hilarity since she is the voice of practical wisdom and reason rebelling against Tartuffe's feigned piety and hypocrisy. It has since become a traditional stage technique in comedy to have a servant (e.g., Pierre Beaumarchais' Figaro) who can get the best of his or her so-called social superiors. The logic for creating the cunning and sardonic-minded maid is understandable: she functions as a practical, common-sense observer who always calls a spade a spade. For instance, Dorine points out that Madame Pernelle, Orgon's excessively devout mother, used to be a great flirt herself when she could still attract male attention, but now that she is old and no longer attractive, she condemns all others for the same vice which she once indulged in.

In terms of comic thought, Dorine's acerbic wit is the source of much verbal humor and biting sarcasm in the play. When Tartuffe, in his exaggerated devoutness and humility, admonishes her to cover her décolletage (half-exposed bosom) with his handkerchief: “Cover your bust. The flesh is weak. / Souls are forever damaged by such sights, / When sinful thoughts begin their evil flights” (3.2.8-10), Dorine derisively ridicules his pretended modesty: “It seems temptation makes a meal of you— / To turn you on, a glimpse of flesh will do. / Inside your heart, a furnace must be housed. / For me, I'm not so easily aroused. / I could see you naked, head to toe— / Never be tempted once, and this I know” (3.2.11-16). Tartuffe, who is eagerly trying to bed her mistress Elmire, replies in the typical manner of a religious hypocrite: “Please! Stop! And if you are planning to resume / This kind of talk, I'll leave the room” (3.2.16-17).

Throughout the play, Dorine is often impudent in both her speech and conduct towards her supposed social superiors. She is a source of much of Tartuffe's verbal humor, biting sarcasm, and scathing social commentary. Dorine seems to be always at the center of dramatic action and is able to outfox all her social betters. For example, she delivers a comical warning to Orgon about the danger of marrying Mariane to the much older Tartuffe: "Old men and young girls are married every day, / And the young girls stray, but who is to blame / For the loss of honor and good name? / The father, who proceeds to pick a mate, / Blindly, though it's someone she may hate, / Bears the sins the daugther may commit, / Imperiling his soul because of it. / If you do this, I vow you'll hear the bell, / As you you die, summoning you to hell" (2.2.73-79). Her witty yet wise words remind me of the unhappy Thea Elvsted and her elderly husband, the sheriff Elvsted, who is more than twenty years older than her in Henrik Ibsen's famous play Hedda Gabler.

Dorine's acerbically witty character is fully in tune with the comedies “of the Roman comic dramatists Plautus and Terence, replete with narratives of...cunning slaves” (p. 535) who can easily outsmart their slave-owning masters. Fast-talking Dorine is the smartest and wittiest among all the characters in Tartuffe. In fact, she is smarter and more ingenious than even her wise and resourceful mistress Elmire. If you remove Dorine as a source of verbal humor in the play, Tartuffe would be an amusing bourgeois melodrama, but not one of the funniest neoclassical comedy of manners. She often acts and reacts in a brazen, mischievous, and mocking manner, which is quite uncharacteristic of her low social rank. Boldly and rather directly, Dorine reminds Madame Pernelle, Orgon's pretentiously pious mother, that once upon a time she was herself a great flirt, but now that she is older and no longer attractive to men, Madame Pernelle berates other people for the same vices that she used to practice in her youth: “She needed that when age stole her appeal. / Her passion is policing—it's her duty / And compensation for her loss of beauty. / She's a reluctant prude. And now, her art, / Once used so well to win a lover's heart, / Is gone. Her eyes, that used to flash with lust, / Are steely with her piety. She must / Have seen that it's too late to be a wife, / And so she lives a plain and pious life. / This is a strategy of old coquettes. / It's how they manage once the world forgets / Them. First, they wallow in a dark depression, / Then see no recourse but in the profession / of a prude. They criticize the lives of everyone. / They censure everything, and pardon none. / It's envy. Pleasures that they are denied / By time and age, now, they just can't abide” (1.1.136-153).

As I have already pointed out, Dorine is a source of much of Tartuffe's scathing sarcasm and sardonic social commentary. In the repertoire of French neoclassical theater, Dorine is a soubrette—that is, a stock yet relatively minor comic character, usually a frivolous and mischievous chambermaid or maidservant. Displaying a flirtatious, sarcastic and even waspish nature, a soubrette appeared first in the Italian improvisational Commedia dell'arte—often in the role of Pierrot's and Harlequin's gossipy and coquettish paramour Columbina. After the Venice-born impromptu Commedia dell'arte declined in popularity, the soubrette reappeared in the comedies of Molière, including the pivotal comical role of Dorine in Tartuffe. A later example of a vivacious and sharp-tongued soubrette is Figaro's bride-to-be Suzanne in Beaumarchais' comedy The Marriage of Figaro (the literary basis for Mozart's famous comic opera of the same title).

 

Dorine vs. Flipote

Dorine, who is a lady's maid to Elmire's step-daughter Mariane, is so streetwise, insolent and disobedient that she is too much for her master Orgon, Tartuffe, Madame Pernelle, Mariane, and nearly everybody else in this comedy of manners. She is as sardonic, verbally acerbic, and outrageously saucy in both her speech and her behavior towards her superiors as Aristophanes' comic heroine Lysistrata is towards the haughty and self-important male officials of ancient Athens. Her antipode in everything but social station is Flipote, the obedient lady's maid to Madame Pernelle. Unlike the fast-talking and disobedient soubrette Dorine, who never shuts up, Flipote is a shy, taciturn, patient, and always silent character, who never speaks a single word—indeed, she never utters a sound throughout the play. Little surprise that a brutally ruthless Madame Pernelle treats her so atrociously in front of everybody else: “Flipote! Wake up! Have you heard nothing I have said? / I'll march you home and beat you till you're dead. / March, slut, march” (1.1.187-189). Dorine wold have never put up with such a disrespectful and humiliating treatment at the hands of any of the Orgons or anybody else around her.

One of Molière's purposes for creating the character of Flipote is to show just how arrogant and brutally callous Madame Pernell, a religious fanatic and a Tartuffe-like hypocrite herself, really is. Another purpose for presenting these two stage characters so differently is to demonstrate that Dorine's disobedient and defiant behavior was not so common or typical among maidservants in Molière's age of hierarchically rigid absolutist monarchy. If all servants had been indeed like Dorine, the monarchical-aristocratic-clerical order of the 18th century French absolutism would have been overthrown long before July 1789. Molière's final purpose in contrasting the two maidservants is to sharpen the audience's focus on Dorine as the messenger of more progressive ideas and socially critical attitudes than anyone else in her supposedly enlightened bourgeois household.

 

Conclusion

This anthology's Introduction states: "The use of empirical observation, experimentation, and inductive reasoning (i.e., drawing general conclusions from data) represented a shift from the more abstract procedures applied by medieval scholars..." (p. 33). In Tartuffe, we have the new "scientific method" amusingly applied in empirical practice. Orgon entertains the unproven empirical theory that Tartuffe is nothing less than an angel of perfection (even if without any wings) or at least a force for good in life. Relentlessly pursued by the lecherous Tartuffe, Elmire argues a competing counter-theory—that Tartuffe is an evil (and also very horny) old devil. So both spouses use the scientific method—an experiment (let Tartuffe unleash his sexual promiscuity and aggressiveness, thinking he is alone with Elmire), empirical observation (Orgon hides underneath the table to spy on Tartuffe's sexually aggressive words and actions), and inductive reasoning (everyone who—like Tartuffe—behaves badly, must be a bad and untrutworthy person). The play thus demonstrates the triumph of "the scientific revolution that took place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (p. 32). Molière obviously believed that the Devil was in people's hearts and it seems that his Tartuffe only confirmed the playwright's pessimistic views.

Tartuffe is alive and well in the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe. (I know: I come from the most barbarous one among them, Bulgaria). I'm sure that Tartuffism is alive and well not only in post-Communist Eastern Europe, but in the former republics of the Soviet Union as well. Many former Communists easily transformed themselves into ardent anti-Communists. The born-again anti-Communists who used to be fanatically pro-Soviet and anti-American are now fanatically pro-American and anti-Moscow. Today you cannot find more devoted fans of America, Western-style democracy and free-market capitalism than these shameless opportunists. From fervent Russophiles they have all turned into impassioned Russophobes. From dedicated atheists and Godless Marxists they have all turned into devout Christians. These hypocrites hide their past membership in the Communist Party and, if found out, they claim that the “Communists” forced them to join by putting a gun to their head. They conveniently forget how they used to trade sexual favors from their wives and even their daughters for the coveted Communist Party membership, because it was so beneficial to their professional careers and social rank....

I'm afraid that Tartuffe is and will be always part of us! Let's face it—everyone of us is a bit like Tartuffe. Let's all look into the mirror! For many, if not most of us, Tartuffism is by far our most pronounced character trait, more or less!

 

Works Cited

Molière. Tartuffe, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 535-592. Print.