Sunday, December 6, 2015

Book Review: Tartuffe

Title: Tartuffe, or the Imposter
Author: Jean-Baptiste Moliere (translated by Richard Wilbur)
Genre: Play, Comedy, Satire


To anyone with eyes to see, Tartuffe is a sham: a "holy" man who preaches heaven's rewards while indulging in earthly pleasures. Unfortunately, his charade fools the noble Orgon, who dotes on Tartuffe and brings him into his household. Now, Orgon wishes to go one step further and give Tartuffe his daughter Mariane's hand in marriage. Everyone is shocked and horrified. But Mariane's maid Dorine has a plan to expose Tartuffe for the imposter he is and break his hold on Orgon for good.


Ever pick up a classic book and get a textual analysis extolling the virtues of the piece before hearing even one word about what the darn thing's about?

For example, I was reading an introduction to Moliere by Howard E Hugo, who tells me, "Within this cultural environment of neoclassicism [...] Moliere, the comic dramatist, leaned heavily toward the pole of the natural, rational, and humanistic. [...]Each of Moliere's plays is actually an exemplum and a critical study of the failure to conform to an ideal of urbanity, solid pragmatism, worldly common sense, good taste, and moderation [...]."

So here I am, taking notes, thinking this is all great to know for my upcoming CSET exam (and for sounding smart in general), but not exactly feeling inspired to read the play. Somehow, though, while flipping the pages of the book, my eyes actually lit upon the text. And I came to my own realization.

Tartuffe is funny.

Really funny.

And, depending on the actors, a bit risque, too.
Now granted, it's 400 years old and humor has changed over the years, so it's not necessarily going to be hip with the young ones and all that. Still, there's something eminently relatable to the absurd situations. Take, for example, Orgon inquiring about his household after coming home from a trip.

Orgon: [to Dorine] Has all been well, these two days I've been gone?
            How are the family? What's been going on?
Dorine: Your wife, two days ago, had a bad fever
            And a fierce headache which refused to leave her.
Orgon: Ah. And Tartuffe?
Dorine: Tartuffe? Why, he's round and red
            Bursting with health and excellently fed.
Orgon: Poor fellow.

Orgon, if you only knew...
And it goes on, with Orgon continuing to pity poor, healthy, lively, gluttonous Tartuffe, whilst paying no attention to his sick, suffering, moaning-in-pain wife.

This translation of the text is pretty easily read, too. The rhyming couplets continue throughout the text. These may bother some, but I rather like them. Their sing-songy rhythm makes the play light-hearted. It's not meant to be taken too seriously. It's satire.

The plot kicks into action pretty quickly. It's all fun and games to make fun of Tartuffe and Orgon's slavish devotion to him--right up until Orgon decides to marry off his daughter Mariane to the holy man. Suddenly, his foolishness has dire consequences. The stakes continue to rise, and it becomes clear that Orgon, idiot though he is, has the power to destroy his whole household.

Interestingly enough, it's the women, by and large, who act as a heroic counterpart to Orgon and put an end to this nonsense. Although Mariane takes after her father in the dim-witted compartment, her maid Dorine is feisty and snarky and does her best to fix the problems the fools caused. Elmire, Orgon's second wife, is no slouch either, not only recognizing Tartuffe as an imposter, but willing to put her body on the line to prove it.
Dorine's got it all figured out
Ultimately, this isn't quite enough to stop the machinations of the dastardly Tartuffe. In the end, only one man can save the day: the king. Such a wise, just, glorious, discerning, handsome, radiant king. It's a bit of a cop out, if you ask me, serving as an excuse for the playwright to kiss the king's ass--but, hey, I guess if you wanted to make it back in the day, you had to tip your hat to your patron. Ultimately, this doesn't hurt the story too much.

There are serious themes to be mused, if one wishes to. I, myself, pondered briefly the nature of religious devotion and familial power. Mostly, though, I laughed, gasped, and had a surprisingly good afternoon devouring a musty old 17th century French play.

And now, for something classic...

No comments:

Post a Comment