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A Laughing Matter

Tartuffe

by Molière, translated by Richard Wilbur
Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center

The Lincoln Center Tartuffe is not a masterpiece but it has some distinct assets. The actors in the principal roles are in most cases excellent and hold their own against the often tricky staging. On the whole, however, the director, William Ball, has confined his attentions to externals, trying for no radical modernization of the play’s soul. And the text he uses is Richard Wilbur’s eloquent translation, which adheres faithfully to the original, rhymed verse and all.

In this conservatism Mr. Ball was probably well advised. Among Molière’s major comedies Tartuffe is uniquely free of ambiguities of the kind that tempt the more speculative critics and directors. In this connection it is worth recalling that Molière himself was at pains to clear Tartuffe of such shadows. The surviving text of the play represented his third try at a subject—extreme Christian piety—which in the earlier versions (now lost) had failed to satisfy the censor, presumably because their treatment of the subject was thought equivocal. In a preface he wrote for the final version Molière discusses the problem and its solutions. Among the latter were several strategic inventions which have since been frequently cited as examples of art’s triumph over caution. The best known of them is, of course, Tartuffe’s long delayed appearance on stage. In justification of this, Molière says that the villain must be thoroughly exposed before he appears so that the audience will be able to distinguish between this Hypocrite (actually, a criminal imposter) and a vrai Dévot. Two whole acts are thus given to showing the awful, and ludicrous, devastation wrought on a good bourgeois family, including the paterfamilias Orgon, by this false disseminator of viciously virtuous Ideas. But the reward of waiting for Tartuffe is not only more knowledge on the audience’s part. It is also an increasing expectancy, together with an expanding sense of the dire possibilities of Ideas in general. If Tartuffe’s delayed appearance exceeds in dramatic interest its merely practical purpose, so does the presence in the play of Dorine, the inspired housemaid whose role Molière probably enlarged in this final version. Her practical function is obvious. It is to serve as kind of on-stage audience, commenting with racy precision on the action and thus alerting the other audience, the one in the seats, to the significance of it all. In the process, however, Dorine evolves into one of Molière’s greatest characters. Combining exuberance with vigilance, wit with affection, she may be called the play’s “comic spirit,” insofar as Molière’s gay empiricism admits of such glorified entities.

While speaking of the incomparable clarity of Tartuffe, and the peculiar beauty this brings to the whole play, I must add that Tartuffe, like Molière’s other major comedies, is full of implications and that these are far from unsubtle. As elsewhere in his best work, there is in Tartuffe a kind of foreground subject, in this case extreme Christian piety, which shades imperceptibly into a kind of background subject, Orgon’s infatuation for Tartuffe. With Orgon as with other of Molière’s protagonists this emotionalism is rooted in some deficiency of normal self-regard, some dread, perhaps, of proving unequal to the firm but delicate demands of what we may call “society,” though with the proviso that “society” to Molière is no more than the sum of its individual relationships. Orgon’s society is defined by the members of his household. His relation to them is determined by the fact that he is aging while they are young, blooming, and, in the case of his son and daughter, much in love. On this circle, which includes his young second wife, Elmire, he has in effect declared war, doing so in the name of Christian asceticism but also in the person of his spiritual adviser, Tartuffe, to whom he has made over his property, his daughter, and in a sense his wife herself. In short he has signed away the very basis of his life in the hope of becoming what he calls “a changed man.”

Does his attachment to Tartuffe have sexual implications comparable to Tartuffe’s lust for Elmire? A recent production of the play in Paris is reported to have made much of the homosexual potential. But such an interpretation raises interesting difficulties. An aging Orgon whose passion for a male friend is an act of revenge on his too youthful family is a likely comic hero. In itself his predicament is far from uncommon. But brought to the extremes to which Orgon does bring it, his situation has about it something arbitrary, as if he had suddenly sprouted horns or wings. Hence the comedy of his predicament. But a homosexual Orgon would seem to be responding to compulsions of a quite different kind and intensity. He would not be the “changed man” Orgon thinks he is but a different man altogether. Nor would such a man be capable, presumably, of even the partial cure posited for Orgon at the play’s end.

As impersonated by Michael O’Sullivan of the Lincoln Center company, Tartuffe is the reverse of a physical love object, even if Orgon’s love is assumed to be blind. Gaunt of cheek, toothy, with long stringy hair, incredibly skinny legs, and a voice of ventriloqual shrillness, this Tartuffe is more like an escapee from a graveyard, a demonic stack of bones. And the fascination he has for Orgon seems to involve, as I have suggested, the ideas he mouths. These are equally of the graveyard school—that is, deadly. Again, it is Orgon’s very life that this spectral Tartuffe is after. A dead man is a changed man indeed. Mr. O’Sullivan’s is an exciting portrayal, and Larry Gates as Orgon is very good too. His Orgon has a zest that, for all his bulbous middle-aged exterior, makes him somehow charming in his madness, thus lending plausibility to Elmire’s undoubted fondness for him. And Elmire, played by Salome Jens, is lovely.

To be sure, this Elmire is subjected to some unnecessary trials. The director seems to have felt that Tartuffe as written was not a sufficiently well-made play for New York audiences. So his staging, if it is conservative as regards the play’s soul, is nevertheless odd enough to be worth critical attention. For one thing, the famous coup de théâtre of Tartuffe’s delayed entrance is softened. That scoundrel is made to take part in a dumb show at the start of the play, thus anticipating his later appearance. For another thing, Elmire is presented with two young children and a babe at the breast, none of them called for by the original. In this instance, the director evidently believed that Elmire’s claims on her husband would be strengthened for an American audience by these manifestations of maternity on her part. But they make for more fuss on stage than they are worth: the babe at breast is one of those tenderly handled dummies. And by turning Elmire into a wronged mother as well as a wronged wife, the delicate quality of her goodness, repeatedly shown in her speeches, is a little compromised. She is one of those remarkable creations whereby Molière achieves a certain equilibrium between vice and folly on the one hand, and innocence on the other. The balance is fragile, easily upset as it sometimes threatens to be in this production. The essence of such Molièrean goodness as Elmire’s is that it is strictly relevant, in kind and degree, to the requirements of a given situation. It seeks no metaphysical justification and serves no merely compensatory purpose. Elmire is not a heroine to herself or, for that matter, to anyone else. If Tartuffe is, as Mr. Wilbur suggests, the “comic equivalent of King Lear,” it has no Cordelia.

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