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 …