Molière risked his reputation with Tartuffe. After a disastrous earlier career as an actor, then actor-manager, falling into debt and being briefly imprisoned, he had been forced to leave Paris. The comedies he wrote in exile were influenced first by the Italian commedia dell’arte and then by the more realistic ‘belle comédie’ of Corneille, urbane five-act verse dramas with contemporary settings. The Académie Française had insisted the genre should follow the unities of classical tragedy. In addition they should observe the rules of ‘vraisemblance’ by not using implausible or outlandish plots and ‘bienséance’ so that characters’ behaviour should not upset convention. Molière, however, was never content to be restrained by the rules of convention.
So when he finally returned to Paris in 1658, far from toning down his approach, Molière scandalized with a series of comedies which blended farce with satire, using a series of eccentric characters to attack contemporary society. Although the King loved the first performance of Tartuffe at Versailles in 1664, the powerful religious faction at court took offence at the scathing attack on religious hypocrisy. The play was suppressed, an anonymous pamphlet denouncing Molière as ‘a demon clothed in flesh and dressed as a man, the most outstandingly impious libertine that has ever lived’. Molière was determined, however, and after various unsuccessful attempts at supposedly less offensive versions, staged it to triumphant acclaim in 1669.
It is hard to see from this new collaboration between playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton and French writer and director Gérald Garutti what exactly would shock. Garutti states in the programme they have given the play ‘a bold and contemporary twist’ to highlight contemporary issues (‘societies being ripped apart by senseless materialism, a rise in extremist ideologies’). Transporting the action to modern-day California might seem to offer potential, but even the opening scene – a stylized domestic rave at Orgon’s LA pad – was distinctly anaemic, and the suggested senseless materialism never further explored.
Tartuffe himself, played by Paul Anderson, is supposedly an ardent Evangelical with a mid-West accent. But his costume, all flowing linen and prayer beads, suggests he has just returned from sitting at the feet of the Maharishi. It’s hard even in the original to see what exactly is the belief system that Orgon has so passionately embraced, but in this production it makes no sense at all that he can compel his daughter to marry a man she loathes. There is a flicker of homoeroticism in Orgon’s fixation with Tartuffe: but the uneasy sexual politics this might suggest are wisely dropped.
The acting itself is flawless. A superb cast of largely French actors (including Audrey Fleurot as Elmire, Claude Perron as Dorine, Sebastian Roché as Orgon) articulate the original French beautifully, with Hampton’s blank verse translation in surtitles. But it is not clear why a decision was made to make some of the characters occasionally switch to English, other than the pragmatic one of making the production more audience-friendly in both Britain and France. The effect is only to draw further attention to the awkward transplanting of the play to contemporary America.
It is not a laugh-out-loud comedy: Molière never intended it to be so. The plot heads for tragedy, with Orgon seeming to lose everything to the unscrupulous Tartuffe. Then right at the end comes the pleasing reverse. The Officer, if not a classical deus ex machina descending from the heavens, is at least his mortal equivalent – an emissary from the King himself, arriving to unmask Tartuffe and reward Orgon:
The King who rules us is the enemy of fraud,
He sees into the depths of all his subjects’ hearts,
And he’s never deceived by false imposters’ arts.
He can tell truth from lies; his great soul is endowed
With insight; he can guess what isn’t said out loud.
(Tartuffe, Act 5, Scene 7, as translated by Maya Slater for Oxford World’s Classics, “The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays”, OUP, 2008)
Here Hampton plays it for laughs. The Officer has come from the White House, from a President whose identity, if not spelt out, is blindingly obvious. There follow well-worn references to tweets, pussy-grabbing etc. Is Hampton really suggesting that Molière’s complex relationship with Louis XIV, who after all rescues his career, is the equivalent to a modern-day Evangelist’s to Trump? This we must presume is the ‘bold and contemporary twist’.
Even the set is bizarre: a stylish glass-walled cube sits centre stage, actors needing to wear microphones to deliver lines from inside. In the original, Elmire famously insists her husband hide under a table to witness Tartuffe’s unwelcome sexual advances. Here the comedy is lost when instead she enters the glass cube, leaving Orgon impotently outside. The cube is then lit up in red, suggesting nothing so much as that Elmire is now plying her trade in an Amsterdam window.
In the programme notes, Garutti suggests that in this production, Tartuffe ‘is at war with our modern Western World, crusading against our market-dominated society, our selfish, individualistic, secular democracies’. Molière’s satire on religious fanaticism resonates with modern atrocities: ‘the massacre of the Rohingya, Islamic State, the Alt Right rallies in the US.’ The resemblance is not easy to discern.
Tartuffe is at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, Covent Garden from 25 May to 28 July 2018.