Molière paid a price for the King’s favor. Louis so liked his wit and courage that he made him a leading organizer of the entertainments at Versailles and St.-Germain. One such fete, Les Plaisirs de l’île enchantée, filled a week (May 7–13, 1664) with jousts, feasting, music, ballet, dancing, and drama, all presented in the park and palace of Versailles under illumination by torches and chandeliers holding four thousand candles. Molière received six thousand livres for his labors on this festival. Some scholars have mourned that the King used so much of Molière’s genius to provide lighthearted entertainment at the court, and they have imagined the masterpieces that might have matured if the poet in the comedian had had more time to think and write. But he was under pressure from his company too, and in any case his cares and responsibilities as manager and actor would have kept him from any ivory tower. Many an author writes better under pressure than at leisure; leisure relaxes the mind, urgency stimulates it. Molière’s greatest play was first produced on May 12, 1664, during the height, and as part, of the Plaisirs de l’île enchantée.
Tartuffe, in this première, hardly fitted the festival, for it was a merciless exposure of hypocrisy taking a pious and moralistic dress. A religious fraternity of laymen, the Compagnie du Saint Sacrement, later known as the Cabale des Dévots, had already pledged its members to work for the suppression of the play. The King, whose liaison with La Vallière had aroused much criticism from the devout, was in a mood to agree with Molière; but, having seen the comedy in its private performance at Versailles, he withheld permission to present it to the public of Paris in the Palais-Royal. He solaced Molière by inviting him to read Tartuffe at Fontainebleau to a select group including a papal legate, who raised no objection known to history (July 21, 1664). In that month the drama was performed in the home of the Duke and Duchess (Henrietta Anne) of Orléans, in the presence of the Queen, the Queen Mother, and the King. The way was being prepared for a public presentation when, in August, Pierre Roullé, vicar of St.-Barthélemy, published a tribute to the King for prohibiting the play, and took occasion to denounce Molière as “a man, or rather a demon in flesh and habited as a man, the most notably impious creature and libertine who ever lived.” For writing Tartuffe, “to the derision of the whole Church,” said Père Roullé, Molière “should be burned at the stake as a foretaste of the fires of hell.” 22 The King rebuked Roullé, but continued to withhold permission for a public performance of Tartuffe. To show where he stood the King raised Molière’s annual pension to six thousand livres, and took over from “Monsieur” the protection of Molière’s company; henceforth it was the Troupe du Roi.
The controversy simmered for two years. Then Molière read to Louis a revised version of the play, with some added lines pointing out that the satire was not of honest faith but only of hypocrisy. Madame Henrietta supported the author’s plea for permission to produce. Louis gave a verbal consent; and while he went off to war in Flanders the first public presentation of Tartuffe was staged at the Palais-Royal on August 5, 1667, three years after its court première. The next morning the president of the Parlement of Paris, who belonged to the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, ordered the theater closed, and all its posters torn down. On August 11 the Archbishop of Paris forbade, on pain of excommunication, the reading, hearing, or performance of the comedy, in public or in private. Molière announced that if this triumph of “les Tartuffes” continued he would retire from the stage. The King, returning to Paris, bade the angry dramatist be patient. Molière managed it, and was rewarded at last by the removal of the royal prohibition. On February 5, 1669, the play began a successful run of twenty-eight consecutive performances. At the public première the crowd seeking admission was so large and eager that many persons came near to suffocation. It was the drame célèbre of Molière’s career. Of all French classic dramas it has received the greatest number of performances—2,657 (to 1960) at the Comédie-Française alone.
How far do the contents of the play explain its long postponement, and its continuing popularity? They explain the first by their frontal attack upon hypocritical piety; they explain the second by the power and brilliance of their satire. Everything in that satire is, of course, exaggerated: hypocrisy is rarely so reckless and complete as in Tartuffe, stupidity is seldom so extravagant as in Orgon, and no maid is so successfully insolent as Dorine. The denouement is incredible, as almost always in Molière; this did not trouble him; after he had presented his picture and indictment of hypocrisy, any deus or rex ex machina would do to untangle the plot into triumphant virtue and punished vice. Quite likely the satire was aimed at the Compagnie du Saint Sacrement, whose members, even if laymen, undertook to direct consciences, to report private sins to public authorities, and to interfere in families to promote religious loyalty and devotion. The play twice referred to a cabale (lines 397 and 1705), evidently alluding to the Cabale des Dévots. Soon after the play’s public première the Company of the Blessed Sacrament was dissolved.
Orgon, the rich bourgeois, first sees Tartuffe in church, and is impressed.
Ah, had you but seen him . . . you would have loved him as well as I do. He came every day to church, with a composed mien, and knelt just near me. He attracted the eyes of the whole congregation by the fervency with which he sent up his prayers to Heaven. He sighed and groaned very heavily, and at every moment he humbly kissed the earth. And when I was going out he would advance before me to offer me holy water at the door. Understanding . . . his lowly condition, . . . I made him presents, but he always modestly would offer to return me part. . . . At length Heaven moved me to take him home, since which everything seems to prosper. I see he reproves without distinction, and that even with regard to my wife he is extremely cautious of my honor. He acquaints me who ogles her. 23
But Tartuffe does not similarly impress Orgon’s wife and children. His hearty appetite, his love for tidbits, his round paunch and rubicund face, dull for them the point of his homilies. Orgon’s brother-in-law, Cléante, begs him to see the difference between hypocrisy and religion:
As I see no character in life greater or more valuable than to be truly devout, nor anything nobler or fairer than the fervor of a sincere piety, so I think nothing more abominable than the outside daubing of a pretended zeal, than those mountebanks, those devotees in show . . . who make a trade of godliness, and who would purchase honors and reputation with a hypocritical turning up of the eyes and affected transports.
Orgon, however, continues to take Tartuffe at phrase value, submits to his guidance, invokes God’s aid upon him when he belches, and proposes to give him in marriage his daughter Mariane, who violently prefers Valère. The real heroine of the piece is Mariane’s maid Dorine, who, as in classic comedy, seems to prove that Providence has distributed genius in inverse ratio to money. Delightful is her reception of Tartuffe’s first entry upon the stage:
TARTUFFE [seeing Dorine, speaks aloud to his servants]. Laurence, lock up my hair-cloth and scourge, and beg of Heaven ever to enlighten you with grace. If anybody comes to see me, I am gone to the prisons to distribute my alms.
DORINE (aside). What affectation and roguery!
TARTUFFE. What do you want?
DORINE. To tell you—
TARTUFFE (drawing a handkerchief out of his pocket). Oh! lack-a-day! pray take me this handkerchief before you speak.
DORINE. What for?
TARTUFFE. Cover that bosom, which I can’t bear to see. Such objects hurt the soul, and usher in sinful thoughts.
DORINE. You mightily melt, then, at a temptation, and the flesh makes a great impression upon your senses? Truly, I can’t tell what heat may inflame you; but, for my part, I am not so apt to hanker. Now, I could see you stark naked from head to foot, and that whole hide of yours not tempt me at all. 24
The next scene is the core of the comedy. Tartuffe tries to make love to Orgon’s wife, Elmire, and uses pious language in his plea. His treachery is reported to Orgon, who refuses to believe it; and to show his trust in Tartuffe he gives over to him all his property. Tartuffe resigns himself to accept it, saying, “Heaven’s will be done in all things.” 25 The situation is dissolved by Elmire, who, having hidden her husband under a table, sends for Tartuffe, gives him a little encouragement, and soon lures him into attempts at amorous exploration. She pretends compliance, but professes scruples of conscience, which Tartuffe handles with expert casuistry; evidently Molière had read and relished Pascal’s Provincial Letters.
TARTUFFE. If nothing but Heaven obstructs my wishes, ‘tis a trifle with me to remove such an obstacle. Heaven, ‘tis true, forbids certain gratifications. But there are ways of compounding those matters. It is a science to stretch the strings of conscience according to the different exigencies of the case, and to rectify the immorality of the action by the purity of our intention. 26
Orgon comes out from his hiding, and angrily bids Tartuffe leave the house, but Tartuffe explains to him that the house, by Orgon’s recently signed deed, belongs to Tartuffe. Molière, not very ingeniously, cuts this knot by having the King’s agents opportunely discover that Tartuffe is a long-sought-for criminal. Orgon recovers his property, Valère gets Maríane, and the play concludes with a melodious paean to the justice and benevolence of the King.