Monday, October 10, 7:30 pm
at Symphony Space
2537 Broadway at 96th Street
Translated by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Marc Vietor
Featuring Bill Camp, Christian DeMarais, Gretchen Hall, Julie Halston, Dana Ivey, Naomi Lorrain, Ben Mehl, Reg Rogers, Derek Smith, and Michael Urie
The picture of piety and modesty... Tartuffe is a man of great humility, self-sacrifice, and religious devotion...according to Tartuffe. And this duplicity propels the action of Molière’s classic comedy, as the charming scoundrel wriggles his way into Orgon’s home, heart and bank account, much to the horror of his spoiled family and all-knowing housemaid Dorine. Directed by Marc Vietor (The School for Scandal) featuring Tony-nominees Bill Camp, Dana Ivey, Reg Rogers, and Derek Smith, Molière’s brilliant comedy is the perfect antidote to our daily headlines, and the perfect start to our season.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-73) was born into a prosperous mercantile family with connections at court; his father served as upholsterer to King Louis XIV. Following a classical education, Jean-Baptiste was expected to follow the law and eventually inherit his father’s position; instead, he joined the Illustre Théâtre, a theatrical company run by the Béjart family, and took the stage name Molière to avoid bringing scandal on his family. After more than a dozen impoverished years touring the provinces, the company was invited to perform in Paris. From this point on, Molière’s career was closely tied to the court as he became a notable playwright and actor, creating a series of brilliant plays that satirized elegant society, including School for Wives, Don Juan, The Misanthrope, and The Miser. The fortunes of Tartuffe reflect Molière’s special relationship to the king. The clergy banned the play for its portrait of hypocritical piety when it premiered in 1664; Molière appealed to the king but even Louis, who had recently named Molière’s company the Troupe du roi, could not prevent the clergy from also banning the second version of the play; the third version was finally produced to acclaim in 1669. Molière died in 1673, shortly after performing the title role in the fourth performance of The Imaginary Invalid.
ABOUT THE PLAY
Molière’s art grew out of three traditions: French neoclassicism, native popular comedy, and, perhaps most significantly, Italian commedia dell’arte, During his years on tour with the Béjart company, Molière mastered the commedia techniques he observed in the work of other traveling companies; on his return to Paris, his company competed with and copied from the highly successful commedia troupe based there. Molière’s characters largely derive from the stock types of the form: Pantalone (old, greedy merchant), Il Dottore (pompous professor), the inamorati (lovers), the zanni (clever servants), among others. These basic character types invited the personality of the actor behind them to shine through; certain actors were famous for playing certain roles. This attitude toward comic character, where the roles may change but the same inherent personality remains — as with a Keaton or a Chaplin — was fundamental to Molière’s conception of comedy.
In the comedy of character, the obstacle resides in the character, unlike the comedy of intrigue, where the obstacle is in the plot. Molière’s comedies are actually based on a double obstacle — in both the character and in the plot. InTartuffe the obstacle of the play resides primarily in the character of Orgon while the plot obstacle concerns the intrigue around the marriage of his daughter and the manipulations of Tartuffe. A hallmark of Molière’s dramaturgy is that while the plot obstacle can be resolved the character obstacle cannot, as character does not change — hence a messenger from Louis XIV must arrive as the deus ex machina to resolve the play. This creates the sense of a theatrical rather than thematic closure to the play that goes to the heart of Molière’s idea of fixed characterization from the commedia actors — a profoundly tragic understanding of the human condition in which one is stuck with oneself, immutable, unchangeable.
Orgon’s fixity involves his obsession with his amour-propre — literally “self-love” — a devotion to an idea of himself as the quintessential honnête homme — the decent, middle-class citizen defined by his position in the family and the state. His obsession is so all-encompassing that it renders him unable to reason — unable to see how Tartuffe is destroying the very family he so proudly heads. Other characters also suffer from varying degrees of this obsession — Orgon’s mother, his son, the lovers — even Philinte, the raisonneur, the voice of reason and moderation to whom no one listens. And Tartuffe? Tartuffe is the only character without hypocrisy because he doesn’t deceive himself as to who he is — the cunning charlatan. It’s worth noting that Molière played Orgon, the character who knows himself so little that he must depend on the king to set things right — a mordant parallel to Molière’s own dependence on the unpredictable favor of The Sun King.
A note on the translation: Molière’s dramatic verse is exquisite in its simplicity, making the task of translation oddly challenging — it can often sound banal in English. Richard Wilbur’s verse translation succeeds largely because it is able to maintain the transparent yet subtle psychological richness of Molière’s language, as in the final couplet of the play:
Et par un doux hymen couronner en Valère
La flamme d’un amant généreux et sincère.
And give Valere, whose love has proven so true,
The wedded happiness which is his due.