This book is #31 on my Classics Club list. There’s also some spoilers below.
Molière was a French actor and playwright who was popular with the French aristocracy. At the time he was considered a comedic genius, presumably because he had impeccable timing. You can tell because he died after collapsing onstage during a performance of a play entitled The Imaginary Invalid, in which he played a hypochondriac. You can’t make this kind of stuff up, people.
Tartuffe is one of Molière’s best-known plays. It’s basically about a brilliant and witty housemaid called Dorine who works for a family of absolute nitwits. Or at least it would be, if I had my way. In actual fact, Dorine, while being the only character in the play I didn’t actively fantasise about drowning, is not the main character in this particular story. Instead, that honour perhaps goes to Tartuffe, although the man doesn’t actually make all that many appearances onstage.
Tartuffe is a con man who’s managed to trick a wealthy guy called Orgon into believing that Tartuffe is a terribly holy and religious person who’s all about world peace and kissing babies and other religious stuff. You can kind of imagine a contemporary version of the play having Tartuffe walking around in yoga pants and blabbing on about spiritual enlightenment whilst secretly kicking puppies when nobody’s looking. That kind of thing.
Tartuffe’s managed to get himself a comfortable place in Orgon’s household and is starting to put the moves on Orgon’s wife (whilst simultaneously being offered the hand of Orgon’s daughter, Mariane; and no, the guy isn’t the least bit bothered by how weird and quasi-incestuous this is). Luckily, Orgon’s family is not quite as dumb as he is, although they still manage to be spectacularly stupid in their own special ways. Like when Mariane decides she’s going to kill herself in order to avoid marrying Tartuffe. Which, as her maid Dorine points out, is a pretty drastic move:
Good! That’s a remedy I hadn’t thought of.
Just die, and everything will be all right.
This medicine is marvellous, indeed!
It drives me mad to hear folk talk such nonsense.
(Act II, Scene 3)*
Basically, Dorine is pretty much the only person in this house that isn’t completely thick. She is sarcastic and brilliant and really I just want to see her in a sequel entitled ‘Dorine’s Revenge’ in which she goes around and kills vampires, or is a mouthy cop working in a bad neighbourhood in LA or something like that.
Anyway, since this is a comedy Orgon eventually realises, just in time, that Tartuffe is planning on getting fresh with his wife, and it all ends happily, and of course the hypocritical Tartuffe is shipped off to prison or wherever it is they send hypocrites these days (I want to say Texas?). Mariane marries a guy she actually likes, and everyone conveniently forgets that Dorine is the only person in the house who has two brain cells to rub together. Good fun.
One of the things that Tartuffe makes you wonder is who’s really to blame for Tartuffe worming his way into Orgon’s confidence. Is Orgon just naive, or is Tartuffe simply an evil genius? And should we be blaming Tartuffe for being a trickster or Orgon for not seeing through his act? Hypocrisy is a human phenomenon, in no way confined to the seventeenth century (and anybody following the election in the US has enough proof of this to set up a museum dedicated to human perfidy, with a special exhibition on incredibly bad combovers). So Molière’s play is actually really current, if only because it deals with an inescapable feature of human societies: people who talk crap and then do the opposite.
Rating: 4 Stars, most of them because of Dorine’s snarkiness.
*All quotations are from the Curtis Hidden Page translation, which by the bye is a brilliant name for a translator or, indeed, anyone writing books.