Why have various productions of Tartuffe been considered controversial, starting with its being banned from public production when it was first written?
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Moliere's farce, Tartuffe, was twice suppressed by the Catholic Church, but it finally opened to packed houses in 1669 after the playwright revised it three times. The censorship of this play has evolved from the religious controversies it has caused.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was connected to both king and state. Groups opposed to Molière's work included those who were parodied: much of the hierarchy of the (a) French Roman Catholic Church, (b) members of upper-class French society, and (c) the illegal underground organization called the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, a group that convened secretly with aristocrats and other notables, who met the social needs of the day.
(a) Objections from the Catholic Church were on two accounts:
1. The character of Tartuffe parodies the followers of an almost Calvinistic movement, Jansenism, which preached a very severe form of predestination (only a pre-determined elect could go to heaven); Moliere criticized this movement, which seemed counter to the concept of sacramental grace in Catholicism.
2. The character of Tartuff also ridicules the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and their failure to strictly adhere to the teachings of St. Augustine. According to St. Augustine, the Catholic Church is to be a spiritual city apart from the "material Earthly City." In the original play, Tartuffe is a Jesuit, who is greatly concerned with the affairs of the "Earthly City," and, thus, the consummate hypocrite. During the 17th century, although the Council of Trent in the 16th century was to have resolved the selling of indulgences, there were yet corrupt activities in the Church. As a Jesuit, Tartuffe offers salvation to Orgon if he will leave his estate to Tartuffe.
(b) Members of the aristocracy of France are parodied in Moliere's play. In his essay, "Tartuffe: Religion and the Church," David Partikian argues that Orgon's behavior is that of a tyrant, a man wil delusions of grandeur, who does not have the best interests of his family in mind as he is willing to give his estate to Tartuffe in order to buy his way into heaven.
If the play were entitled "Orgon," Molière, in spite of all his efforts and textual changes, might never have been given permission to finally stage it; with the title "Orgon," the inherent criticism of French royalty would have been all too blatant and not camouflaged sufficiently by the false piety of Tartuffe.
(c) The underground society, the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement is also satirized. It was a secret society that met the social needs of the upper-class and others in society. Some of Tartuffe's secretive actions parody those of this Compagnie that met clandestinely, keeping no notes of its actions.
Clearly, Moliere's work targets great power structures, that of the organization of the Catholic Church and the French aristocracy.
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