Though cautionary and pessimistic, however, Tartuffe, a play which borrows from the tradition of the commedia dell’arte, is also a vehicle of physical comedy. Slapstick with a message, Tartuffe exposes the theme of religious hypocrisy in a society where the Church is a powerful force. Tartuffe is written in an age of political strife, the uprising of nobles in La Fronde (1648) forcing King Louis XIV to break the power of the aristocracy.
In the typical Moliere play, the family is beset by an illness or obsession, thus upsetting the order. The hero of the Moliere play is frank, reasonable, unpretentious, and secular—l’honnete homme. In Tartuffe, this role is filled by Cleante.
Orgon, confirmed boor and family tyrant, is typical of the comic tradition. His comic refrain, “Yes, and Tartuffe?” recalls the mechanical, repetitious nature of comic shtick. Such is Orgon’s obsession for religious approval that he undertakes a relationship with Tartuffe more reminiscent of a star-crossed lover than a discriminating employer.
The comic rhythm of Moliere is life-affirming; at play’s end, the finale of a wedding affirms that life wins out over death. Given the grave threat posed by Tartuffe, however, this “happy ending” is kept in doubt until the very end. Moliere cleverly holds off Tartuffe’s actual appearance until Act III, a ploy to build suspense and reveal him first through the words of others. B. When Elmire and Tartuffe are alone together (Act III, scene iii), Tartuffe finally commits a false step: he tries to seduce Orgon’s own wife, laying bare his false character to the audience. Unknown to Tartuffe, Elmire’s son Damis listens in hiding to the conversation, an act that renders Tartuffe’s private proposal public, a graphic example of the theater’s ability to create a “stage within a stage.” The power of sexual appetite is bound up with the lofty tenor of religious rhetoric and courtly love, thus inviting a question: is Tartuffe really an honest man after all? With Damis as witness, finally Tartuffe’s monstrous appetite for scandal is set loose.
The charade is repeated in Act IV, scene v, when Elmire seduces Tartuffe into the same proposal, this time with Orgon in the wings. As Elmire draws out Tartuffe, we are left to wonder what is real and what is feigned: everyone in the play seems to be, to some degree, an impostor. Orgon finally sees the error of his ways. He exposes Tartuffe. “This house belongs to me,” responds Tartuffe, caught red-handed. The plot has taken a further turn, ratcheted up for another comic climax.
In the final act, Orgon endures a political and economic disaster: exposed by Tartuffe as having made politically comprising acts, Orgon and family are to be evicted from their home. The king is given the last say—hardly surprising, since he’s Moliere’s real-life patron. His eventual arrest of Tartuffe proves he has seen through his ploys as Orgon could not.
The happy ending runs counter to the logic of the play. The king’s interference is a kind of “rex ex-machina,” a variation on the Greek “deus ex-machina” which permitted superficially pat endings through the intervention of the gods. Comedy, then, is not to be considered a lighthearted jest or a trifle, but can “flirt with disaster” in a powerful, meditative way.