Molière, the creator of high French comedy, led a theatrical troupe that, after thirteen years touring the provinces, was brought to Paris in 1659 and placed under the patronage of King Louis XIV. Molière soon learned, however, that influential members of the royal court and even Louis himself would not tolerate performances of any play that dealt overtly with religious hypocrisy.
Two of his comic masterpieces, Tartuffe (1664), which was not performed until 1669, and Don Juan (1665), which was not published during Molière’s lifetime, both provoked strongly negative reactions from influential people, including the archbishop of Paris and the head of the Paris Court of Appeals. The play’s opponents believed that any portrayal of religious hypocrisy might diminish public respect for true spirituality.
In a royal edict announced in May, 1664, King Louis condemned Tartuffe as “absolutely injurious to religion and capable of producing very dangerous results.” In order to persuade the king to reverse this edict, Molière made significant revisions, portraying the title character not only as a religious hypocrite but also as a violent criminal who attempts to rape a woman. The 1669 version of Tartuffe points out that the king himself ordered the arrest of this reprehensible criminal, who escaped punishment for many years. In addition to praising the king’s sense of justice, Molière also stressed in a lengthy preface that nothing in this comedy should be interpreted as criticism of true piety.
While Molière was finally successful in obtaining permission to perform and publish Tartuffe, the same cannot be said about Don Juan. The title character in this comedy is not just a seducer of women but also a religious hypocrite. In one scene, he explains that the latter is a “privileged vice,” since people do not dare criticize religious hypocrisy because they might be accused of not showing proper respect for religion. Don Juan was banned after just fifteen performances in early 1665. In 1682 members of Molière’s troupe attempted to publish Don Juan, but the royal censor demanded that all references to religious hypocrisy be eliminated from the published edition. By extraordinary luck, three uncensored copies of the 1682 edition of Don Juan were discovered in the 1830’s, and readers can now appreciate this play for themselves. Molière’s plays have long since come to be regarded as cornerstones of French classical theater.