Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

In his lifetime, Molière enjoyed immense popularity among audiences, as well as the ongoing favor and patronage of King Louis XIV, while suffering the censorship and banning from the stage of some of his greatest works, as well as harsh condemnation from church and civic leaders. Molière also enjoyed a popular international reputation during his lifetime, and his plays were performed in England, Germany, and Holland. Margaret Webster, in an Introduction to Molière (1950), has described Molière's lasting significance as a literary figure, noting, ‘‘in his own language he is as towering a figure as Shakespeare is in ours.’’

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The initial performance of Tartuffe in 1664 generated a five-year-long national controversy involving the King of France, the municipal government of Paris, the Catholic religious authorities, and popular audiences, as well as Molière's well-known theatrical troupe. For the modern reader to appreciate the impact of this play upon its original audiences, Tartuffe's circuitous path from bitter controversy to immense popular success is worth exploring in some detail.

Tartuffe was first performed as a three-act play before King Louis XIV during a large celebration at the Palace of Versailles. Although the king himself was pleased with the play and did not find it offensive, he was pressured by powerful religious groups to ban it from further public production. The play was newly denounced a few months later by the president of the Parisian Parliament and not long afterward by the Archbishop of Paris. Gertrud Mander, in Molière (1973), commented of these denouncements that:

In other words, the highest secular and temporal powers considered Tartuffe to be a very dangerous matter, a revolutionary document which could arouse in the Parisian theater-goers revolutionary thoughts against both the state and religion, thereby endangering the established order. Subsequent attempts on the part of Molière to stage Tartuffe resulted in renewed banning of the play by both governmental and religious authorities.

In 1667, the Palais-Royal Theater staged a revised five-act version of Tartuffe under the title The Imposter. However, with the King away on military operations, the president of police and the archbishop banned the play, closed down the theater, and threatened anyone who went to see it with excommunication. Molière fearlessly defended his play in writing by publishing a public letter in defense of Tartuffe as well as sending letters to the King on three separate occasions, pleading to be granted the right to stage the play. But it was not until 1669 that the ban on Tartuffe was lifted, at which point the play enjoyed immense popular success, both among theater-going audiences and, in printed form, with the reading public. Tartuffe became the greatest popular and financial success of Molière's career.

Over three centuries of international recognition have generated an overwhelming mass of critical response to the work of Molière. After his death, early discussion of Molière's work was frequently concerned with the autobiographical elements of his plays, noting parallels between his own life and career and his central characters. Later discussion was primarily concerned with the question of the extent to which Molière wished to convey a moral message through his plays, as well as the precise nature of this message.

A significant shift in Molière criticism took place in the mid-twentieth century to a focus on Molière as dramatist, rather than on Molière as moralist. Other critics in the latter half of the twentieth-century delved into the social and political context of seventeenth-century France in order to illuminate Molière's plays. Hallam Walker, in Molière (1990), described Molière criticism since the early 1980s as an amalgam of approaches, taking into account significant threads of thought developed throughout the twentieth-century so that now, "Work is done on Molière in the comic tradition, in the climate of his times, as a commentator on the human condition, and as a creator of theater.''

More than three centuries after its initial performance, Tartuffe is a world-renowned masterpiece by France's greatest comic playwright and remains one of his most commonly produced plays on the public stage. Walker, in Molière (1971), described the lasting appeal of Tartuffe as a play that addresses persistent universal themes:

The subject [of Tartuffe] was controversial in 1664, and it is no less interesting and stimulating at present, because we cannot see or read the work without sensing the truth of its presentation of the effects of belief, love, lust, and power on the human creature.

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