Places Discussed

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Orgon’s house

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Orgon’s house. Parisian home of Orgon, a wealthy former officer of the King’s Guard, that is the play’s principal setting. The class and wealth of Orgon’s home exist with the craziness and irrationality found inside. The extravagant house where Orgon, the master, and his new younger bride, Elmire, abide is a place where carriages frequently appear at the door, and footmen and lackeys are kept busy. Orgon’s children and loyal maid, Dorine, must share their dwelling with duped Orgon’s new houseguest, the religious hypocrite Tartuffe. The house becomes a battleground between Tartuffe’s supporters, Orgon and his mother, and the more “enlightened” or reasonable personages of Dorine and Elmire, and especially Cleante—Orgon’s wise and temperate brother-in-law.

Closet

Closet. Small and well-hidden enclosed space in one of the sitting rooms in Orgon’s mansion that represents the pivotal point in the play’s plot. In the third act, Orgon’s son Damis, while hiding in the closet, overhears the pious Tartuffe attempting to seduce his father’s wife, Elmire. The closet also serves to heighten the erratic behavior of Orgon, who refuses to believe the accusations against Tartuffe. Orgon even denounces and disinherits his son, forces Mariane to commit herself to Tartuffe, rather than her lover Valere, and then makes the religious imposter his sole heir.

Table

Table. Heavy, long food-serving table that provides a place of thematic importance in the play: true virtue versus its outward appearance. In the fourth act, Elmire’s plan for her husband to hide under a table and to hear the false holy man’s lascivious, adulterous remarks enables Orgon to come to his senses and condemn the liar, who now is the owner of the property and money. Again, the location points to the folly of extreme, nonrational behavior as Orgon comically denounces all future interaction with godly men and holds them all in utter abhorrence.

Historical Context

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The Reign of King Louis XIV
Tartuffe was first written and performed during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, which lasted from 1643 until the king's death in 1715. The social, cultural, and political atmosphere that characterized the reign of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was so distinct that it lent itself to the name of an era in French history. Louis XIV was the son of King Louis XIII and the Spanish Queen Anne of Austria. He was born in 1638 and officially ascended the throne at less than five-years-of-age. During the early years of his reign, Louis XIV struggled through a series of civil wars known as the Fronde (1648-1653). As an adult, Louis XIV worked hard to consolidate his power and eventually became one of the most powerful monarchs in history. The reign of Louis XIV came to be considered the epitome of absolutist monarchy. He combined an international policy of aggressive warfare with a domestic policy of fostering the development of cultural arts such as architecture, theater, and dance. The "Louis XIV style'' designates characteristic elements in the visual and decorative arts that developed during his reign, making Paris the European center of fashion, architecture, and culture.

Seventeenth-Century French Theater and Drama
The reign of Louis XIV fostered the development of the theatrical arts, and Molière's career was largely dependent on the direct patronage of the King himself. During the seventeenth century, there were three main theaters in the city of Paris. The first permanent theater to be built in Paris was the Théâtre de l' Hôtel de Bourgogne, which, after 1610, housed the theater company known as The King's Player's. In 1634, the Théâtre du Marais was created on the sight of a tennis court, which was converted for its purposes and quickly became the leading theater in Paris. The Marais Theater burned down in 1644 but was rebuilt with updated stage machinery. After 1660, Molière's troupe was housed in the Palais-Royal Theater. The Italian commedia dell'arte (also called the Comédie-Italienne), a troupe with which Molière's company shared space in two different theaters, was an equally important presence in the world of French theater.

The year of Molière's death in 1673, the king ordered the close of the Marais, combining its theatrical troupe with that of the late Molière and later with the troupe that had been associated with the Hôtel de Bourgogne. In 1680, this combined theatrical company was named the Comédie-Française, the first nationalized theatrical company in modern Europe.

Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine were two major French playwrights contemporary to Molière. Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) is considered the inventor of French classical tragic theater and was a major influence on Molière. Corneille's major works, known as the classical tetralogy, include Le Cid (1637), Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1643). These plays are set in ancient Rome and concern themes of love and betrayal. Racine (1639-1699) further developed French classical tragedy to its greatest heights. Racine became a master of the tragic play equal in status to Molière as master of the comic play. Racine's major works include the plays Andromaque (1667), Britannicus (1669), Bérénice (1670), and Bajazet (1672). His masterpiece, Phédre (1677), concerns a woman who falls hopelessly in love with her stepson.

Literary Style

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Setting
Tartuffe is set in a wealthy family home in Paris, France, in the mid-seventeenth century, during the reign of King Louis XIV. All of the action in the play takes place in the home of Orgon, thus foregrounding the effect of Tartuffe's presence on the dynamics of the family unit. The setting of the play in times contemporary to Molière and his original theater-going audience is also significant in that mention of the King toward the end of the play is meant to be understood as a reference to King Louis XIV; Molière is careful to describe the King as a fair and venerable ruler whose kind treatment of Orgon is regarded with immense gratitude and respect. The setting of the play in France during this period in history is also a significant element of the story. Molière addresses various societal issues of the day, particularly concerning religious controversy. Discussion among the characters regarding the nature of religious devotion and the challenges posed by "free-thinkers'' would have been relevant to Molière's audience at the time. Yet, although Tartuffe is set in a very specific historical, geographic, and cultural location, critics have often noted that the central themes and characters of the play remain relevant to readers and theater-goers throughout the world and across a span of several centuries. Thus, while the setting of the play is very specific, its significance and appeal remains universal.

Comedy
Tartuffe is regarded as a masterpiece of comic drama by France's greatest comic playwright. During the 1660s, when the performance of Tartuffe remained a public controversy for five years, many critics of the day considered religion to be an inappropriate topic for the comic stage. In fact, many religious authorities considered comic plays in general to be immoral. In his preface to the first published edition of Tartuffe, however, Molière defended comic drama as an important means of correcting immoral behavior. He pointed out that, "It is a great blow to vice to expose it to everybody's laughter,’’ because, ‘‘We do not mind being wicked, but no one wants to be ridiculed.’’ Donald M. Frame, in Tartuffe, and Other Plays (1967), has observed of this corrective effect of Molière's comedies:

Again and again he leads us from the enjoyable but shallow reaction of laughing at a fool to recognizing in that fool others whom we know, and ultimately ourselves, which is surely the truest and deepest comic catharsis.

In the course of his career, Molière transformed the comic stage in France, adding a depth of humanity and philosophical complexity to the existing standards of comic theater. Molière's complex use of comedy as a means of exploring serious psychological and moral issues in Tartuffe marks the play as a new development in the history of comic drama.

Compare and Contrast

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Seventeenth Century: From 1643 to 1715, France is ruled by a monarchy under the reign of King Louis XIV. Early in the reign of Louis XIV, a series of civil wars known as the "Fronde," erupts in France. After this initial instability, Louis XIV becomes one of the most powerful monarchs in history, and his reign is later considered the epitome of absolutist rule.

Today: France, in an era of government known as the Fifth Republic, is a democracy headed by a president who is elected by popular vote.

Seventeenth Century: The reign of King Louis XIV fosters the theatrical arts. Three theaters dominate the Parisian world of drama: the Marais, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and the Palais-Royal. After the death of Molière in 1673, the king orders the merging of the three main theater troupes, which, in 1680, become the Comédie-Française, the first national theater in Europe.

Today: The Comédie-Française performs the classic French plays of Molière, Corneille, and Racine, as well as new and contemporary plays.

Seventeenth Century: Until 1682, the Louvre, a building complex in Paris, serves as the seat of French government. During his reign, Louis XIV oversees major additions to and renovations of the Louvre. Meanwhile, the Palace of Versailles is transformed from a royal hunting lodge into the seat of absolutist power in France. The Palace of Versailles, located in the city of Versailles some ten miles outside of Paris, undergoes extensive renovations between 1661 and 1710 and becomes a model of architecture, landscaping, and interior design. Louis XIV moves the seat of French government from the Louvre in Paris to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, where it remains until his death in 1715.

Today: The Palace of Versailles is no longer the seat of French government. Because of its masterful architecture, landscaping, and interior design, the Palace of Versailles has been maintained as a museum and a major tourist attraction. In 1979, UNESCO named the Palace of Versailles a World Heritage Sight. Some 9 million people per year visit the Palace of Versailles. The Louvre, also once a seat of French government, is now a national museum and art gallery of France, as well as one of the most extensive and celebrated art museums in the world.

Seventeenth Century: French international affairs are characterized by a series of wars with neighboring nations of Europe, especially Spain and England. These conflicts include the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1660) and the War of the Great Alliance (1688-1697).

Today: France is a member of the European Union, an organization of European nations, including Spain and England, that share mutual political, social, and economic interests. In January 2002, the Euro, a unit of currency common to most member nations of the European Union, is introduced.

Media Adaptations

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Tartuffe was adapted to the screen in a 1925 silent film of the same title, directed by the German filmmaker F. W. Murnau and starring Emile Jannings as Tartuffe. This film was released on video with English language intertitles by Grapevine Video in 1995.

Tartuffe or, The Imposter, was adapted to the screen in a 1984 film of the same title, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and directed by Bill Alexander. This production stars Anthony Sher as Tartuffe, Nigel Hawthorne as Orgon, and Alison Steadman as Elmire. It was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and distributed on video by RKO Home Video.

Tartuffe was adapted to the screen in a 1986 film of the same title, directed by Pierre Badel. This production was performed by the Société des Comédiens Français and was released on video with French dialogue with English language subtitles by Films for the Humanities.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES
Frame, Donald M., "Introduction," in Tartuffe, and Other Plays by Molière, translated by Donald M. Frame, Signet Classic, 1967, pp. vii-viii.

Mander, Gertrud, Molière, Frederick Unger, 1973, p. 87.

Molière, ‘‘Preface to Tartuffe,’’ in Drama: The Major Genres, an Introductory Critical Anthology, edited by Robert Hogan and Sven Eric Molin, Dodd, Mead, 1962, pp. 303-07.

Molière,Tartuffe or The Imposter, in Tartuffe, and Other Plays by Molière, translated and with an introduction by Donald M. Frame, Signet Classic, 1967, pp. 235-312.

Walker, Hallam, Molière, updated ed., Twayne's World Author Series, No. 176, Twayne's World Author Series, No. 176, Twayne, 1971, p. 84.

Walker, Hallam, Molière, updated ed., Twayne's World Author Series, No. 176, Twayne, 1990, p. 153.

Webster, Margaret, "Introduction," in Molière, Coward-McCann, 1950, p. v.

FURTHER READING
Auchincloss, Louis, La Gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine, University of South Caroline Press, 1996.
Auchincloss discusses the historical setting of ancient Rome in the tragic plays of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.

Bernier, Olivier, Louis XIV: A Royal Life, Doubleday, 1987.
Bernier provides a biography of King Louis XIV of France, who reigned from 1643 until 1715 and was a strong supporter of Molière's theatrical career.

Jones, Colin, The Cambridge Illustrated History of France, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Colin provides a history of France with an emphasis on artwork, engravings, and photographs.

Lalande, Roxanne Decker, Intruders in the Play World: The Dynamics of Gender in Molière's Comedies, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.
Lalande offers feminist readings of the representation of women and gender in Molière's major theatrical comedies.

Maskell, David, Racine: A Theatrical Reading, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Maskell offers discussion of the works of Jean Racine, the greatest tragic playwright of seventeenth-century France.

Walker, Hallam, Molière Twayne, 1990.
Walker offers discussion of the development of Molière's dramatic career, focusing on his major works.

Walton, Guy, Louis XIV 's Versailles, University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Walton provides discussion of the significance of the Palace of Versailles to the reign of King Louis XIV of France.

Bibliography

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Bermel, Albert. Molière’s Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Original interpretations of the plays, partly designed to help actors think about the characters’ motivations. Discusses the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Tartuffe and Orgon; also discusses why Dorine can speak so freely to her master.

Hall, H. Gaston. Comedy in Context: Essays on Molière. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Analyzes Molière’s work thematically. Especially useful in examining the historical background of religious issues, as well as social customs, in Tartuffe.

Lewis, D. B. Wyndham. Molière: The Comic Mask. New York: Coward-McCann, 1959. Discusses Molière’s life and works; immerses readers in seventeenth century French society. Sees Tartuffe as having a fundamental flaw, Molière’s lack of insight, read or feigned, into religion; as a result, Tartuffe comes across as a convincing villain, but the religious component remains confusing.

Mander, Gertrud. Molière. Translated by Diana Stone Peters. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Includes descriptions and analyses of fourteen plays and a usefully detailed chronology of his life. Examines why Molière’s contemporaries found Tartuffe so threatening and disturbing.

Walker, Hallam. Molière. Boston: Twayne, 1971. Examines Tartuffe in the context of religious controversies of the period, but also in terms of its artistic antecedents; believes Molière achieved new psychological realism and artistic complexity with this play. Sees Orgon’s willingness to punish himself and his family, which Tartuffe exploits but does not create, as a central theme.

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