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Tartuffe | Context

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Comedy of Manners

Comedy of manners is a subgenre of drama that parodies the characteristics of a certain class. It had its origins in a satiric style of drama known as New Comedy, introduced around 320 BCE in Ancient Greece by the comic playwright Menander (342–292 BCE). Tired of the Old Comedy style that focused on public figures and famous events, Menander parodied middle class citizens and their everyday lives. His plots often revolved around young lovers facing impediments and employed stock characters, such as the controlling father, the clever slave, and the dull but arrogant soldier. His comedy relied on verbal wit and the audience's shared knowledge of the rules governing how people of a certain class behave and interact and what they value. New Comedy was adapted by Roman and later by Renaissance and Restoration playwrights, such as William Shakespeare (1564–1616), William Wycherley (1641–1716), and William Congreve (1670–1729) in England and Molière in France. In Italy the Renaissance tradition continued in the commedia dell'arte with its stock characters and plots.

The appeal of the comedy of manners seems eternal—as eternal as the pretensions it parodies. In the late 18th and again in the late 19th century, it became a trademark genre for many well-known English-language novelists and playwrights, including Jane Austen (1775–1817), whose witty novels showed the constraints on women in middle-class Georgian England; Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), whose works often used witty comedy to critique society; and George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), whose play Pygmalion (1913) later became the musical My Fair Lady (1956). The genre continued to delight audiences into the 20th century in plays by Noel Coward (1899–1973) and Joe Orton (1933–67). The last line of Orton's play Loot (1965) typifies the genre: "People would talk; we must keep up appearances."

Many movies and television shows—especially sitcoms—fall into this genre. They target the rules society expects people to follow and draw laughter when the characters fail to follow them, follow them to excess, or expose their pointlessness. Scholars of popular culture have often singled out the long-running television comedies The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71), Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969–74), and Seinfeld (1989–98) as particularly relevant examples. Movies in the genre include Borat (2006) and Dear White People (2014).

Paris in the 1600s

When King Henry IV of France (1553–1610) was assassinated, he left the country economically sound and politically stable. His interest in city planning led to a facelift for Paris. It became an elegant and well laid-out city, with infrastructure improvements such as the Pont Neuf (New Bridge). Today this bridge still spans the Seine River, connecting both banks with an island at its center—the Île de la Cité—the location of the Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral. After Henry's death, his widow, Marie de Médicis (1573–1642), continued remodeling the city. She built the Palais du Luxembourg and expanded the gardens surrounding it. Under Henry IV's son, Louis XIII (1601–43), Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) kept up the work on Paris, adding more official buildings, art galleries, and theaters, and in 1634 founding the Académie Française, the French literary academy, which set standards for the French language and raised the social standing of French literary culture. Richelieu's work was continued after his death by his student, Cardinal Mazarin (1602–61), whose patronage was focused on the visual arts.

These changes to the city of Paris during the first half of the 17th century ensured that it became not only a seat of power in Europe but also a seat of culture. This culture flourished through the official patronage of the nobility and men of power as well as in the salons of Paris. The salons were private gatherings generally hosted by noblewomen. In the salons, women and men could freely discuss politics and culture without fear of government suppression of their ideas. Through the salons, women set the standards of polite society—what constitutes proper etiquette, correct language, acceptable pastimes, and good taste. One of the best known was the Blue Room, a literary salon hosted by Catherine de Vivonne, the Marquise of Rambouillet (1588–1665). The Blue Room greatly influenced French classical literature and its examination of the human psyche. The elevated culture of Paris—especially as influenced by the trend-setting salons—provided fodder for Molière's biting commentaries.

Paris was also a center of the Enlightenment, beginning with the ideas of René Descartes (1596–1650), a French scientist, mathematician, and philosopher who emphasized the laws of the state and custom, logic, pragmatism, and truth-seeking. Descartes decried bigotry and excessive religiosity and believed in the human capacity for understanding and happiness. The great Parisian writer Voltaire (1694–1778) cited the century of Louis XIV as one of "the four happy ages" of humankind.

The Sun King

When Louis XIII (1601–43) died of tuberculosis at age 41, his kingdom passed to his four-year-old son. Louis XIV (1638–1715) survived a childhood characterized by loss, neglect, poverty, fear, and hunger brought on by civil war. The first minister, Cardinal Mazarin, succeeded in quelling the rebellion of the nobles and the Paris Parlement (the French Supreme Court). As a teenager Louis XIV learned the art of governing from Mazarin. When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis—then 23—shocked his ministers by declaring his intention to take complete control of the kingdom. He would rule, he told them, by divine right. Thereafter he devoted every day of the rest of his life to that task.

As an indication of his central and indispensable position in the kingdom, Louis wrote in his memoirs,

I chose to assume the form of the sun, because of the unique quality of the radiance that surrounds it; the light ... it imparts to the other stars, ... the fair ... share of that light ... it gives to all the various climates of the world; the good it does in every place ... and that constant invariable course from which it never deviates ... assuredly the most vivid and beautiful image of a young monarch.

Thus, he came to be known as the Sun King.

Because of the miseries of his youth, Louis hated Paris and the common people. So he made his home at Versailles, a village some 14 miles outside Paris. He built a magnificent palace there and surrounded it with elegant gardens.

There he hosted the country's nobility at numerous events and parties, seducing them with gambling and entertainment and setting exacting standards of fashion and etiquette. In doing so, he made the nobles dependent on him for wealth, influence, and advancement.

In addition to running the daily affairs of his kingdom and solidifying France's position in Europe, Louis was a dedicated patron of culture, especially theater. He particularly enjoyed Molière's comedies and maintained his support for the playwright despite Molière's confrontation with the Church.

Unfortunately, the comforts of Versailles led Louis to isolate himself there. As a result, a distance grew between the king and his subjects, leading to a distortion of his reputation among the common people. The chasm between the ruler and his subjects—coupled with an ever-increasing tax burden—fueled a smoldering revolutionary fervor, which would come to a head in the late 1700s.

Molière versus the Church

Tartuffe—then three acts long—was first performed for Louis XIV and his court at Versailles in May 1664. Louis enjoyed it very much; however, his mother, Queen Anne, and an ultra-devout group known as the Society of the Holy Sacrament were offended and demanded the play be banned. They claimed it was an attack on religion. The king chose a middle road. He temporarily banned the play from public performance but allowed private readings. Conservative churchmen were not pleased at his compromise. The librarian of the Parlement wrote an article against the play. It began, "Monsieur Moliere is one of the most dangerous enemies which this Age and the World have roused against the Church of Jesus Christ."

In 1667 Molière revised Tartuffe, changing its name to The Impostor and Tartuffe's name to Panulphe, and produced the play again. Despite the changes, the president of the Parlement closed the production down until such time as the king should lift the ban officially. He was supported by the archbishop of Paris, who called the play "a very dangerous comedy, which is all the more capable of injuring religion because, under pretense of condemning ... false devotion, it opens the way to attack those who profess ... piety, and exposes them to the jeers ... of free-thinkers." He declared that those who saw the play, read it, or attended a reading of it would be excommunicated. A priest suggested Molière be burned at the stake.

Molière sent a petition—his second—to the king, but to no avail. It was not until 1669 that the ban was permanently lifted, and the five-act version known today was produced. When Molière at last published Tartuffe in 1669, he defended his play in a preface: "The finest shafts of serious morality are often less effective than those of satire; nothing corrects the majority of men so well as a picture of their faults. ... We can endure reproof, but we cannot endure ridicule. We are willing to be wicked, but not to be absurd."

Long after Molière's death, he continued to be a thorn in the Church's side. After the French Revolution, the drive for secularism grew among the French people. Tartuffe was once more in the midst of the controversy. It was again interpreted as a criticism of the Church. The people demanded performances of the play, and the Church tried to suppress them. In the late 1820s more than 40 Tartuffe riots broke out around the country.

Critical Reception Through Time

Despite the negative response from the Roman Catholic Church and social conservatives, Tartuffe was a popular success from the start. After the play debuted in February 1669 it ran for 44 consecutive performances. In that year alone Tartuffe was performed more than 60 times and continued to be among Molière's most highly regarded works. Molière and Tartuffe remained at the forefront of French theater.

In the early 1700s French playwrights and actors began to portray more relaxed, less stilted conduct on the stage. One actor commented that characters like Tartuffe belonged to "the old theater" and had been "exhausted." They were no more than "eccentrics drawn in broad strokes." Despite such trends, Molière's comedy remained popular with the people—so much so that in the tumultuous times surrounding the French Revolution, the revolutionaries sought to claim Molière as their own. They pointed to his satirical depiction of high society and his persecution over Tartuffe as indications of his own revolutionary leanings. They downplayed his relationship with Louis XIV, claiming Molière had been forced to flatter the king and that Molière's plays were meant to satirize him. They pointed to the use of the word impostor by the influential philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) to denote those who impose taxes. In doing so, they conveniently ignored Rousseau's ambivalence regarding the morality of the theater. At least seven versions of Tartuffe appeared during the revolution. When the conflict was finished the Committee of Public Instruction banned many Old Regime plays, including all but one of Molière's—Tartuffe. However, it could be performed only "with revisions"—especially the removal of references to the king and how he saves Orgon in Act 5 by having Tartuffe arrested.

Molière's popularity extended beyond France. By the mid-1800s, several English translations had made Tartuffe Molière's best-known play in England, where it was prized for its wit and social commentary. Its popularity has not waned. In the United States, those same qualities attracted 20th century critics and audiences. Writing in The New York Times in 1977, American poet and translator Richard Wilbur reminded readers of Tartuffe's relevance to the post-Watergate era after the fall of a scandalized President Richard Nixon, calling it "a comic study of the misuse of the highest values ... for self-serving motives." At the same time, in The Nation American theater director and drama critic Harold Clurman commented on the play's "verbal vigor" and Molière's "dramatic guile," which make Tartuffe a "consummate ... entertainment and a masterpiece." In a 1995 French production of Tartuffe directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, Orgon heads a Muslim family invaded by the fundamentalist cleric Tartuffe. While the words remained unchanged, the alterations in costuming and set highlighted the play's continuing relevance to the political issues of the day. As The Sunday Times critic John Peter remarked, the international cast lent "universality," noting, "This is the difference between mere theatre and the true theatre of the world."

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