A bigoted man trying to steal the family’s fortune, an oblivious father, a whiny daughter who refuses to abandon her lover and a hilarious maid who does not follow orders: these are the perfect characters for a Molière comedy. Tartuffe, first performed in 1664 for King Louis XIV at Versailles, was revisited by the College’s theater department in a production directed by Professor of Theatre David Eppel. The five shows, running from March 8 to 11 at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, concluded the career of Eppel after 32 years in the theatre department.
Tartuffe recounts the story of an aristocratic family in 17th-century France. Orgon, the father, rescues Tartuffe, a poor and seemingly pious man who pretends to help purify the family’s soul. The first half of the play depicts the devotion that Orgon and his mother have for Tartuffe, including a hilarious scene in which Orgon, coming back from his travels and hearing that his wife has been sick, asks instead about the wellbeing of Tartuffe. A man of excesses, Orgon decides to orchestrate a marriage between his daughter Marianne and Tartuffe, letting him enter his family indefinitely. After Damis, Orgon’s son, disputes Tartuffe’s marriage, Orgon decides to disinherit him, thus making Tartuffe the only beneficiary of his fortune.
The plot expands during the second part of the play. Dressed in all white with Catholic crosses and a rosary, Tartuffe’s constant flagellation with a whip adds to his ridiculous appearance. Despite his clever manipulations, Tartuffe has one weakness: his love for Elmire, Orgon’s wife. Through a long and cringe-worthy discourse, he confesses his love to her and tries to make romantic advances. When both Damis and Elmire recount this incident to Orgon, they make a plan to confirm these accusations.
Orgon is to hide under a table while Elmire plays into Tartuffe’s seduction game. Thus begins an unsettling scene in which Tartuffe forces himself onto Elmire, chasing and grabbing her in a predatory way, while Orgon, witnessing this, refuses to intervene. When finally convinced, he unmasks Tartuffe as a fraud. Tartuffe then plays his last card: since he is now master of the house, he wants them all to leave. While the family is trapped in an inextricable situation, Molière used a case of deus ex machina, saving the situation by the unexpected power of the king who, having heard of the story, sends his guards to arrest Tartuffe.
Eppel’s direction of the play was magnificent and provided a modern twist to the French classic. Using a modernized English translation of the text by Richard Wilbur, the director managed to bring the characters to life and interact with the public, often breaking the fourth wall of theater. The set, representing the inside of a palace, extended the entire length of the stage, providing a large playing field for the actors, who ran in and out from the many doors on the sides. With a show of sounds accentuating the actions of the characters (and apparently judging their verse proficiency by playing different sounds in response to the quality of their rhymes), the play had a liveliness not often found in classic works. Finally, the costumes, in a mix of orange, blue and green, gave each of the characters a ridiculous look.
The play was first banned in the 17th century, as it was too critical of the Church and the monarchy. Molière then re-wrote it, making the king the savior and dedicating a whole monologue to singing his praises at the end. But its timeless story makes it applicable to any era. In light of the #MeToo movement and the recent uprising against sexual assault across the world, Elmire’s reaction to Tartuffe’s forceful address seem exceptionally timely. Elmire first decides not to tell her husband what has happened, saying, “Yes, I am of opinion that one ought never to break in upon a husband’s rest with such idle stuff, that our honor can by no means depend upon it and that ’tis enough we know how to defend ourselves. These are my thoughts of the matter.” Ultimately, though, she helps unmask the fraud.