Here’s a nice little bit of synchronicity or kismet or whatever you call it. The second entry in my Summer Reading List challenge for this year also gets to cover one of the slots in my Great Books challenge!
Title: Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite
Author: Molière (Jean-Baptiste Porquelin)
Genre: Theatrical Comedy
Yep. I read a play. First time I’ve done that since high school, and the first time ever that I’ve done it willingly. Since I neither understand nor like French, I used the modernized English translation available from Project Gutenberg. I’m sure there are a lot of translation errors and cases where the original meaning of the text is lost, but…whatever.
Anyway, Tartuffe is basically the French Enlightenment equivalent of a sitcom. It’s a five-act play about an aristocrat of the time who has been swayed by the words of a so-called holy man (the titular Tartuffe) to the point where he’s willing to give this charlatan his estate and even his daughter. The patriarch, Orgon, spends the first three acts defending Tartuffe as his family and servants call out the man’s hypocrisy. Only his mother has his back, seemingly for her own ends—her intentions are never made clear.
As the story progresses, Orgon’s son hides in a closet to overhear Tartuffe attempting to seduce the lady of the house, Elmire. The young man then confronts his father with evidence of the hypocrite’s ill will, only to be cast out of the house and, in effect, disinherited. Elmire (who is actually Orgon’s second wife, and thus the boy’s stepmother) then goes as far as possible in letting the impostor seduce her while her husband is watching from under a table. That finally gets Orgon to see reason, but by then it’s too late: Tartuffe already has the deed to the house.
The final act is all about this bit of trickery, and it ends with one of the most blatant uses of deus ex machina imaginable: a royal officer (this is pre-Revolution France, remember) stops the eviction of Orgon’s family, saying that the king himself saw through Tartuffe’s lies. Then follows a classic "no, you’re the one being arrested" scene and a bit of moralizing about moderation from Orgon’s son.
All in all, it’s a very modern tale for being 350 years old. The scenario of a hypocrite or just a stranger with ulterior motives enthralling someone beyond reason with his words is commonplace in modern books and movies. (The first example off the top of my head is the character of Gríma Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings, but others abound.) And the fact that Tartuffe is supposed to be a man of God only brings to mind the actual hypocrisy of so many evangelists.
But the comedic elements are what make the play shine even in written form. There’s this tension between wanting to be serious about the situation and wanting to tell it in a humorous way that just works and makes the whole thing a delightful read. It’s also pretty short—170 double-spaced screen pages on my ebook version—without a lot of digressions. Imagine it as a two-hour comedy movie, but one of those British-style comedies. While it goes for low blows on occasion, there’s a cerebral quality to it. Well worth checking out, if you ask me.