Tartuffe or the Imposter
by Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere
Translated and adapted from the French by Harold Dixon
Tartuffe, a classic of the French theatre, is the story of a religious hypocrite who worms his way into a middle class household in 17th century France. It has a cast of 13 characters, 8 men, 5 women (1 man, 1 woman in non-speaking roles). It is the most popular of Moliere’s plays. This version is a modern, American English translation of the French classic. Like the original, it is entirely in rhymed couplets, but you will find that this version is fresh and accessible for modern audiences while keeping the spirit of the original.
This translation has been performed at the University of Arizona, at the University of Redlands, CA, and several other theatres, where it was enthusiastically received.
After reviewing the manuscript, Shepard Sobel, artistic director of the acclaimed Pearl Theatre Company in New York City, wrote: “Your text is an extraordinary accomplishment. Whenever we take on Moliere and other rhymed coupleters, we struggle over the difficult choice of opting for speakability or for authenticity. Hats off to you for managing both. I have some sense of what a feat that is.”
More praise for this translation:
“…pitch-perfect…[a] limber verse translation of the French original. For once, here is a Moliere free of Briticisms and archaic turns of phrase. True, Dixon does pepper the dialog with modern colloquialisms—‘rat race,’ walk the walk,’ ‘horny husbands,’ usually for the sake of an arresting rhyme—but none of this ever seems out of character.” (Tucson, AZ Weekly)
Dixon’s “rhymed translation is quite actable and occasionally vernacular-sharp.” (Los Angeles Times)
Dixon’s translation “of the text into rhymed couplets is always smooth, often brilliant.” (Redlands, CA Daily Facts)
Dixon’s “achievement is rather monumental…since the entire comedy is in rhymed couplets…Dixon’s accomplishment is to be highly commended, as the speech flowed easily, comedy was unimpaired and even a few modern idioms inserted.” (Loma Linda, CA Bulletin)
“Lorsque vous peignez les hommes, il faut les peindre d’après la nature…Et vous n’avez rien fait si vous n’y faites reconnaitre les gens de votre siècle.”
“When you are painting men, you must paint them according to nature…And you have done nothing if you do not make the people of your own time recognize themselves in them.”
The Tartuffe that we have today is Moliere’s third version of the play. It was first performed on May 12, 1664 at Versailles and was immediately banned. The “pious” members of the court created a scandal out of Moliere’s picture of false piety, loose family relations, and general social corruption. In 1667, the play was rewritten and performed under the new title of The Imposter, but this version was promptly banned also. Finally, in 1669, after the Peace of the Church was signed between Louis XIV and Pope Clement IX, Tartuffe was performed in its present version. In my opinion, the deus ex machina of the play’s conclusion, which was adopted to appease and thank the king, is the classic example of how the government can hurt art when it interferes. The state and art are incompatible when the state has censorial superiority. Tartuffe as a play is very much weakened by its resolution, at least for modern audiences.
The most interesting and tragic thing about Moliere and Tartuffe is that in his personal life, Moliere was, at the moment of his death, a victim of the very hypocrisy against which he had so vehemently struggled. During a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire, his lungs collapsed; yet, he played the rest of the performance, took his bows, and was then rushed home. Bishop Bossuet refused, however, to give him the last rites of the Church, for “God was displaying his anger against Moliere.”
It was one of the great exits of history.
“When an artist gives an interpretation of the works of another period and country, his interpretation is bound to belong to his own country and his own time. He can try to understand what is past and foreign, but it is utterly impossible to capture the spirit of three centuries ago in a foreign land. One day someone rang up Jouvet and criticized his production of a Moliere play, saying, ‘Moliere would not have liked that.’ Jouvet answered, ‘Have you got his phone number?’ So a contemporary artist will give his interpretation of the past from the standpoint of today, on the basis either of traditions which are native to him, or of a knowledge, a feeling, an appreciation which he has acquired for the reality of past periods and other lands.”
“Un œuvre d’art est un coin de la nature vue par un tempérament artiste.”
“A work of art is a corner of nature seen by one artistic temperament.”
Moliere’s Tartuffe is one of the best plays to come out of the French period of classicisme of the 17th century. It is a comedy in the true classic sense of the term. It is about hypocrisy, sensuality, self-centeredness, surface judgments, sex, love, romance, and reason – everything, in fact, that makes life worth living. Tartuffe, like most of Moliere’s plays is an exaltation of the Aristotelian Golden Mean, which elucidates the effects and dangers of extremism and which extols the virtues of moderation. Although it is laced with a clever, pessimistic cynicism, reason, hope, and rational thought are triumphant.
If the deus ex machina of the denouement is the play’s weak point, its strongest aspect is its characterizations. The actors and directors undertaking to make the characters live will find worlds of depth and meaning in them. Tartuffe is a corrupt, bigoted, hypocritical sensualist, deep and frightening in that he works on many different levels at once. Hypocrisy is his means to achieve his sensual pleasures. Possible the most fascinating of all comic character studies of evil, he uses the people from whom he wants something, and then he laughs in their faces as he finishes his rape. Elmire exemplifies virtue. Graceful, charming, and beautiful, she is also strong, rational, level, and reasonable. At the play’s conclusion, she has a distinct promise of happiness with Orgon which she did not have before. Orgon is vain, pompous, and ludicrous in the extreme. He is also quite funny and quite likable. He may be said to be sympathetic in that he is so over-trusting that he becomes a gullible dupe. But he is, after all, the protagonist, and he is definitely a changed man when the ordeal is over. He is a new man, changed for the better, who has put behind him his former extremism which nearly destroyed him. Tartuffe is a serious comedy with serious implications; yet, when performed it is most effective when it induces loud belly laughs and guffaws (of self-recognition) from the audience.
The Comedy of Tartuffe as seen by Moliere
Here is a comedy about which there has been much ado, and which has been persecuted for a long time; and the people that it exposes have shown very well that they are more powerful in France than all of the others that I have exposed up to now. The Marquis, the Affected Young Ladies, the Cuckolds, and the Doctors have all suffered patiently while shown themselves on the stage, and they have even pretended to be entertained, along with everyone else, by the paintings that were made of them. The Hypocrites, however, have taken offense at the jokes aimed at them. At first, they were alarmed and found it strange that I had the impudence to show their grimaces and that I wanted to depict a profession in which so many honest men take part. It is a crime that they would not know how to forgive me, and they are all armed against my comedy with an appalling fury. Following their praiseworthy custom, they have covered their self-interests with God’s cause; and Tartuffe, according to them, is a play that offends piety. It is, from beginning to end, full of abominations, and there is nothing in it that does not deserve hellfire.
That is what obliges me to defend myself. It is to the truly devout everywhere that I wish to justify myself on the disposition of my play; and I entreat them with all my heart not to condemn things before seeing them, to get rid of all prejudice, and not to serve the passions of those whose grimaces dishonor them.
If one takes the trouble to examine my comedy in good faith, one will no doubt see that my intentions in it are innocent throughout, and that it by no means proposes to satirize the things that must be revered. I have treated it with all the precautions that delicacy demands in the matter, and I have used all the art and taken all the pains that I could to distinguish very well the character of the Hypocrite from that of the truly Devout. To do this, I have used two entire acts to prepare the entrance of my scoundrel. He does not hold the audience in suspense about his character for a single moment. He is immediately seen for what he is by the marks which I gave him, and from beginning to end, he does not say a word, he does not do anything which does not paint the character of an evil man to the audience and which does not enlighten the character of the genuinely good man to which I oppose him.
Yet I know very well that, in response, these gentlemen try to insinuate that such matters should not be discussed in the theatre. But I ask them, with their permission, by what do they justify this fine maxim? It is a proposition that they only suppose, and one that they do not in any way prove. No doubt, it would not be hard to make them see that comedy, in the days of antiquity, originated from religion and was a part of the rituals; that the Spaniards, our neighbors, hardly celebrate any holiday without comedy playing some role; and that even among us, it owes its birth to the attentions of the Church.
If the function of Comedy is to correct the vices of men, I do not see why there should be any privileged ones. In the Social Order, this one is of a much more dangerous consequence than all the others, and we have seen that the Theatre has a great virtue for correction. The finest traits of a serious story are more often less powerful than those of a satire, and nothing takes most men aback better than the painting of their defects. It is a big blow to vices to be exposed to everyone’s laughter. Reprimands are easily endured, but mockery is not. We want very much to be evil, but no one wants to be ridiculed.
I am reproached with having put expressions of piety in the mouth of my Impostor. Well, could I refrain from doing this and still portray well the character of a Hypocrite? It is enough, it seems to me, that I make known the criminal motives that make him say those things. One must approve of the comedy Tartuffe or condemn in general all comedies.
Let us finish with the words of a grand Prince concerning Tartuffe. Eight days after my comedy was banned, another play, entitled Scaramouche Ermite was presented to the Court, and the King, when leaving, said to the grand Prince I mentioned, “I would very much like to know why the people who are so scandalized by Moliere’s comedy do not say a word about this Scaramouche.” To which the prince answered, “The reason for that is that the comedy of Scaramouche shows Heaven and religion, which these gentlemen do not care about at all; but Moliere’s play shows them themselves. This is what they cannot endure.”
(Extracts from the Preface of the first edition of Tartuffe in 1669.)