Tartuffe, first performed as a three-act play before King Louis XIV in 1664, and then in its official five-act version in 1669, is perhaps Moliere’s greatest accomplishment. Its piercing commentary on hypocrisy and impiety, its light-hearted wit and lucid prose, and its memorable titular character have left their mark on theater and literature. In fact, the word “Tartuffe” has entered the English lexicon to denote someone who possesses a heightened degree of hypocrisy, especially in regards to feigning religious virtue.
Moliere’s three-act version was first produced at Versailles at the fetes for King Louis XIV; it was said to be performed specifically to please the king’s mistress. Although most of the attendees were highly amused, it immediately attracted criticism for its perceived attacks on the Catholic Church. While the king found it enjoyable, he was pressured to speak against it by his former tutor and advisor, the archbishop of Paris Paul Philippe Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe. The official account of the fete read that the king’s “extreme delicacy to religious matters can not suffer this resemblance of vice to virtue, which could be mistaken for each other; although one does not doubt the good intentions of the author, even so he forbids it in public, and deprived himself of this pleasure, in order not to allow it to be abused by others, less capable of making a just discernment of it."
The French upper class and the French Roman Catholics had spoken; Tartuffe was censored, even after Moliere rewrote the play and renamed the main character Panulphe to make it seem more secular. The Church would not give in, and Moliere was much despised for trying to undermine religion through his work. It is likely that if the King had not continued to support the playwright, he would have been excommunicated. One cleric described him as "a demon dressed in flesh and clothed as a man, and the most outrageously impious libertine who has ever appeared in centuries."
Moliere tried to defend his work in letters, writing about the nature of comedy: “the comic is the outward and visible form that nature's bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it. To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence and we must see wherein the rational consists . . . incongruity is the heart of the comic.”
Over the years, the play continued to be produced privately, until Moliere, convinced the influence of his critics had wanted, staged the five-act version publicly in 1669. This is the text that is performed and read today. It combines the humor of the popular slapstick comedies of the day with high neoclassical drama, revealing that comedy could offer insights into the human condition just as effectively as tragedy could. The play built on earlier medieval and farce traditions, but proves itself modern and unique by keeping Tartuffe off of the stage until the third act, thus revealing that the true focus of the play is not on Tartuffe himself, but rather on the chaos which his deception renders.
The first film version of the play was produced in 1924. A more well-known version starring the French actor Gerard Depardieu as Tartuffe premiered in 1984. A film entitled “Moliere” was made in France in 2004, and featured Moliere masquerading as a sort of Tartuffian character. TV versions have also populated the French airwaves over the decades, and a PBS version was produced in 1978. An opera of the same name was composed by Kirke Mechem. Finally, it is of course frequently performed on stages throughout the world.