Tartuffe

Controversy

Though Tartuffe was received well by the public and even by Louis XIV, it immediately sparked conflict amongst many different groups who were offended by the play's portrayal of someone who was outwardly pious but fundamentally mercenary, lecherous and deceitful and who uses their profession of piety to prey on others. The factions opposed to Molière's work included part of the hierarchy of the French Roman Catholic Church, members of upper-class French society, and the illegal underground organization called the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement. Tartuffe's popularity was cut short when the Archbishop of Paris issued an edict threatening excommunication for anyone who watched, performed in, or read the play. Molière attempted to assuage church officials by re-writing his play to seem more secular and less critical of religion, but the church could not be budged. The revised version of the play was called L'Imposteur and had a main character titled Panulphe instead of Tartuffe. Even throughout Molière's conflict with the church, Louis XIV continued to support the playwright; it is possible that without the King's support, Molière might have been excommunicated. Although public performances of the play were banned, private performances for the French aristocracy were permitted.[5] In 1669, after Molière's detractors lost much of their influence, he was finally allowed to perform the final version of his play. However, due to all the controversy surrounding Tartuffe, Molière mostly refrained from writing such incisive plays as this one again.[6]

An ally of Molière responded to criticism of Tartuffe in 1669 with a Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur. The anonymous author sought to defend the play to the public by describing the plot in detail and then rebutting two common arguments made for why the play was banned. The first being that religion was not meant to be discussed in theaters; the second being that Tartuffe's actions on stage followed by his pious speech would make the audience think that they were to act as Tartuffe did. This section of letter contradicts the latter by describing how Tartuffe's actions are worthy ridicule, in essence comic, and therefore by no means an endorsement.

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 . . . it follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.[7]

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