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ASIDES: Just Enough to be Funny

Or: The Funny Medium

By James Magruder


Louis XIV invites Molière to share his supper—an unfounded Romantic anecdote, illustrated in an 1863 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

Medan agan” reads one of the legends carved on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. One of the touchstones of Greek civilization, it means “nothing in excess.” Its implicit corollary is “everything in moderation” or “the happy medium.” Literary illustrations of this Hellenic watch-cry are the main business of Greek and Roman drama. Motivated by this god or that, hamstrung by twisted family back stories, Medea and Phaedra, to take but two famous examples, are excessive characters literally fated for tragedy. We are moved to pity by their outcomes, but they and their heroic relatives are superhuman or inhuman exceptions with whom the audience is not meant to identify.

Classic comedy, on the other hand, runs not on divine grudges, but on three basic human needs: food, sex, and money. Hell-bent dramatic quests for a piece of chicken, or 20 pieces of gold, or a piece between the sheets, generate the most box office and belly laughs, from Aristophanes to Modern Family. Even the most refined characters in Western drama, say, Millamant in The Way of the World or Algernon Moncrieff in Earnest, are, when stripped of their wit and elegance, after the same things. The social distance between genuine motivation and the verbal posturing necessary to conceal it from others onstage generates much of the fun in the comedy of manners.

Taking up the torch of aesthetic utility after Aristotle, Horace decreed that comedy must “punish customs with laughter” (castigat ridendo mores): comedy must correct, through painstaking observation, the excesses of behavior in the average man.

Centuries later, making theatre for a civilization meant to exceed that of ancient Athens—the France of Louis XIV—the protean actor/playwright/manager Molière insists in his “Preface to Tartuffe,” (1669) that “theatre is the school of man,” in which “comedy corrects men’s vices by exposing them to ridicule.” People do not mind being wicked; but they object to being made ridiculous.

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The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2008 production of The Imaginary Invalid, adapted by Alan Drury and directed by Keith Baxter. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But Molière didn’t write average men. That wasn’t the French neo-classical prescription. After the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, the 23-year-old king decided to govern France on his own and wrote himself into the constitution as an architectural ideal, becoming in the process both the arbiter and the guardian of form. Every detail of the ancien régime, from monuments and comic types to lace cuff lengths and the salt tax, was constructed for his gloire and in his image. The rules of dramatic art, articulated and modified through a series of aesthetic imbroglios that only the French seem to have the energy for, were, by the time official tastemaker Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux codified them in L’Art poétique (1674), a series of conventions, unities, action, and act structures that set the precepts for a theatre whose artifacts traveled up the sunbeams for the godhead’s perusal and approval. The absolute, baroque passions of Racine’s Phèdre or Brittanicus are extreme, off the map, and fitted for an absolute monarch and a ministry intent on willing a national culture into existence.

Likewise, Molière’s most enduring plays are portraits of comic monsters—the skinflint in The Miser (1668), the hypochondriac in The Imaginary Invalid (1673), the heretic in Don Juan (1665), the paranoid cuckold in The School for Wives (1662), the pedant in The Learned Ladies (1672), the clueless parvenu in The Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670), and, most to the point here, the religious hypocrite in Tartuffe.


Francesca Faridany as Donna Elvira and Jeremy Webb as Don Juan in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2006 production of Don Juan directed by Stephen Wadsworth. Photo by Richard Termine.

The first performance of Tartuffe before the King at Versailles on May 12, 1664 ignited the kind of cultural scandal that the French seem to enjoy, rivaled later by the premieres of Hugo’s Hernani in 1830, Jarry’s Ubu Rex in 1896, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. Molière’s depiction of a bourgeois household invaded and then held hostage by a falsely devout parasite was instantly denounced by the Archbishop of Paris and led to a five-year free-for-all of tracts and pamphlets (imagine a rabid 17th-century blogosphere splitting ecclesiastical hairs), and counter-plays by Molière’s dramatic enemies.

In his long struggle to lift the ban on Tartuffe, Molière first rewrote and re-titled the play The Imposter (and changed Tartuffe to Panulphe). This intermediary text, which no longer survives, was presented to the public in the summer of 1667 and swept from the boards the very next day. It was fortunate that Louis XIV liked Molière, both the man and the writer. More direct royal pressure led to a definitive, third premiere of the play on January 5, 1669 that broke the box office record at the Palais-Royal and led to publication and a permanent place in the world repertory. Moreover, Molière was able at last to silence his critics in his published Preface, which famously begins:

This is a comedy about which there has been a great deal of noise, which has been for a long time persecuted; and the people whom it holds up have shown that they are the most powerful in France of all those I have hitherto portrayed. The marquises, the blue stockings, the cuckolds, and the doctors, have quietly suffered themselves to be represented, and have pretended to be amused, in common with all the world, at the sketches which I have made of them; but the hypocrites have not taken the joke.

Whence the noise? In a world where church and state were one, and the King a literal god, lampooning religious zeal was no laughing matter. Counter-Reformation France was as dangerous a spot to be in as Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine are at this writing. Through much of the 16th century and early 17th century, France nearly destroyed itself through a series of religious wars between a Catholic majority and a Protestant minority. The growing might of the monarchy had eroded the privileges of the aristocracy, who used religious difference as a pretext for re-establishing their power and influence against Cardinal Mazarin and his draconian tax policies. The last civil uprising, known as La Fronde, sporadically waged between 1648 and 1653, only hardened religious divisions. The Gallicanists believed French Catholics were a special breed not subject to papal authority. The Calvinists provided an extreme antidote to Catholicism. There was a resurgence of Greco-Roman Stoicism among an educated minority. The Jansenists were Catholic extremists who believed that man is basically corrupt and who were opposed to devout humanism and to the doctrinal compromises allowed by the Society of Jesus. In fact, some contemporary critics view Tartuffe’s invasion of Orgon’s household as a direct metaphorical warning against the growing influence of the Jesuits upon the French body politic. Tartuffe’s bailiff, after all, is named M. Loyal, and Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus in 1540.TARTUFFE_233

In this society of baroque grandiosity, one could add another urge to the list of comic human motivations: Power. For four out of five acts Tartuffe and Orgon are subject to a perplexing bromance unrivaled in Western drama until the Prince and Posa in Don Carlos. The power that Tartuffe seeks via his mask of piety is easy access to food, sex, and money—why oh why can’t Orgon see that? Bringing her master up to speed after his absence, Dorine says: “Madame’s headache was so bad she couldn’t eat a bite, so she watched Tartuffe gobble two partridges, a fricasseed leg of mutton, and a good part of a pig.” Tartuffe’s salacious pursuit of Elmire is what finally opens Orgon’s eyes, but at the eleventh hour—this is comedy after all—and is immediately followed by the news that Orgon has been dispossessed. For his part (and Molière himself originated the role), the power that Orgon wields within his household is tyrannical and contra-sensical. His love for Tartuffe has exceeded the bounds of reason and makes him turn, time and again, against his own interests.

James Magruder, a playwright and novelist, has translated Molière’s The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Bourgeois Gentleman. He teaches dramaturgy at Swarthmore College and fiction at the University of Baltimore.

Excerpted from full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season’s Plays 2014–15 available for purchase for the Kindle or Nook.

Tartuffe runs through July 5 at Sidney Harman Hall.

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