Tartuffe is clearly the French theatrical masterpiece. Not only of Molière, one of the greatest playwrights ever. Not only of French classical theatre at its best, in the Golden Age of Versailles. But most probably of the whole French theatre ever.
This black comedy, whose exquisite poetical language counts some of the most beautiful verses, shows altogether in the most captivating way cruel power games, perverse intentions, seduction plots, deceptive tricks, bitting humour, funny misunderstandings, exhilarating contradictions, mind blowing coups de théâtre, dramatic antagonisms, and vital stakes.
Most of the time, the staged versions have been focusing on the hypocrisy of the eponym character, relying on the subtitle « Tartuffe ou l’imposteur » (Tartuffe or the Impostor). There is not doubt that at the time Molière wrote his play in 1664, his clear targets were the bigots who used religious rigorism as a façade to hide their impious misbehaviors, without even believing what they were preaching. The battle was between Truth and Deception, Honesty and Hypocrisy.
Now, 350 years later, this equation has been partly altered. Even if our 21st century is still in its young age, between 11/09/01 and 07/01/15, that is between the annihilation of the Twin Towers in New York as its act of « baptism » and the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo in Paris as its « confirmation » a few months ago, our present time is already a bloodthirsty century of worldwide religious radicalisation, global increasing fanaticism and active terrorist fundamentalism.
This is one of the essential reasons why I am staging Tartuffe differently that it has been generally so far. In my vision of the play, Tartuffe is not substantialy defined by his obvious blunt lies but first and foremost by his actual power of fascination. The point is now less to reveal his hypocrisy than to stress his danger.
The classic interpretation of Tartuffe is that he constantly refers to, and uses, Heaven as a perpetual threat and absolute weapon without actually believing in God, which therefore turns just in a tool to impress the fools. Let’s say now that Tartuffe’s lack of belief, and therefore hypocrisy, is not the entrance point.
Let’s state on the contrary that his form of belief, being fanatical and totalitarian, regards itself as being fully relieved from any usual moral and even religious obligation. In his view, his fundamentalist faith allows him everything. Including lying, betraying, cheating, stealing, seducing, even blaspheming, in the very name of his higher, radical conception of religion. Thanks to it, he feels that he can afford everything. Like an Inquisitor torturing and killing in the name of God.
Then Tartuffe is not merely an impostor. He becomes much more than that: a maverick prophet. A fanatical guru. A fundamentalist spiritual guide. Who denuntiates, curses, and fights against, a world of materialism, consumerism, laxism, debauchery, idolatry, permissiveness, amorality, and impiety. He is then at mortal war with, and crusades against, our modern Western world of frantic market society and individualistic, relativist, secular wandering democracies.
This dark angel or pious demon breaks into a wealthy bourgeois family, upsets it completly, takes over and control, to chastize it, revolutionize it, absorbs it. He captivates entirely the pater familias Orgon and his mother, the two key power family figures, while symmetrically, he repulses the subjugated characters, the children, their stepmother, their uncle and the maid. He mesmerizes the father, blinds the greatmother, marries the daughter, banishes the son, shuts the oncle, seduces and nearly forces the stepmother, expels the whole family.
He works as an hurricane which by its radicality unleashes all desires and furies. As in Pasolini’s movie Theorem, like a supernatural force he turns the whole conventional and even conformist well established home upside down. This is why the actor playing Tartuffe must be extremely seductive and even charismatic, both irresitible and dangerous, perfectly changing and versatile as a demon, and moving and inspiring as an angel. With one could say a flame in the eye, as in the look of Savonarole or Raspoutine.
His prey, Orgon, whose part was actually created by Molière himself, should combine the fragility of a for the first time captured heart, the comical power of a contradictory and surrounded soul, and the imperious authority of the fatherly figure who in a revengeful way has decided to teach his whole family how to live by punishing it with Tartuffe.
Playing opposite the two male leads, Elmire is one of the most striking Molière’s characters. Her enigmatic power, her evasive complexity, her extreme subtelty in playing all the parts and touching all the strings she wants make her the actually real power figure of the play, the only one able to defeat Tartuffe. Everyone desires her: Orgon who proves to be infuriated by her power of seduction, Tartuffe who is irresistibly attracted to her and will fall by her, and even in a way her too protective step-son Damis. This obscure object of desire plays them all.
Her brother, Cléante, who is played by the genious comedian Jean-Claude Dreyfus, appears as a grand decadent aristocrat who is clever enough to justify in a rational way all deviancies including his, covering them under the veil of tolerance and balanced life.
The action takes place today, in a very classy subtely modernized Haussmanian or Victorian house (it could be Paris or London, a 21st century Western world capitale), where the younger members of the family lead their loose, idle and self-indulging lives, punctuated by artificial materialistic pleasures of several kinds, under the supervision of Cléante, and with the blessing of Elmire. The rigorism of Orgon and the intransigence of Tartuffe show in their outfits of Christian traditionalist fundamentalists, Tartuffe going much further by an obvious strictness contrasting with the passion of his extremely inspired moves.
In this way, this masterpiece, which will be performed in French integrally, without changing, adding or cutting a single word of it, is both staged with a perfect integrity, with all its original deflagrating power as a very funny comedy, corrosive satire, enchanting poetry, and deep reflexion on human soul and social values; and with a contemporary bold vision stressing the crisis of our modern societies torn apart between senseless materialism and deadly fundamentalism. Exploring the danger of its seduction will imply the sexyness, the vivacity and the modernity of this edgy staging of an everlasting classic, to make out of it a very popular show.