BOOK NOOK: ‘Tartuffe’ is a timeless classic comedy

Tuesday October 10 2017

May 20th, 2017 performance of the play,

May 20th, 2017 performance of the play, Tartuffe, at the Kenya National Theatre. PHOTO| COURTESY 

By BENSON MWANGI
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Where there are beautiful women, property, religion and opportunity impostors always show up.

Tartuffe, a French play first performed in 1664 lays out this so dramatically a deus ex machina will have to save the Orgons from a misfortune hatched in their own household.

The deus ex machina is a plot technique used widely to offer resolution to tragedies such as the Great Eagles seen in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.

They save the dwarves, Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf from the attack and sheer terror of the wolves and goblins in the Hobbit, change the misfortune of the Battle of the Five Armies and rescue the two hobbits at Mount Doom, Sam and Frodo in the Return of the King.

Deus exmachina is also the device pulled out in Dickens’ Oliver Twist when just before things become insurmountable Agnes’s long-long sister hitherto unanticipated, Rose Maylie, obviously an aunt to Oliver comes into the picture, gets married to Harry and Mr. Brownlow lives ever happily with Oliver thence.

Also, Martians in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells have devastated virtually everything and about to annihilate man before the author introduces the ‘machine god’ in the form of bacteria that destroys the extra-terrestrials.

DEFINITIVE IMPOSTOR

Tartuffeis about a definitive impostor, Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite who has no qualms about using religion to progress himself, hinder the dreams of others, pander his illicit desires for the lady of the house, control the man of the house and put everything in his hand even if it means double-dealing everyone.

 Tartuffe is revered by Madame Pernelle and his son Orgon, the father of a daughter of marriageable age, Mariane and son Damis. Mariane is betrothed to Valére.  Orgon is married to Elmire who is also the step-mother to his two children.

Tartuffe is the thoroughbred fraud and fakes piousness tainted with sheer divine authority so effective Madame Pernelle and Orgon her son swallow the posturing without question. They are unable to make any important decision without requesting their pious friend to offer his divine wisdom.

DOESN’T FOOL EVERYONE

Tartuffe’s tomfoolery is however obvious to friends and maids such as Dorine who believe her guess about the pious guest is right.

He had told her “I’m going to the prison now, to share my last few coins with the poor wretches there” and hands her a handkerchief to cover her bosom for “the flesh is weak” and “unclean thoughts are difficult to control and such sights could “undermine the soul”.

Other members of the Orgon family also refuse to buy Tartuffe’s high powered religiosity. Their detest of the reverent sham is palpable.

Orgon makes things worse when, to the chagrin of everyone, announces that Mariane, his youthful daughter, will not be marrying Valére but the most divine Tartuffe.

The announcement rips Mariane to shreds as the entire family, except the easy-to-manipulate Orgon and his mother, realize how severe the imposition of Tartuffe into their affairs has become.

PLAN TO EXPOSE HATCHED

To try and salvage the situation and expose the fakery of Tartuffe they hatch a plan to have him confess his intense illicit desire for the lady of the house, Elmire.

A religious man of his calibre and a respected pious guest would not harbour such thoughts, let alone confess such most secret yearning to a person such as the lady of the Orgon’s home. Surely, once the impostor is exposed Orgon will throw him out.

Tartuffe does not disappoint. He seduces Elmire. Everything is going to plan and the foolery is about to roost before Damis, the son of Orgon who had sworn to “stop that scoundrel’s machinations” and to “tell him off” ruins the moment.

His eavesdropping of the seduction irks him so much he leaves his hiding to confront the sly impostor.

He rushes out and in rhyming couplet successive metre perfection fumes out “No! We’ll not hush up this vile affair; I heard it all inside that closet there”.

Tartuffe is obviously shocked but the definitive sly king recovers so fast he makes the most of reverse psychology when Orgon comes in and Damis lets him know what his pious friend has been up to.

Tartuffe gets himself out of the situation so effectively that Damis is banished by his father who also permits Tartuffe to remain around his beloved Elmire than before as punishment to the irksome son.

He takes it a notch higher by signing the entirety of his belongings to the devout man he believes in than his son.

Suffice to say, Orgon is later convinced easily by Elmire to witness the masterful seduction of Tartuffe to her and hides somewhere in the room with the sole intention of proving Elmire wrong. Orgon overhears the seduction and advances of the virtuous guest who is so carried by his unchristian-like moves he is about to violate the lady of the house. He throws him out.

EVER DUPLICITOUS

Ever the guileful one, Tartuffe turns the tables around and uses a box containing incriminating letters whose existence Orgon had confided to him to his advantage.

Tartuffe wants to throw them out of the house through Monsieur Loyal’s message from the court. Treachery of the once-revered guest in Orgon’s home is actually what brings Madame Pernelle to believe Tartuffe is evil.

The incriminating content of the letters is about to bring down the house of Orgon. An officer arrives with Tartuffe to arrest Orgon before he had made an escape. Deus ex machina plot device takes over as the tables turn against Tartuffe.

He’s the one arrested by the officer, who explains the injustice meted to the house of Orgon and the duplicity of Tartuffe had reached the Prince.

The King’s prison awaits him.  Restoration takes place and the loyal true love of Valére repaid with a “wedded happiness”.  

With all its funniness and neoclassicism tenets, Tartuffe by Moliere (Jean Baptiste Poquelin) is a classic comedy of all time.