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As James Magruder writes elsewhere in this issue, “One suspects American audiences admire Molière more than they enjoy him.” And it’s true. For one of the greatest geniuses of the theatre, it’s surprising how underappreciated Molière (née Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) is in comparison to his dramaturgical peers, especially in America. Unlike, say, Chekhov, who depicts the ambiguities of human psychology, Molière gives us something else entirely: a heightened, claustrophobic realm of artifice all his own.

Molière finds the human in the absurdly mechanical. His characters approach grotesque extremes of emotion, and his plays suggest not so much other dramatists as they do the parallel artistic traditions of ballet and opera. Like a choreographer, Molière was fond of satisfyingly symmetrical pas de deux, or two-person scenes, and he also constructed hieratic set pieces for his actors, much in the manner of an operatic composer. It should not a surprise to learn that Molière pioneered these art forms as well, in his collaborations with the composer-instrumentalist-dancer Jean-Baptiste Lully at the Opéra (that’s where it gets its name).

Despite their classification as comedies – this is an era in which Cardinals partitioned genres by official decree – Molière’s plays are also weighty and critical, social dramas before such a title existed. Tartuffe, a play he took so seriously he wrote three versions of it to pass the censors, touches on a third rail that remains electric in our own society. We remain a civilization in which religious conflicts cause untold death and misery. We find it easy, almost irresistible, to decry religious fanaticism in other creeds and lands, but we hesitate to identify it in our own backyard. The play makes us laugh but, if performed correctly, it should also send a chill of recognition running down our spines. After 351 years, it still has the power to shock, to create distinct unease. No wonder Molière remains an acquired taste, like a fine wine or a slug of arsenic.

In fact, Tartuffe (first performed in 1664, banned and rewritten in 1667 and 1669) comes at the center of a creative crisis and ensuing burst of productivity unlike anything before seen in Western drama. Following The School for Wives (1662), in which he invents the modern sex comedy, Molière began to explore obsessive human behavior in ever more ambiguous situations. Fueled by battles with the censors, he opened a window on modern preoccupations we have yet to solve. In Don Juan (1665, banned after 15 performances), an atheist is consigned to hell despite (or perhaps because of) his diabolical ability to entertain an audience. In The Misanthrope (1666, the original “comedy about nothing”) he created Alceste, a foolish and ferociously intelligent man who finds relentless fault with others, oblivious to his own. The play ends with Alceste simply walking offstage, letting all of the play’s plots go slack like so much muslin upon a screen. It is a rousing coup of anti-theatre. Hundreds of years before modernists broke the fourth wall, Molière had already shattered it.

In the original production of Tartuffe, Molière played Orgon, a seemingly rational, middle-class gentleman in the grip of insane delusion. There is something beyond religion or psychology in Orgon’s attraction to Tartuffe, an obvious false idol to everyone else in his family. Having betrothed his daughter Mariane to the man, he shouts imperatives at her: “You will give him babies! They will look half like me! And half like Tartuffe!” Only Molière could make a father’s desire to sexually imprint himself on his friend through his daughter as funny as it is creepy.

And, since Molière was the master of theatrical artifice, we grasp Orgon’s madness not through language alone. As a young actor touring the provinces, Molière had internalized the usefulness of the lazzi – the commedia dell’ arte convention of the distended comic set piece, often non-verbal, in which the narrative is interrupted by increasingly heightened comic bits. In Tartuffe, Molière twists lazzos around to vertiginously unnerving effect. We are forced to ask ourselves, over and over again: what’s so funny about this? Valere, the jilted fiancé of Mariane, parrots lines out of a conduct book, slapping himself as he does so, his own body rebelling against the untruths it’s being forced to spout. Told of his wife’s sickness in ever more upsetting detail, Orgon has only one response: “Yes, but Tartuffe?” In this world, even religious ritual is reduced to one more piece of physical comic business, perverted from its original function and into unimaginable contortions. Mortificacio Tartuffe.

Even more striking is Molière’s sly manipulation of the so-called neoclassical rule of the “three unities”: the Richelieu-mandated decree that plays unfold in real time, in one physical location, and with one plot that has a complete absence of Shakespearean subplots or any hint of the supernatural. Faced with these draconian restrictions on dramaturgical practice, Molière turns the stage into a richly symbolic vehicle for meaning, the literal-minded restriction to sunrise and sunset taking on archetypal resonances. In Tartuffe, the stage once more approaches the suppressed religious drama of the middle ages, when nothing less than the soul of mankind was the thème et raison d’être.

Most mysterious of all is Molière’s ability to imaginatively inhabit the motiveless malignity of Tartuffe. During Tartuffe’s long monologue of snakelike seduction to Elmire, Orgon’s wife, at the exact center of the play, we see precisely how persuasive his words can be. The character’s name, a nonsense conglomerate of syllables much like Molière’s own, has given rise to its own proper noun synonymous for religious hypocrisy. One only has to look at a Maureen Dowd column from 2009 to find evidence of “Tartuffery,” alive and well in Washington, D.C. As the plainspoken servant Dorine says to Mariane, referring to the same nightmare baby over which Orgon is rapturous: “You will be Tartuffified!” She was wrong. Mariane was spared. It is we who have been Tartuffified.