Even when I was a freshman French Major in college, they taught Moliere’s “Tartuffe” as a farce about religious hypocrisy—and indeed, that is how Berkeley Rep bills it today in its modern adaptation by David Ball. Yet, “hypocrisy” in its abstraction is too distal a term to reliably capture the grit herein. To their credit, the playwright and players in this production, work hard to make sure we do, and thanks to them and adroit direction by Dominique Serrand, we see that the work goes far beyond sermonizing against hypocrisy. It is like having heard all one’s life that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, and then coming to terms with the poverty of that philosophy. After all, some of our most valiant heroes (Tom Paine, Che Guevara, Joan of Arc) have been patriots, and some of our worst scoundrels come calling as religious zealots in hair shirts, bearing the extremely unctuous adornments of wine, wafer and incense. Ask any alter boy to free associate when you say the word “scoundrel”!
“Tartuffe” is a play about that scoundrel. Hypocrisy is simply his lingua franca. His only crime, after all, is that he has been feasting on the entrails of an historical period in which a fellow like him could take up residence in the home of an aristocratic patriarch, and turn everything in it on its head. Moliere’s “Tartuffe” is where “Six Degrees of Separation” meets the Stations of the Cross, and audiences have been cheering its humor for 500 years!
Moliere’s play debuted in 1664, and its somewhat apologetic banning by Louis XIV caused quite a stir. The Protestant Reformation was the religious proxy for a Thirty Years War that ripped the Hapsburg Empire to shreds. Any tract, no matter how persuasively argued, let alone one scripted into the shifting shape of a public performance, offered too much quarter (and ammunition) to the enemy, and, as such, was asking for trouble.
The Ball version, in modern English, rolls out impiously in an “Uff! Tartuffe!” of disgust, with the onstage characters, the maid Dorine, played lustily by Suzanne Warmenen; Damis, the choleric Brian Hostenske, Orgon’s heir apparent; and Damis’ sister Mariane, the energetic Lenne Klingaman; offering a catalogue of woes to the manor’s doyenne, Madame Pernelle (the sometimes inaudible, yet tempestuous Michael Manuel). They detail the ways in which Tartuffe’s presence in the household, along with that of his acolyte, Laurent, a snarky Nathan Keepers, has laid waste to their lives and the plans that aristocratic society proposes for them.
Orgon, the patriarch in question, played by the intrepid Luverne Seifert, is insisting that Mariane marry Tartuffe, and renounce a betrothal to her beloved Valere, the bounding Christopher Carley. Mariane is protesting strenuously. Damis objects to the litany, not to mention pageantry that has eclipsed family life since Tartuffe gained a foothold in the manse. Devotion to the houseguest and his various mysteries, mortifications, and homilies, has become Orgon’s strange obsession. Tartuffe confesses that he does not covet Mariane so much as her comely stepmother, Orgon’s wife, Elmire (played with a Robin Wright/”House of Cards” sangfroid by Sofia Jean Gomez). Elmire is revolted by Tartuffe’s advances, but excels at patience—in the interests of pursuing a tactical and strategic approach to getting rid of the interloper, which the hothead complainants have, up to this point, failed to fully appreciate or master.
The cast delivers the initial exposition in a rhyme scheme that is uncomfortably reminiscent of the one Dr. Seuss favors in his “The Cat in the Hat,” and when we finally see Tartuffe, in the lean and hungry-looking specter of Steven Epp, it is a great relief to find that instead of sporting a red and white striped knitted stocking cap, he is half naked and flagellating himself, ably assisted by the sardonic Laurent. Still, Tartuffe proves himself a worthy rival for the hellcat’s inclination to wreak havoc and lead others into the commission of malevolent acts. Wherever he minces, falls to his knees, humbles himself by confessing his sins, or seeks to grab a handful of flesh, he leaves wreckage in his wake.
In the second act, with Orgon’s brother-in-law Cleante (a rigorous Gregory Linington) stewarding the plot along, Tartuffe is defrocked of his false humility and other affectations, and we see that for him, it’s all about the base, ’bout the base, ’bout the base, no grovel. After Elmire succeeds in entrapping Tartuffe while Orgon hides under a table, Tartuffe retaliates by threatening to seize all the family’s worldly goods, tribute earlier signed over to him by Orgon.
The lesson is that there is no pretense of separation of church and state in this era, but rather, the church is the handmaiden to the state, and ironically, she is a most seductive bedfellow, even as the monarchy rests upon the lies and vanities authored, authorized and authenticated by capricious landlords. Its laws are codified to support a patriarchal hierarchy that not only mimics the religious order which places God the Father at its summit, but will characterize French history from Moliere’s day to the present, as long as property is the coin of the realm.
Neither does it spare the United States, even with its vaunted separation of church and state, and while perhaps they may not survive the cinque-centennial test of time, the farcical aspects of TV shows such as “The Good Wife,” “House of Lies,” the cancelled “Boss,” “American Crime,” “Scandal,” “Empire,” even “House of Cards,” and “Episodes,” derive their theater-of-the-absurd moments from the very same property relations that teased out Moliere’s enduring send-up. As long as property reigns supreme, whether under the flag of a monarchy or a bourgeois democracy, there will be the heirs and the disinherited, and anyone with an eye out for pressing his own advantage can do no better than to insinuate himself into a family conceived in lucre, and displace whomever he might, by hook or crook. “Tartuffe” reminds that blowing a little incense smoke in the direction of the patriarch can do no harm to such an enterprise.