Louis XIV, who for fiveyears allowed the religious right to elicit a ban onMolière’s Tartuffe, was neitherpuritan nor prude. But he perceived, according to acontemporary account, the great resemblance betweenthose with “true devotion … and those whosevain exhibition of good works did not prevent themfrom committing bad ones.” Is there nosimilarity between John Ashcroft, doubtless a goodChristian, and Tartuffe, Molière’sreligious hypocrite? The one has a classic nude statuecovered up for his TV appearance, the other makes atremendous show of having the maid Dorine cover up herdécolletage.
“The play is not a satire on religion,”says its brilliant translator, Richard Wilbur. Maybenot, but Molière’s comedies say more thanthey seem to. Thus Orgon, Tartuffe’s dupe, isalso a man who exploits the impostor’s moralauthority for his own authoritarian ends. And thus thetoo-good-to-be-true ending is not only useful flatteryof the king, but also a deus ex machina so blatant theauthor surely wants us to disbelieve it.
The present director, Joe Dowling, does some amusingthings here if you haven’t seen in his earliermounting the very same gags. The design team (John LeeBeatty, Jane Greenwood, Brian MacDevitt) is as stoutas can be, although a couple of costumes could haveused a little understatement, and one wonders why adialect coach was necessary. To make the Britishactors sound less British? Actually, they are thebest. Henry Goodman’s Tartuffe isproperly—which is to say notexcessively—smarmy, Brian Bedford’s Orgonalmost too charmingly obtuse, and RosaleenLinehan’s Madame Pernelle matchless. All thewomen do well, though the worthy J.Smith-Cameron’s Dorine would have been twice asgood doing half as much.
Except for the aforementioned two, the men are poor.John Bedford Lloyd’s Cléante, theraisonneur, is a stevedore; T. R.Knight’s Damis, a lumpen pipsqueak; JeffreyCarlson’s Valère, a feeble fop; ErikSteele’s Officer, at best a dogcatcher; andPhilip Goodwin, who can make even the smallest partunbearable, a sickening Loyal.But the verse translation, wherein Wilbur at timessurpasses the original, is sheer joy, like listeningto classical music in a flawless concert. You may notwant to see this Tartuffe, but you surely wantto hear it.If you raised an eyebrow at “surpasses theoriginal,” let me offer some examples. TakeTartuffe’s response to Cléante’sargument for getting Orgon to rescind the expulsion ofhis son: “Mais, après le scandale etl’affront d’aujourd’hui, / Le Cieln’ordonne pas que je vive avec lui.”Literally: “After today’s scandal andaffront, / Heaven does not command that I live withhim.” Wilbur: “But I am not commanded bythe Bible / To live with one who smears my name withlibel.” Not only is this pithier, it also hasthat wonderfully surprising yet apt and euphoniousrhyme.And how well Wilbur captures character in language.Molière’s Tartuffe, in trying to seduceElmire, answers her recrimination with“L’amour qui nous attache auxbeautés éternelles / N’étouffe pas ennous l’amour des temporelles.”“The love that binds us to eternal beauties /Does not stifle in us love of temporal ones.”Note that rhyming two adjectives in -elles israther facile, and that “temporal” is thepredictable counterpart to “eternal.” Nowfor Wilbur: “A love of heavenly beauty does notpreclude / A proper love for earthlypulchritude.” We get here the triplealliteration in p, the delightfully unforeseen rhyme,and just the word, pulchritude, that an oilyand pompous fellow would use. Wilbur is easily one ofour best translators of lyric poetry as well, but whenit comes to Englishing French verse drama, he simplyhas no equal.