Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite. It’s one of Molière’s best-known and most-often-produced plays. Is there a day when a production isn’t on stage somewhere in the world? Unlikely.
And yet. The upcoming Tartuffe by Brooklyn’s Molière in the Park is indeed an English-language world premiere.
How can this be? A new translation?
Well, yes – but that’s not the reason.
What audiences will experience next month – for the first time in English – is the original 1664 version of Tartuffe, reconstructed for the first time.
The Comédie-Française presented the world premiere of this strikingly different version in Paris last year, directed by Ivo van Hove. Molière in the Park then commissioned an English translation.
As artistic director Lucie Tiberghien explained in a recent interview with Blogcritics, Maya Slater, a scholar, novelist, and translator of French and Russian literature “had translated a version of Tartuffe, the play we’ve all known, in the 12-syllable alexandrine verse in rhyming couplets,” as in Molière’s original French. “I reached out to her, after I knew that I had the rights to the French version, to ask her if she’d be interested in adapting her translation to match this original version, and she was very excited and said yes, and provided us with this version.”
English-speaking audiences are more accustomed to Richard Wilbur’s brilliant iambic pentameter translations, as heard, for example, in Molière in the Park’s The Misanthrope last year. But the troupe wanted something closer to the original French. As Slater had already done an alexandrine rendition of the traditional, well-known Tartuffe, she seemed the obvious choice to translate the “new” version.
A Troubled Birth
Molière had to rewrite Tartuffe twice before finally, in 1669, religious authorities deemed it presentable. The original, Tiberghein said, “was lost to history. Some people say that it was the first three acts of what was supposed to be a longer play, but…a lot of the historical record seems to point to the fact that the original three-act play was a complete play.”
Historian and Molière biographer Georges Forestier recently reconstructed this original play by putting together various sources “through a process he refers to as ‘historical genetics.’ That is the version that is now being considered the original version, even by the Comédie-Française.”
I asked Tiberghien what differences theatergoers who are familiar with Tartuffe would see in the newly reconstructed 1664 text.
First, she said, “It’s a play in three acts vs. five acts. Basically all of Act II and all of Act V [of the familiar version] are gone. Tartuffe famously ends with a big deus ex machina, with the King sending an emissary and saving the day.” There’s no such artificial plot device in this original version. “Of course that is one of the things that seems to have been what allowed the play to be produced five years down the line.”
As for how this version ends, you’ll have to head to Prospect Park for the production, which runs May 6–27.
Also, three characters from the familiar version are not in this one. “The whole storyline of Orgon wanting to marry off his daughter to Tartuffe, that is gone,” Tiberghien said. “The marriage being thwarted by Tartuffe’s presence in the home is not that of Mariane the daughter, because she’s not a character, but that of Damis, the son. So the main familial conflict is between the father and the son – and of course the wife, who’s being seduced by Tartuffe.”
So what was so wrong with the original that Louis XIV bowed to church authorities and banned it?
Molière had intended, Tiberghein suggested,
to really satirize an actual man of the church, who is invited into the home to be someone’s “director of conscience,” which was pretty common back then. But he becomes infatuated with the wife of the man who has welcomed him into the house, and what we watch is this [honest man of the church] desperately trying to use his [religious] beliefs to justify his behavior.
We’re watching a man starting as an honest person becoming this hypocrite. In the later version Tartuffe reveals himself at the end to have always been a con man, and to have never really been a man of the church. So it became more of a satirization of con men than of men of the church, which was also why it was made more acceptable.
Because God forbid you should imply that an honest man of the cloth could be corrupted by lust.
Tartuffe Speaks to Today
Molière in the Park has been staging its vigorous, slick but earthy productions of the 17th-century French comedic master’s works in Prospect Park and elsewhere – including online during the pandemic – for years. This spring they’ll be bringing to Prospect Park, that jewel of landscape design – the park that Olmsted and Vaux built after they practiced with Central Park, as Brooklynites are wont to say – something never before seen: essentially, a new play by Molière.
A play, Lucie Tiberghein suggested in a press release, that remains especially relevant today, “at a time when the two factors that led to the banning and disappearance of the original script have re-emerged in the U.S. with furious energy: censorship, and willful denialism.”
Like many in today’s world, Orgon and other characters “refuse to see what’s right in front of them,” she told me, “and I’m very interested in that because…we’ve been living in that [situation] of ‘What is true? What is not true? What can we consider a fact?’ I’m really interested in investigating that.”
You can investigate this world premiere production further at the troupe’s website. Free tickets are available online too – that’s right, tickets are free – but reservations are recommended.