By Julianna Fultineer
“Tis a mighty stroke at any vice to make it the laughing stock of everybody; for men will easily suffer reproof; but they can by no means endure mockery. They will consent to be wicked but not ridiculous.”
The above words of Moliere’s appeared in the preface for the first published edition of Tartuffe. Many of you are probably wondering where this man is in this production blog. So far, we’ve talked about jazz, flappers, and the ambiance of 1920′s America. But what about the origins of this play? Even when transposing a classic work to a new time period, it is important to pay attention to its roots. Let’s explore those roots and how they can connect to our 1920′s concept.
Here he is. The man of the hour: Moliere. He was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in 1622 to a middle class family of upholsterers. His family was relatively well-off, and his father acted as the furnisher to the royal family of France. Expecting him to take over the family business, his father sent Jean-Baptiste Poquelin to the College de Clermont. In 1643, however, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin actively renounced his family’s business and vowed to take up a life of the stage. By 1644, there was recorded use of the name “Moliere”. Some sources have attributed his change in name to a desire to protect his family against the shame of a career in the theatre.
His early theatre career got off to a rough start. He joined a theatre troupe with Madeleine Béjart for which he wrote as well as acted. During the early years of this troupe, Moliere met with huge debts and even spent time in debtors prison. By 1650, times were a little better and Moliere had taken over as head of the group. It was not until 1658, however, that he would have his first performance in front of King Louis XIV.
Moliere’s plays became a favorite of King Louis XIV, which protected his works from persecution by religious groups of the time. Tartuffe, in particular met with a heavy dose of scandal. The play was first performed at Versailles as part of Les Plaisirs de l’Île Enchantée in 1664. Tartuffe pokes fun at both religious devotees and the upper class through its depiction of Orgon’s family and its interaction with the religious hypocrite, Tartuffe. This incurred the wrath of the Society of the Holy Sacrament and the Parti des Devots. These religious groups were tied in with the aristocracy and help significant power. The battle over the right to perform, produce or even read Tartuffe took five years and was not resolved until 1669 when a ten year period of religious “calm” (often called The Peace of the Church) took over.
The plays of Moliere would go on to be produced and met with commercial success until the end of his life in 1673. He continued to write as well as act in his own works. The master of comedy lead a life utterly consumed by the theatre. Moliere spent most of his life battling a terrible hack, and passed away following an intense coughing fit during the fourth performance of The Imaginary Invalid. This exit seems, in many ways, fitting for a man who devoted himself so fully to his art.