Tartuffe was first performed in a private production for King Louis XIV of France on May 12th, 1664, at Versailles. In a fair warning to the king and a plea for support, Moliére wrote, ?[Other] comedies attack piety and religion itself, which [the people] do not care much for. But this one, Tartuffe, attacks them, and shows them for what they are. And that, they cannot stand. They will never forgive me.? Indeed, although the play pleased the king immensely, it was banned from public performance because of strong objections from officials of the Catholic church, led by the Company of the Holy Sacrament.
Moliére at first protested, then revised the play, and in 1667 he was permitted to produce it for a second time in front of the king and his court. Again it was banned. Finally, after Moliére's third petition to the king, the ban was lifted in 1669 and the play was performed for the public. It was an instant success, and it is this third version of the play that was published, protected from censorship, and is now performed all over the world.
Moliére?s comedies are usually more light-hearted than the comical yet uncomfortably sinister Tartuffe. Born as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in 1622, he took the stage name ?Moliére? at the age of twenty-one and began to write farces modeled after Italian commedia dell?arte, which was very active in Paris. His comedies quickly caught the favorable attention of the king, who was an aficionado and generous sponsor of theatre and drama. The young playwright soon acquired a permanent theatre where he could produce his plays, and his more advanced works ? of which Tartuffe is one ? eventually established him as a comic genius.
Tartuffe is a 17th century comedy. As such, it is designed to make the audience laugh. Do not expect ordinary life or realistic characters and behavior to be reproduced in this play, although the ideas and circumstances may indeed be very real. For example, the first act is primarily composed of Orgon, the master of the house, singing the praises of the ?saintly? Tartuffe ? an impoverished man he has encountered at church and invited to come dwell with him in his house and serve as the family?s spiritual advisor. Orgon worships Tartuffe above everything else to such a ridiculous degree that he is impervious to the news that his wife has been deathly ill. He simply replies, ?Ah. And Tartuffe?? This exaggerated worship of the conniving and manipulative Tartuffe is continued in the second act when Orgon decides he will break his promise to Valére, the enamored young man who is supposed to marry Orgon?s daughter, Mariane, and force his daughter instead to marry Tartuffe so that he will officially be part of the family! As if that is not an extreme enough measure, in a moment of impassioned adoration Orgon goes so far as to declare Tartuffe the sole heir to all of his estate ? effective immediately. He has sacrificed his assets, his home, his daughter, and his whole family to a duplicitous man claiming to be virtuous and godly.
Act three goes on much the same way. When Damis, Orgon?s own son, catches Tartuffe trying to adulterously seduce Orgon?s wife, Elmire, he believes he will be able to discredit Tartuffe once and for all. To the contrary, Orgon disavows his own son for speaking poorly of his beloved Tartuffe! It is not until Elmire?s plan to expose the true Tartuffe is successful that Orgon finally must believe his own eyes and realize that Tartuffe, his idol, has betrayed him.