Director's program notes
By Dr. Brian Cook
In 1661, King Louis XIV of France assumed near-total control over his government. Though he had been king since the age of 5, the country had been run with his mother as regent and Cardinal Mazarin as head of government. Upon Mazarin’s death, the 23-year-old king decided to consolidate power, raising questions about the wisdom of so much power resting in the hands of one man. Louis XIV was an excellent administrator, however, and he restored the treasury and prestige of France through his long reign (he died in 1715). The grandeur and opulence of his court would earn him the title of “Sun King” (le Roi-Soleil), and he was especially fond of music, art, architecture and theatre. He supported multiple artists, including the playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière.
Molière and his company had returned to Paris in 1658 after years of touring the provinces, and, upon seeing his work, Louis XIV set him up in the Petit-Bourbon where he produced both his own plays and those of other writers. In 1664, he wrote Tartuffe, and the play’s premiere at court instantly caused a scandal. Numerous advisers objected to what they saw as a criticism of their influence, and they demanded that the king censor it, which he did. Molière fought a public battle to have his play produced, and the king eventually yielded 5 years later. The current version of the play, with the ending paying homage to the king, opened at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on February 5, 1669. It has provoked, intrigued, and delighted ever since.
Though Tartuffe was originally written in the 1660s, we’ve chosen to set our production a century later. The politics in France of the 1760s are rather different than that of the “L'État, c'est moi” attitude of Louis XIV. Though King Louis XV (Louis XIV’s successor and great-grandson) still ruled as an absolute monarch, the political change wrought by the American and French Revolutions was on the horizon. In our 1760s setting, Molière’s criticism of leadership and religious hypocrisy, told as an allegory through the story of Orgon and Tartuffe, is much more acute with the democratic ideologies of the Enlightenment infiltrating France. If Orgon can be swayed by one man to make detrimental decisions that affect both himself and his family, what happens to the country if the king is so swayed? Louis XIV had been a competent administrator, but, by most accounts, his successors were far less competent. Doubts about unlimited royal power and authority were increasingly valid, sparking widespread criticism and, eventually, revolution. The latter would uproot the French nobility (including Louis XV’s heir, King Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who both lost their heads).
In the play, Cléante asks Orgon, “Cannot sincerity and cunning art, reality and semblance, be told apart?” and, in the age of Photoshop, it is actually difficult to trust what we see. Hypocrisy is rampant; celebrities or politicians are regularly caught doing the exact thing in private they once railed against in public. A person’s public motivation often just pays lip-service to a cause s/he doesn’t believe in, and as a result, we have doubts about the abilities of our leaders to make wise decisions, particularly given the power that lobbyists and corporate interests have to sway national (and international) decision-making. Tartuffe, celebrating its 350th anniversary this year, still provokes and entertains, doing what theatre does best: causing us to laugh and think at the same time.