Le Faux Dévot

Next up in my French reading is Molière's Le Tartuffe. This is a no-frills Dover dual-language paperback edition, much like my copy of Candide. However,the translation of Tartuffe is a lot less literal than Candide. In fact, some of the translation choices are simply bizarre. This is perplexing because literalness is supposedly part of the Dover dual-language edition philosophy. I do not recommend the translation as anything other than an aide for reading the French. The footnotes, though few, explained everything that I would otherwise have had to look up. For someone just starting out with the French language of today, Molière's French provides a significantly greater challenge than the language of Voltaire. I would not recommend it to another beginner like myself.

Molière himself was an early modern playwright of the mid-17th century, only a few decades after Shakespeare's time. Partly due to the temporal proximity, Molière is often referred to as the French Shakespeare. However, unlike Shakespeare, Molière only dabbled in the genre of comedy. And his comedies are quite different from Shakespeare's due to a much greater influence of the Italian commedia dell'arte on Molière's work. While Shakespeare borrowed elements from commedia once in a while, Molière strongly adheres to the style. His characters are largely the stock characters of commedia with little to distinguish them from other characters in other plays adhering to the same archetypes. And, true to commedia, the action is largely driven by simplistic and petty emotions most at home in the most lizard-like part of the human brain. It is theatre designed for popular and common appeal. Even the metrical style of Molière relies heavily on rhyming couplets that would appeal even to a child. It seems to me that Molière's comedies have more in common with the old Greek satyr plays than Shakespeare.

The play Tartuffe itself did not appeal to me. Much of the earlier action is a family fighting. On stage, I'm sure all this bustling anger plus a little slapstick would probably elicit a chuckle or two. On paper, however, the characters just seem like jerks. The title character himself is a psychopathic conman out to swindle the head of the household by charming him with his false piety. He does not actually show up until the second half of the play. And until then, half the family thinks he is a living a saint and the other half suspects that he is a fraud. After reading Candide, I was already feeling burnt out on the perennial French trope of the holy hypocrite. Tartuffe did not help at all. In short, every single character in this play lacked depth and thus had little appeal to me.

The ending is perhaps the worst of part of the play. I am not reluctant to spoil because it is absolute garbage. Tartuffe manages to steal some papers incriminating the head of the household. He then uses these papers to get an audience with the king and permission to basically steal the family's house and put the head of the household in prison. When all this is revealed to the family, they are in utter despair. But then, out of nowhere, it is revealed the the king is such a great soul that he can immediately see through the lies of any conman and get at the truth of the matter. From these magical powers, he deduced that Tartuffe is a fraud and family is really a bunch of nice people. Thence Tartuffe is taken to prison just when he thought he won. This is such a blatant example of deus ex machina that it is literally used as one of Wikipedia's examples in the article on deus ex machina. This ending is bad and Molière should feel bad.

Next up on the list will be Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or The Bourgeois Gentleman. Since it's more Molière and the bulk of its humor derives from outdated class expectations, I am not particularly excited. But maybe Molière will surprise me. And, if nothing else, it will further allow me to empathize with the plight of French secondary school students forced to read Molière.