Tartuffe by Molière, adapted by Christopher Hampton, directed by Gérald Garutti, with Audrey Fleurot, George Blagden, Paul Anderson and Sebastian Roché; Theatre Royal Haymarket, Tuesday, 29th May, 7.00pm.
It’s odd to think, now, that in the Seventeenth Century a person’s outward appearance was taken as a true indication of their inner worth. Only certain ranks could wear certain colours for example, or kinds of clothes, or sit at certain places at the dining table, or eat certain foods, based on who they were. There was no separation, no duality as René Descartes would have it. The spiritual and the physical were one and the same. Outward appearance was a perfect expression of who you were.
Molière’s play is just one example of the way this was changing. At the beginning of the Century it was Shakespeare and Galileo. At the end, by way of the Thirty Years War and the beheading of Charles the First of England, the physical and spiritual were cleaved in two and science was beginning its relentless march towards the domination of religion. Enlightenment beckoned. The certainties of the medieval period were gone. The cult of the individual genius was come.
How could they possibly have been so silly? How could a rich man be so taken in by a religious crank? Because society as a whole depended on his believing, that’s why. If Tartuffe was a charlatan, then why not the king? Why not anyone? Where would this end? We wouldn’t be taken in by something so ridiculous? Would we?
Tartuffe, the English speaker in this bi-lingual (the family he invades speak French among themselves, English to Tartuffe) version set in present day Los Angeles, is a kind of Charles Manson-ish snake charmer, a paragon of gyrating humility, a hippy Uriah Heep in bare feet. Charles Manson, of course, was a social misfit, a crank, a conspiracy theorist par excellence, not to mention a murderer and a madman. Tartuffe, in Molière’s own time, would have been a pillar of the community, an insider’s insider, the perfect expression of how things ought to be. The tension comes from the way his appearance begins to disagree with his behaviour, the way he pushes his luck just a little too far. Charles Manson just went too far, far too far.
And yet the updating works, mainly because in this Charles Manson we see a kind of genius, a real life evil genius to put beside the fictional, such as Hannibal Lecter or Professor Moriarty, and nothing is more believable, good, bad, fictional or otherwise, than genius, individual genius. This is our Tartuffe indeed. Presented with individual genius we have no choice but to believe, to hand over all our worldly goods, to marry off our children in the hope of a brighter future.
We’ve come full circle. We are the reverse of the Seventeenth Century, but no less gullible for all our worldliness. To the poor fools in the Seventeenth Century the outward show expressed the inner soul; to we poor fools of the Twenty-first, the individual genius is the ultimate expression of worth. But where the Seventeenth had something, Descartes duality, the march of science, to look forward to, to strive for, we have what?
Orgon, the rich man in the play who signs over his wealth, his house and his life to Tartuffe, had his family to bring him to his senses and his King (or in this case, Donald Trump’s minion) to save him. We have nothing and no one. Prices for Picassos continue to climb, the captains of industry pay themselves in obscenities, but there is no Descartes to define any kind of duality that would explain why this is so, and to postulate a way out. The thing we really find hard to believe about this production, is that the family sees through the villain. This isn’t the usual experience. The individual genius carries on, unmolested, gathering riches at will.
Perhaps the duality we should be focusing on is the one which divides genius, or creativity from individuality, because though Tartuffe may not get away with making love to Orgon’s wife, as a genius he pretty much gets away with everything else. In fact, though Louis the XIV might have made all whole in the original production of the play, it is perhaps more believable that Donald Trump and his representative in this production would have come down on the side of the fraud, rather than the wealthy Frenchman.
No matter. It was a great treat to hear Moliére’s rhymes in his language, especially as spoken by Audrey Fleurot as Elmire, Orgon’s wife, and Claude Perron as Dorine. It’s as if Moliére were still alive now, pointing us the way to the future.