I was teaching the 17th century French play Tartuffe, by Molière, last week to students in my introduction to drama class. We got into a really interesting discussion about hypocrisy and why phony human beings irritate us so much. Why is being a hypocrite, as the main character is, so annoying, and why do we fight so hard to break the spell they cast over others? While I did not directly bring it up in class, the political parallels felt overwhelming.

A little over a year ago, then-campaigner Donald Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” His arrogance appears to have been well founded, as he became the 45th President of these United States. In the lead up to election day and even since taking office, much has been made of the fact that the real hardcore, die-hard Trumpists can apparently find no fault in their man. There has been much hand wringing over how to “get through” to these folks: facts countering Trump’s various lies don’t seem to help, and neither does pointing out his own hypocrisy. Because of 45’s tendency to fire off Tweets and shout loudly his ideas, there is a rather large “paper trail” of his sentiments that would effectively support many charges of hypocrisy. Whether it is his criticisms of Obama’s vacationing while in office, or his claims on Christianity, or even his image as a real family man, Trumpists typically do not care, no matter how little his current behavior clashes with his previous, heavily publicized, life. This article evens claim that the more the opposing side points out these faults, the more entrenched the Trumpists become, and thus, “liberals” should be quiet and not make a big deal out of things. (I want to add that this article makes a lot of other ridiculous claims that are beyond the scope of this post.)

And this is what brings me to Tartuffe. The play itself has an interesting history–it was performed briefly before being censored by the king and religious groups in France, and eventually Molière revised it enough to the king’s liking so it could be performed again. And while we have no extant copy of whatever the original play script was, the current version we do have demonstrates a savvy, funny analysis of human behavior.

The play centers on the family of Orgon, and his second wife, Elmire. Orgon also has a son, Damis, a daughter, Mariane, and his mother living with him, as well as Mariane’s maid, Dorine. Mariane has been pledged to wed Valère, while Damis is pledged to wed Valère’s sister. Orgon has also welcomed Tartuffe, a homeless, yet strangely pious man, to live under the same roof. The family has come to see Tartuffe for what he is–a con man who has no real religious devotion, but merely preys on Orgon (and to a lesser extent, his mother, who is also a true believer) in order to climb the social ladder. Yet, no matter what his family says, Orgon will not believe them. In his eyes, Tartuffe is a strong, spiritual leader who is ensuring his family’s entrance into Heaven. Sure, they aren’t allowed to have as much fun as they used to, but it is a small price to pay to save their souls.

At first, these are just minor annoyances, but when Orgon breaks the marriage promise between Mariane and Valère and promises her instead to Tartuffe, things get much more serious. First, Mariane is marrying someone of her own station and status, and a man whom she genuinely loves. By marrying Taruffe, she will be breaking both social rules and her heart’s own desires. Second, her brother Damis is pledged to wed Valère’s sister, and this new contract with Tartuffe ruins his own prospects, as well. It is this erosion of already-established norms that snaps Orgon’s family into action.

Dorine tries to tell Orgon that Tartuffe, the supposedly meek, ascetic holy man has eaten and drank his way through Lady Elmire’s sickness, and Orgon can only muster sympathy for Tartuffe. Damis tries to tell his father that Tartuffe is saying wicked things about Elmire and trying to seduce her, and Orgon only shouts at Damis for telling him lies. But it is what he says in response to Damis’ pleas that really sparked my interest:

“You all hate him. And I saw today, you,

Wife, servants–everyone beneath my roof–

Are trying everything to force Tartuffe

Out of my house–this holy man, my friend.

The more you try to banish him and end

Our sacred brotherhood, the more secure

His place is. I have never been more sure

Of anyone. I give him as his bride

My daughter, If that hurts the family pride,

Then good. It needs humbling. You understand?”

Orgon here demonstrates the strange intractability that we often find in the radicalized individual. As the family criticizes Tartuffe, Orgon becomes more entrenched in his position. No amount of talk will ever convince the radical that their Dear Leader or friend is fooling them and taking advantage of their faith. It is not until Orgon sees Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of his wife with his own eyes (or ears) that he changes his mind.

And this brings me back to the beginning, with Trump’s claim that he could murder people in broad daylight and fear no dip in his support. He may have been right, and thankfully, he never demonstrated his theory. But a populace who refuses to see what is really happening and only doubles down on a misguided belief when shown true facts is one we should all fear. Ironically, perhaps, the savior of the play is not Orgon or Damis, but the King himself, who rights the wrongs done to Orgon’s household when Tartuffe usurps the deed to the home and tries to evict the family. The King’s messenger states, “We have a king who sees into men’s hearts/And cannot be deceived, so he imparts/Great wisdom, and a talent for discernment.” The head of state is shown to be wise, just, and kind. And most importantly, one who cannot be fooled.

Reading List:

Tartuffe – you can read for free here at Project Gutenberg

The above quotes were taken from the translation by Virginia Scott & versification by Constance Congdon, found in The Norton Anthology of Drama, Eds Gainor, et al. W.W. Norton, 2nd Ed. 2014.


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