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"Pourquoi sous cette table?": More Candlelight on Molière's Tartuffe

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 167-200 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0022

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Voici, tout juste, un Lieu propre à servir de Scène; et voilà deux Flambeaux pour éclairer la Comédie.

—Le Sicilien, ou, L'Amour peintre, 1668

Et vous, allumez deux bougies dans mes flambeaux d'argent: il se fait déjà tard.

—La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, 1671

The "table scene" in Molière's Tartuffe has generated its own visual afterlife, with a long history of illustration beginning with the frontispiece to the second 1669 edition of the play, often attributed to François Chauveau (fig. 1), which served as the basis for the later illustration of the play by Pierre Brissart in the 1682 collected works (fig. 2). For some time, scholars have attempted to clarify the meaning of these (and other) early illustrations and their role in understanding what seventeenth-century audiences actually saw during the scene when Tartuffe attempts to seduce Elmire while her husband, Orgon, hides unceremoniously beneath the eponymous table. Roger Herzel and Stephen Dock have put the available iconographic evidence to excellent use for the study of décor and costumes, respectively, each treating the "table scene" within a much larger context, even as Michael Hawcroft and others, driven more by a hermeneutics of suspicion, caution that care should be taken to account for the "discontinuities" of text and image when dealing with theatrical illustrations as documentary evidence.

Neglected in the study of French theater generally, and with Molière (and this play, and this scene) more specifically, is the important function and meaning of stage properties that audiences actually saw. Recent scholarship in theater studies has taken up the investigation of stage objects and props from a materialist perspective. However, their significance within the public theaters in late seventeenth-century Paris, despite an abundance of evidence for their existence and deployment within significant drama, has been generally overlooked. While neoclassical dramatic theory may have prohibited the excessive use of stage objects, there can be no denying that there was a judicious proliferation of properties on the French stage, and they warrant investigation from a number of perspectives.

Stage properties demand what cultural theorist Arjun Appadurai has called a "cultural biography" of objects. Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda further specify:

Objects, in Appadurai's words, possess "life histories" or "careers" of exchange that invest them with social significance and cultural value. According to this view, objects do not simply acquire meaning by virtue of their present social contexts; rather, they impart significance to those contexts as a result of the paths they have traced through time and space. The significance a particular object assumes thus derives from the differential relation of its present context to its known or assumed past, and potential future, contexts. In order to read the meanings of any object, then, it becomes necessary to trace its "cultural biography" as it "moves through different hands, contexts, and uses."

Harris and Korda have thus noted that the changing meaning of objects, including stage objects and their relation to everyday life, is not only worthy of diachronic investigation, but that an investigation of an object's historical trajectory may be necessary to understand and fully appreciate its meaning in any particular context. What an object might become in the future bears on what an object means in the present and what that object may have meant at any moment in time. This is in accord with Andrew Sofer's methodology in his seminal The Stage Life of Props, wherein he explores the historical trajectory of significant stage properties through much of English dramatic history, most notably that of the (un)consecrated host, the handkerchief, the skull, the fan, and the gun. For Sofer, stage properties are of particular interest to the theater historian because of their curious temporality: "On the one hand, props are unidirectional: they are propelled through stage space and real time before historically specific audiences at a given performance event. At the same time, props are retrospective: in Marvin Carlson's apt expression, they are 'ghosted' by their previous stage incarnations, and hence by a theatrical past they both embody and critique." Stage objects, therefore, are always embedded in a complex temporal context, at once resonating the past, present...

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