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Reviewed by:
  • Tartuffe
  • Judith G. Miller
Tartuffe. By Molière. Théâtre du Soleil, Paris. 13 January 1996.

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Figure 1.

Damis (Hélène Cinque) and Elmire (Nirupama Nityanandan) in the Théâtre du Soleil’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. Photo: Martine Franck.

Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil continue to take issue, through an inimitable metaphoric thrust and mythic dimension, with the major oppressive forces of our time. For Mnouchkine’s staging of Molière’s Tartuffe, originally commissioned by the 1995 Vienna Festival, the director imagines the eponymous imposter as a religious fundamentalist. Tartuffe here is power-crazed, soulless, and sexually obsessed—with his simple physical presence enough to turn the prideful Orgon into a quivering mass of ferocious obedience. In a terrifying rendition of the famous “under-the-table” scene, Orgon allows Tartuffe to commit a near-rape before finally emerging to stop the assault on Elmire.

Mnouchkine situates the drama in the inner courtyard of an earth-toned Mediterranean villa, walls laden with bougainvillea, crickets relentlessly pulsing, and an upstage entrance marked by a magnificent wrought iron gate. Representatives of the outside world—in skull caps, flowing robes, and veils—penetrate through this opening in hysterical flourishes. The family meanwhile comes and goes in rushes of anxiety on a downstage ramp leading from the multi-leveled, rectangular playing space to the dressing rooms—located just below the banked spectators.

Passionate about interpreting the play as a critique of religious fanaticism, which is signaled expressly as Islamic in the detailed program notes and further suggested by the set and costume designs, Mnouchkine does not choose to build suspense to the moment when the crazed and grotesque Tartuffe arrives in act 3. As a result, in the first half of the production the danger represented by Tartuffe—stunningly reinforced in the second half by the numbing, chanting and fervent presence of a bearded, somber-clothed, and blood-spattered “Tartuffian” brotherhood—is curiously absent. Instead, a long two acts draw the battle lines within the family.

As she did in her production of Les Atrides (The House of Atreus, 1990–92), Mnouchkine ballasts the stage presence of the women characters and establishes their crucial importance in the unfolding confrontation. In the clash of wills opposing Orgon to everyone else in the family, Dorine takes center stage, playing the roles of nanny, housekeeper, and governess—as well as that of the aged and agitated ally of the other women. She cools off hot-tempered family members by dousing them with pitchers of water (a gesture she frequently repeats), [End Page 370] cradles a rag-doll Marianne in her arms when Orgon insists on marrying her off to Tartuffe, and rolls her eyes in Groucho-like exasperation at the petulant and meddlesome Damis—who interestingly is cross-gender cast. This slapstick overlay, echoed in outsized performances by other household members, precludes any sense of foreboding. One has the sense of watching a series of geometrical sketches which physically foreground discrete emotional conflicts, pitting daughter against father, father against son, and wife against husband.

In the superb fifth act, a stepped-up pace and beautifully framed stage pictures at last unite to make palpable the horrors of fanatic religious rule. No longer enmeshed in their own internal battles, the family members, necks bruised by guns and hands pinioned behind heads, look on helplessly as Tartuffe and what appear to be his military assistants appropriate everything that had been the family’s. In this production, Molière’s deus ex machina, the King’s Officer arrests Tartuffe and restores order only after filling his own pockets with whatever loot he can find. A direct reference to the daily outrages perpetrated by both fundamentalists and government in France’s former colony Algeria, these last scenes bring the production to an uneasy close, constructing in the final moments quite a different emotional and political universe than the caricatured quarrels of the first half.

The production’s divided focus may result from a disappointing blend of those very aspects of Mnouchkine’s work which have garnered her acclaim in the past...

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pp. 370-371
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