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The King's Play: Censorship and the Politics of Performance in Moliere's Tartuffe Michael Spingler Moliere began to solve the problem of incorporating critical views of society and politics into the structure of his plays during the five years between 1664 and 1669 when he struggled against Tartuffe's persecutors. His difficulties in getting the play back on the boards and his refusal to concede completely to royal and religious authority made political and religious cen­ sorship and the possibilities of avoiding them a central concern of the work. Moliere had to find a strategy for preserving the independence of his vision and the integrity of his dramatic thought while ostensibly submitting to the censorship of the religious party (La cabale des divots) and the King. The strategy he developed involves transfonning theater into a selfconscious instrument of ironic political and social commentary. Tartuffe may be considered Moliere's exemplary political work, framing and illuminating the strategies of both Dom Juan and Le Misan­ thrope. An examination of how the play embodies his concerns may help us to recognize the nature of his political and social criticism in the other plays of his mature period and also to understand his exploration of the politics of perfonnance. In Tartuffe, Moliere uses the established conventions and well-used dramatic fonnulae imposed upon him by an authori­ tarian system of politics and manners as a way of criticizing that system, in particular its excessive reliance upon perfonnance as a means of self-authentication. Moliere addresses the question of what may be mounted on the seventeenth-century stage, and he makes the issue of the limits of theater-what is allowable on stage-the basis for an attack upon those limits. Tartuffe MICHAEL SPINGLER is Associate Professor of French and Director of the Program in Comparative Literature at Clark University. Professor Spingler has pub­ lished widely on French drama. 240 I I Michael Spingler 241 identflies Louis XIV as the ultimate source of what may or may not be performed both on the stage and in the world. The play thus becomes an exploration of the extent to which all performance-theatrical, social, moral, and political-is depen­ dent upon the King's pleasure, that is, upon his power to censor. I will show in what follows that Tartuffe may be read, and staged, as Moliere's critique of the King's role in a performed world-i.e., as a critique ironically disguised as conventional flattery of the monarch. Censorship becomes the masked source within the play of the problematic way that it works on stage, the motivating force behind a number of self-referential theatrical concerns centered around the relationship between the play and its society and audience. These concerns combine to form a struc­ ture based on the presence within the play of a number of spectator-characters who watch other characters trapped in a performance which ricochets between conflicting endings. The spectators-in-the-play then intervene in an attempt to achieve the ending they desire. Both inside the play and outside of the performance which is underway, they intrude to stop a scene or even the play itself, acts which resemble censoring. These interventions by the spectator-characters are made necessary by the dilemma of closure in Tartuffe, a dilemma which itself has its origins in the history of the banning of the play by the King and les devots. The players are caught up in the question of which ending will win out in Tartuffe. Will it be a conventional high comic resolution in which the scoundrel will be exposed and punished? Or will it be the subversive farcical ending of the first version banned in 1664 in which Tartuffe seduces Elmire and routs Orgon?l The persistent re­ turn of the discredited and censored ending, reflecting perhaps Moliere's secret allegiance to it, causes Orgon and his family to become trapped in a play suspended between rival endings in which the power of closure has been lost. They become caught in a performance which they themselves may have contrived and initiated but over which they have lost control. Assuming control of performance and possessing the power...


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pp. 240-257
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