- Controversy in French Drama: Molière’s Tartuffe and the Struggle for Influence by Julia Prest
Julia Prest’s Controversy in French Drama: Molière’s Tartuffe and the Struggle for Influence elucidates standard narratives of the 1664–69 Tartuffe controversy and adds new dimensions by examining a wide swath of primary and secondary sources. Combining literary criticism, theatre history, political history, and religious history, Prest situates Tartuffe as central to power struggles in the early reign of Louis XIV. She convincingly argues that scholarship on the play has erred in framing Tartuffe’s religious fervor as a true-false question. Though the play exposes Tartuffe as a faux dévot (falsely pious hypocrite), he is never truly placed in contrast with a vrai dévot (true believer). Instead, Prest contends, Molière presents a dangerously secular worldview by proposing that moral goodness can exist outside the Church’s sphere of influence. Chapter headings and subheadings help the reader to see the intricacies of this argument, which progresses through an absorbing narrative. Prest writes in an accessible style, showcasing a wry wit and a flair for building suspense. [End Page 125]
A major strength of this book is the author’s ability to explain the political stakes of religious issues without getting bogged down in theological minutiae. Prest’s expertise in the religious culture of seventeenth-century France is evidenced by her original and engaging readings of sermons of the period. Readers who specialize in dramatic literature will appreciate her laser-sharp focus on how religion relates to Tartuffe and to the consolidation of power by Louis XIV. Prest offers clear and nuanced explanations of the political problem of Jansenism, including its critiques of Jesuit casuistry and lay spiritual advisors, religious arguments for and against theatre, and the powerful yet unpopular Company of the Holy Sacrament. Readers who have a solid understanding of the conflict between Jesuits and Jansenists will find fresh perspective here, while those who have never heard of Jansenism will learn enough to follow Prest’s arguments. An Augustinian sect based in Port-Royal, Jansenism harshly criticized the alleged moral laxity of Jesuitism. Jansenists were perceived as a threat to the monarchy, largely because Jesuits held influential positions at court.
The first chapter introduces these religious issues and several key players in the early reign of Louis XIV who would later become important in the Tartuffe controversy. Prest frames the young king as embodying a tension between mondain and dévot: between worldliness and religious devotion. This tension is also typified by Armand de Bourbon, Prince de Conti. A cousin to the king who was involved in the Fronde rebellion, Conti transformed from a young libertine to a man of extreme piety. After supporting Molière’s theatre troupe in the early 1650s, Conti wrote religiously inspired antitheatrical treatises in the 1660s. His conversion included joining the Company of the Holy Sacrament, a secret organization that aspired to exert religious influence on worldly matters and was best known for its efforts to ban Tartuffe. Prest carefully distinguishes the Company of the Holy Sacrament from Jansenism, despite their similar rejection of worldliness.
Also introduced in the first chapter are François de la Mothe Le Vayer and Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe, who served as preceptors to the king during the 1640s and ended up on opposite sides of the Tartuffe affair in the 1660s. In this chapter and elsewhere, Prest mines the Mémoires of Louis XIV for evidence of the King’s own attitudes toward situations that might be relevant to the Tartuffe controversy. Here, Prest notes the King’s desire, under the influence of his Jesuit confessor, to destroy Jansenism. Theatre was a site of contention among religious groups, with some praising its potential for moral education and others condemning it as immoral. Louis’s mother, Anne of Austria, apparently saw no conflict between mondain and dévot, successfully reconciling her passion for theatre with her religious devotion.
In the next two chapters...