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Elmire, by Tammy Grimes http://shop.broadwaydesignexchange.com/TAMMY-GRIMES-AS-ELMIRE-IN-TARTUFFE-Costume-by-Zack-Brown-00019-04-00016.htm
Elmire, Tartuffe, by Tammy Grimes, 1977; costume by Zack Brown

This post is based on an article originally posted on 7 January 2012. In its earlier version, it had to do with Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.[i] However, I used Molière‘s Le Tartuffe as an example. This time, the emphasis is on Molière’s Tartuffe

Northrop Frye: a Conceptual Framework

Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays was published by Northrop Frye in 1957. In his Polemical Introduction, Frye emphasizes the importance of approaching literature with “a conceptual framework,”[ii] so one can uncover a literary work’s organizing principles. In this regard, Frye refers to Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 BCE). However, he also reveals archetypes shared by comedy from the plays of Greek dramatists Aristophanes (c. 446 BCE – c.386 BCE) and Menander c. 341/92 BCE – c. 290 BCE) to Beaumarchais. (See list Greek dramatists in  Ancient Greek Comedy, Wikipedia.)

Comedy: the characters as “archetypes”

Frye describes comedy as we know it. It is a genre where a young couple, or young couples, have to overcome obstacles, in order to marry. They are usually opposed by a pater familias, descendent of the heavy father of Roman New Comedy[iii] (Plautus [c. 254 –184 BCE] and Terence [195/185 –159 BCE]), to the more buffoon-like stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. Usually the young lovers (Mariane and Valère) are helped by servants, suivant-e-s, valets, confident-e-s,[iv] friends, siblings, a mother (Elmire) or, at times, an avuncular (good uncle) figure such as Le Tartuffe‘s Cléante. (Le Tartuffe or  Tartuffe is the title of the play and Tartuffe, the name of the impostor who goes to prison at the end of the play). In Le Tartuffe, we have a complete cast.

The Plot: all’s well that ends well

Comedy has its archetypal figures and it is an “all’s-well-that-ends-well” narrative, but theories can be reductive. No two trees are alike. Therefore, although we require “a conceptual framework,” the goal is not merely to state that an author is using or not using a customary narrative and archetypal figures. In the case of Le Tartuffe, the impostor feigns devotion, yet covets Orgon’s wife and is also in possession of seriously incriminating information. In such circumstances, dramatists may use a deus ex machina to bring about the traditional happy ending of comedy. Therefore, Le Tartuffe is both the same as other comedies and unique.

Molière’s Le Tartuffe: the hypocrite

A play-within-a-play: the discovery

For instance, in Molière’s Le Tartuffe, Tartuffe who feigns piety, has so bewitched a vulnerable Orgon, the heavy father, that members of his family have to put on a little play-within-the-play to show Orgon, the comedy’s father, that Tartuffe is a hypocrite and that, far from turning his back on the pleasures of the flesh, he is “gros et gras” (“big and fat;” Act I, sc. iv) and wants to seduce Orgon’s wife, and nearly succeeds.

Hidden under a table, Orgon, the pater familias is made to see Tartuffe trying to seduce his wife and realizes, too late, that he has been fooled. Orgon’s daughter will not have to marry Tartuffe, but Orgon cannot get rid of the impostor, because Tartuffe is privy to knowledge that could cause Orgon to be thrown in jail.

Tartuffe dans la pièce du même nom de Molière. Gouache (XVIIIe siècle) de Fesch et Whirsker. Archives Larbor

Tartuffe dans la pièce du même nom de Molière. Gouache (XVIIIe siècle) de Fesch et Whirsker. (Photo credit: Larousse)

 (Please click on the images in order to enlarge them.)

Monsieur Loyal, Edmond Geffroy

Monsieur Loyal, by Edmond Geffroy

The Deus ex machina or divine intervention

At the beginning of Act V, sc. iv, a huissier (a bailiff), Monsieur Loyal, depicted above, comes to notify Orgon that Tartuffe now owns Orgon’s house. Fortunately, given the conventions of comedy, the family will be saved. An exempt, or deus ex machina, arrives just in time, an instance of kairos* (the right timing) and an element of fairy tales, to tell the family that Tartuffe is a villain who will be thrown in jail. Orgon is saved by an insightful “Prince.”

*For the Greeks of Antiquity, time was kairos (the moment; vertical),
chronos (the duration; horizontal),
and aeon (eternity).

Therefore, Tartuffe is a play where characters favouring the traditional marriage of comedy have very little power. It is therefore a problematical play because it stretches the “all’s-well-that-ends-well” to its limits. Molière wrote several problematical plays. In the “Figaro trilogy,” Figaro can oust Bégearss, but Tartuffe owns Orgon’s House. There is no salvation from within the comedy itself, yet comedies have a happy ending. The young couple, Orgon’s daughter Mariane and Valère, must be free to marry.

The Pharmakos

Northrop Frye writes that “[t]he pharmakos is neither innocent nor guilty.”[v] Pharmakos is the Greek word for “scapegoat.” In Ancient Greece, the pharmakos was often sacrificed. In Molière’s Le Tartuffe, the pharmakos is not sacrificed, but he is vilified, although he is not entirely to blame. In Le Tartuffe, the villain has been empowered by Orgon, the father in the comedy. Orgon has let himself be blinded by his own needs. Therefore, the removal of the pharmakos is somewhat ritualistic. Tartuffe is a scapegoat.

In fact, there is nothing pious about Tartuffe, except in Orgon’s eyes and in the eyes of Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle. If everyone else sees Tartuffe as he is, Orgon is in dire need of Tartuffe. Tartuffe can lift (lever) sins away. What he says to Elmire, who does not want to sin by making love with Tartuffe, is evidence of seventeenth-century Jesuit casuistry (see Casuistry, or how to sin without sinning).

Si ce n’est que le Ciel qu’à mes vœux l’on oppose,
Lever un tel obstacle est à moi peu de chose,
Et cela ne doit pas retenir votre cœur.
If it’s only God that opposes my desire,
I’ll think up a way to make him conspire,
And that need not restrain your heart, my dear
(Act IV, sc. v)


Since he can make arrangements with God, Tartuffe allows Orgon to be tyrannical with impunity. Orgon’s family convinces the pater familias to hide under the table so he can hear and see his “frère,” as he calls Tartuffe, attempt to seduce his wife Elmire. So Orgon crouches under the table shielded by the tablecloth, a makeshift curtain, and, to his profound dismay, he learns the truth. He is so surprised that he has difficulty rescuing his poor wife.

Orgon has therefore learned the truth, but too late. Monsieur Loyal, beautifully depicted by Edmond Geffroy (20 July 1804 – 1895), an artist, actor, and member (sociétaire) of the Comédie-Française, is at the door ready to collect all of Orgon’s possessions Tartuffe has appropriated. Fortunately, a “Prince,” has seen the truth so Tartuffe, not Orgon, is arrested by l’Exempt. This allows members of Orgon’s family and servants (zanni) to be reunited at the end of the play.

Scene from Tartuffe  Jacobus Buys

Scene from Tartuffe, by
Jacobus Buys (Photo credit: Google images)


Sources and Resources

Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye, CC, FRSC (14 July 1912 – 23 January 1991) was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was raised in New Brunswick, studied in Toronto (Victoria College, University of Toronto) and at Oxford (Merton College). He became a minister in the United Church, and then spent most of his life teaching at the University of Toronto (Victoria College), where he was an inspiration to his students as he has been to me.

He wrote his thesis on William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827), one of English literature’s most fascinating figures.  Entitled Fearful Symmetry, Frye’s thesis was published in 1947, but he has published numerous other studies, all of which are listed in Wikipedia’s entry on Northrop Frye.

[i] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1973 [1957]).

[ii] See Commedia dell’arte, Wikipedia.

[iii] “commedia erudita.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 21 Jul. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/top/127767/commedia-erudita>.

[iv] Frye, op. cit., p. 15.

[v] Frye, op. cit., p. 41.

Jean-Philippe Rameau – Pièces de clavecin en concert N° 5 (La Forqueray) / Il Giardino Armonico

Elmire & Tartuffe

Elmire & Tartuffe (Photo credit: Googles images)

© Micheline Walker
7 January 2012
revised 20 July 2014