Mar 12, 2015

All the World's a Comedy: La Tartuffe


Who needs Shakespeare, when you've got Molière? The staple of every middle and high schooler's French literature diet, I can tell you from experience that Molière is also the favorite of teachers of French in foreign countries as well. And with good reason. He's funny, but in that highly erudite, 17th century kind of way.

I didn't include any Molière on my Lit Snob Cheat Sheet, mostly because nearly all of his plays are well known and quoted among the French. I would have had to put the whole list up there. But now that Gigi is sitting around reading L'Avare, I can no longer ignore him.

It's hard to ignore him for long in Paris, anyway, especially if you're walking through the 1st arrondissement, which has not only a rue Molière but also, at the end of it, where it intersects with rue de Richelieu, a statue of him

Just down the block is la Comédie Française, the grand-dame of French theater and home to many a production of Molière.
The theater is called la Comédie Française, and the actors are called comédiens/comédiennes, but that doesn't mean it's always comedy. "Comédie" in French means "drama" in general, and as such the statues flanking Molière are Comédie Sérieuse (Serious Drama) and Comédie Légère (Light Comedy). Shakespeare's tragedies would, therefore, be comédies in French. This can be confusing when somebody refers to Jeremy Irons or Jodie Foster as their favorite "comédiens". Molière, however, really did write just comedy -- in the English sense of the word -- though generally they delivered a serious message amidst the laughter.
There is, of course, a statue of Molière prominently displayed at the Comédie Française. 
But also of Dumas, Voltaire, and other great men of French letters (and yes, just men, for the moment).

I see Le Misanthrope (which first opened in 1666) at the Comédie Française (which opened in 1680), on a last-minute whim, buying a 9€ (yes, 9!) from a student who had an extra. I'm in the nosebleed seats, front row on the top floor, yet it's one of the best theater seats I've ever had. I don't have to look over or through anybody, so it's perfect for a short person.
I have just enough time to take photos of the beautiful theater and read the first line of the program notes, "Alceste aime Célimène..." ("Alceste loves Célimène"), before the lights dim.
  • Act I, Scene 1: Alceste, a French nobleman, is overacting. Why is he screaming everything? I wish he would stop screaming, because it makes it hard to understand the words.
  • Act I, Scene 2: What I should pack for Portugal? I wonder if I could do a painting of the theater's interior, or if it would be too hard? Is there a gymnastics meet this weekend or next? Ack! Wait! My mind wondered and now I really don't know what he's saying. Or screaming, rather.
  • Act I, Scene 3: I cannot figure out why he's filled with such angst. Must. Concentrate. On Difficult. French. I forgot to make a haircut appointment. Crap -- my mind is wandering again.
  • Act II, Scene 1: Célimène arrives on stage. She is a nice counterbalance to Alceste in that she is under-acting, which may not be a word, but it's what she's doing. The good thing about her slow, monotonous voice, good diction, and calm delivery is that I can understand her. I feel a momentary surge of pride: "Look at me! I am understanding Molière in French!" (at least, for these few lines).
  • Act II, Scene 2: Célimène's friend Eliante appears on stage. Hey, she has a baby voice, too!
  • Act II, Scene 3: What I'm getting here is that this love affair between Alceste and Célimène isn't going very well. And that some other noblewoman has come on the scene. And that Alceste is never going to deliver any of his lines in anything but a scream.
  • Act II, Scene 4: I'm beginning to feel like I'm back in Japan, with the high, girly, cutesy baby voiced women and the men dramatically overacting. Perhaps it's just a cultural, stylistic thing, and everybody else in the theater thinks their acting is just fine. And now I'm thinking of Japan, and Kabuki theater. And I realize my mind has wandered, and I'm lost again.
  • Act II, Scene 5: It's not really a hold-your-sides comedy, is it? But the French audience members are laughing now and then. And they're very attentive. My French friend saw it with her husband, and tells me he agreed with everything the Misanthrope said about humanity's awfulness. I would appreciate this anecdote more if I understood everything the Misanthrope said about humanity's awfulness.
  • Act II, Scene 6: I haven't slept well the past couple nights, it's 10pm in a dark theater, and my eyelids are starting to get very heavy.
  • Act III, Scene 1: I'm on the metro going home.
  • Act III, Scene 2: Climbing into bed now.
  • Act III, Scene 3 - Act V, Scene 4: I am totally at peace not knowing how it ends until I read the synopsis tomorrow. 
Like Shakespeare, Molière wasn't just a playwright. He was also an actor in the troupe, a director and producer who put on his own plays, and even the director of several theaters over time. He was amazingly prolific, especially for somebody who died so young (age 51 in 1673). He was one of the rare writers in history who got to enjoy the fruits of his great success during his lifetime -- sometimes, that is. The King's brother became his patron in 1658 (when he was 36), and King Louis XIV himself the following year. He was and, in his own way, still is, prominent at Versailles.
His best-known plays, at least according to my high school French teacher and, therefore, by me, are Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, A Doctor Despite Himself, the Miser, the Imaginary Invalid, and The Would-Be Gentleman (sometimes translated as The Middle Class Gentleman). I can barely write those titles in English; they just seem so wrong. That's Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope, Le Médecin Malgré Lui, L'Avare, Le Malade Imaginaire, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Which isn't to say that there aren't some well-known gems among his other thirty or so plays.
Tartuffe, performed in 1664, was the most controversial of his works, and it was not only banned but caused a falling out with the King and earned him other enemies. In very, very brief: Tartuffe is an imposter (in fact, the alternate title is "L'Imposteur") who worms his way into a noble household with his false piety and then takes power over the house and family. All's well that ends well, both in the play and in life: since being banned by the King, it's become one of Molière's most enduring works over time. In fact, it's the play most performed at la Comédie Française with over 3,000 performances so far.
Even to this day, the word "Tartuffe" is synonymous with "hypocrite" in French, especially with religion behind the hypocrisy. Modern French also offers "tartufisme", "tartufer", "tartufferie", and "tartuffard", nearly all of which can be spelled with either one or two Fs -- an inconsistent quirk of how the title Tartuffe (sometimes spelled Tartufe) is written.
I get the feeling Molière would have appreciated the irony in his own death: During a 1673 performance of The Imaginary Invalid, Molière -- who was playing the main character hypochondriac Argan -- had a coughing fit caused by his pulmonary tuberculosis and hemorrhaged. The show must go on, and all that, so he finished out the play; hours later, he died.

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Molière to the French (and, therefore, to the French students, and foreign students of French). While the Bard's English refers specifically to the language that Shakespeare used, the French sometimes call their own language that they speak "la langue de Molière" (the language of Molière). But really, there's no reason to shout it.

THE CHEESE: La Tartuffe

La Tartuffe is a cheese you will only find at the Laurent Dubois fromageries. It's a custom-made cheese -- Ossau Iraty layered with summer truffles. It's raw sheeps' milk, therefore, and a strong, delicious, hard cheese. But the truffles change it so entirely, you really can't get much of the original Ossau Iraty. The truffles absolutely permeate the cheese. And the cheese bag. And the apartment. When I opened it up, could you not smell it from wherever you were?

I have a particular, odd opinion of truffles. I like them, but I think they taste like I'm having dental work done. There's some sort of odd, metallic taste I get in the back of my mouth, which makes me start salivating, and from there I'm just a spit away from getting a fluoride treatment. And yet, I still like them. I don't love them as much as I do regular, non-truffle mushrooms (and, at 89€/kg or $45/lb for the cheese, and 1800€/kg or $910/lb for plain truffles, thank goodness!), but the dental-work aspect of it doesn't turn me off nearly as much as one would expect.

Having told you my opinion of truffles in general, I must say that this cheese is incredible, magnificent, amazing, stupendous. People at the cheese party attack it with an unusual ferocity, and with good reason. It's both visually appealing and has a smell that says, "Try me (if you dare)!" So we do, and the combination of the cheese and the truffles is something unique: ultra-intensely earthly, with a creamy sweetness. Heavenly -- but too expensive to keep buying it on a regular basis!


La Tartuffe is not just the name of the cheese but also of one of the most famous plays by Molière. There is no hypocrisy -- religious or otherwise -- behind the cheese. It's a delicious, high-quality Ossau Iraty-like cheese layered with delicious truffles. The name is not a condemnation but rather a nod to Molière and also a slight jeu de mots (play on words): Tartuffe (pronounced "tar-TOOF") sounds a lot like the French word for truffles, "truffes" (TROOF).


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