I’m halfway through Fariba’s Molière May Readalong and enjoying it immensely! Here are some thoughts on the first two plays while they are still fresh in my mind.
The Bourgeois Gentleman (Le Bourgeois gentilhomme), 1670
This play follows the antics of a middle-aged, middle-class man named M. Jourdain, who spends his life pursuing upward mobility at the expense of his dignity and his family’s happiness. This would be a rather dark story, except that Jourdain has the gravitas of a hilarious Dickens character, eager to lend money to any superior who asks it of him and pursuing numerous “accomplishments” such as dancing, fencing, and singing, which frustrate his wife to no end. Meanwhile, his daughter and would-be son-in-law plot to get him to assent to their wedding, though Jourdain has plans for his daughter to marry nobility instead.
While reading the text, I listened to the LibriVox audiobook with a full cast, which was really entertaining and made for some LOL moments, like when Jourdain was learning how to enunciate his vowels. I was surprised how modern the characterization was (or wrong my expectations were)—Mme. Jourdain was my favorite as the exasperated wife who saw through every bit of nonsense. There are some dated racial references in this play towards the ending (though it seemed to me to still be mocking Jourdain rather than the race). Other than that, a very amusing story, with plenty of relevant points for us today.
Tartuffe is a bit similar to the previous play in that the main character Orgon is also a middle-aged man completely taken in by other, nefarious characters. In this case, the antagonist is Tartuffe himself, an outwardly pious man with an inwardly devious design against Orgon, his family, and his estate. Orgon’s obsession with Tartuffe makes him blind to his family’s better judgment, but they band together to try to set things right and save him from Tartuffe (and himself).
Tartuffe got Molière in quite a bit of trouble because the original version was viewed as an attack against the Roman Catholic church. Unfortunately, as Fariba mentioned, we don’t have the original to read for ourselves. In this revised version, Tartuffe is merely a moralizer, not a cleric, and it is made clear by other characters’ commentary that he doesn’t represent the whole of the church but is a bad apple (no pun intended).
In spite of the ending—which was quite contrived to make the monarchy look good—I enjoyed this play even more than The Bourgeois Gentleman. The dialogue is tighter, and the presence of an actual villain raises the stakes, although there’s still plenty of comedy. I thought the whole story felt very true to life, whether we’re talking about 17th century France or 21st century U.S., where there are still “Tartuffes” who wheedle money out of emotionally vulnerable people in the name of so-called Christianity.
My first impressions of Molière are really positive, so I’m glad I gave his plays a try! There’s three more to come: The School for Wives, Don Juan, and The Misanthrope. Fariba is hosting a live stream discussion on her YouTube channel every Sunday at 1PM PST, which has been a fun, informal way of reviewing the readings as a group.