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[tahr-toof, -toof; Fr. tar-tyf]

Tartuffe (full title: Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite, French: Tartuffe, ou l'Imposteur) is a comedy by Molière, and arguably his most famous play. It was written in and first performed in 1664 at the fêtes held at Versailles, and almost immediately censored by the outcry of the dévots ("devout" [people]), who were very influential in the court of King Louis XIV. While the king had little interest in suppressing the play, he eventually did so because of the dévots. The word dévots referred to those who claimed to be very religious, but as Molière points out in Tartuffe, these same people were often religious hypocrites.

Main characters

*Madame Pernelle, Orgon's mother
*Orgon, head of the house and husband of Elmire
*Elmire, Orgon's second wife
*Damis, son of Orgon
*Mariane, daughter of Orgon, betrothed to Valère
*Valère, In love with Mariane
*Cléante, Elmire's brother
*Tartuffe, falsely pious man who fools Orgon and Mme. Pernelle
*Dorine, servant and companion to Mariane,
*Monsieur Loyal, a bailiff
*Un exempt (the King's officer)
*Flipote, servant of Madame Pernelle (non-speaking)
*Laurent, Tartuffe's servant (either unseen, or present but non-speaking)
*Argas, friend of Orgon; entrusts Orgon with documents that Tartuffe steals and attempts to use against Orgon (never seen, only spoken of. Many others are like this — mentioned in passing, but never seen.)

Setting: Paris, 1660s, house of Orgon

Brief synopsis

As the play begins, the well-off Orgon is convinced that Tartuffe is a man of great religious zeal and fervor. In fact, Tartuffe is a scheming hypocrite. He is interesting as a character in that he gets around Orgon not by telling lies, but by allowing him to use his power as the master of the household over everyone else. By the time Tartuffe is exposed and Orgon renounces him, Tartuffe has legal control of his finances and family, and is about to steal all of his wealth and marry his daughter — all at Orgon's own invitation. At the very last minute, the king intervenes, and Tartuffe is condemned to prison.

As a consequence, the word tartuffe is used in contemporary French, and also in English, to designate a hypocrite who ostensibly and exaggeratedly feigns virtue, especially religious virtue.

The entire play is written in 1,962 12-syllable lines (alexandrines) of rhyming couplets.

Detailed synopsis

Orgon's family is up in arms because Orgon and his mother have fallen under the influence of Tartuffe, a religious fraud (and a vagrant prior to Orgon's help). Tartuffe pretends to be pious and to speak with divine authority, and Orgon and his mother no longer take any action without first consulting him. One could even say Orgon has a single-minded obsession with Tartuffe, as clearly demonstrated in Act I, Scene 5.

The rest of the family and their kings are not fooled by Tartuffe's antics and detest him. The stakes are raised when Orgon announces that he will marry Tartuffe to his daughter Mariane (already engaged to Valère). Mariane is, of course, very upset at this news and the rest of the family realizes how deeply Tartuffe has embedded himself into the family.

In an effort to show Orgon how awful Tartuffe really is, the family devises a plan to trap Tartuffe into confessing to Elmire his desire for her. As a pious man and a guest he should have no such feelings for the lady of the house, and the family hopes that after such a confession, Orgon will throw Tartuffe out of the house. Indeed, Tartuffe does try to seduce Elmire, but their interview is interrupted when Orgon's son, Damis, who has been eavesdropping, can't take it anymore and jumps out of his hiding place to denounce Tartuffe.

Tartuffe is at first shocked but recovers very well. When Orgon enters the room and Damis triumphantly tells him what happened, Tartuffe uses reverse psychology and accuses himself of being the worst sinner:

''Oui, mon frère, je suis un méchant, un coupable.
Un malheureux pécheur tout plein d'iniquité
(Yes, brother, I am evil through and through,
Guilty, full of iniquity and sin) (
Orgon is convinced that Damis was lying, and banishes him from the house. Tartuffe even gets Orgon to order that, to teach Damis a lesson, Tartuffe should be around Elmire more than ever. As a gift to Tartuffe and further punishment to Damis and the rest of his family, Orgon signs over all his worldly possessions to Tartuffe.

In a later scene, Elmire takes up the charge again and challenges Orgon to be witness to a meeting between herself and Tartuffe. Orgon, ever easily convinced, decides to hide under a table in the same room, confident that Elmire is wrong. He overhears, of course, Elmire resisting Tartuffe's very forward advances. When Tartuffe has incriminated himself beyond all help and is dangerously close to violating Elmire, Orgon comes out from under the table and orders Tartuffe out of his house.

But this wily guest means to stay, and Tartuffe finally shows his hand. It's revealed that earlier, before the events of the play, Orgon had admitted to Tartuffe that he was in possession of a box of incriminating letters (written by a friend, not him). Tartuffe had taken care to take this box and now tells Orgon that he must leave the house if he does not want to be exposed. Tartuffe takes his temporary leave and Orgon's family tries to figure out what to do.

Later that day, Tartuffe returns with a police officer to begin the eviction. But to his surprise, the police officer arrests him instead. The enlightened King Louis XIV (name not mentioned in play) has heard of the injustices happening in the house and decides to arrest Tartuffe instead. Even Madame Pernelle is convinced by this time of Tartuffe's chicanery, and the entire family thanks its lucky stars that it has escaped the mortification of leaving their house to a man with a long criminal history, changing his name often to avoid being caught.

Controversy surrounding the play

Though Tartuffe was received well by the public and even by Louis XIV, it immediately sparked conflict amongst many different groups who were offended by the play. The factions opposed to Molière's work included the Roman Catholic Church, members of upper-class French society, and the powerful underground organization called the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement. Tartuffe's popularity was cut short when the Archbishop of Paris issued an edict threatening excommunication for anyone who watched, performed in, or read the play. Molière attempted to assuage church officials by re-writing his play to seem more secular and less critical of religion, but the church could not be budged. The revised version of the play was called L'imposteur and had a main character titled Panulphe instead of Tartuffe. Even throughout Molière's conflict with the church, Louis XIV continued to support the playwright; it is possible that without the King's support, Molière might have been executed for heresy. In 1669, after Molière's detractors lost much of their influence, he was finally allowed to perform the final version of his play. However, due to all the controversy surrounding Tartuffe, Molière mostly refrained from writing such incisive plays as this one again.

Molière responded to criticism of Tartuffe in 1667 with his Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur. He sought to justify his play and his approach to comedy in general by underlining the comedic value of the juxtaposition of good and bad, right and wrong, and wisdom and folly. These humorous elements in turn were intended to highlight what is actually rational. In his Lettre he wrote:

The comic is the outward and visible form that nature's bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it. To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence and we must see wherein the rational consists . . . incongruity is the heart of the comic . . . it follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.



  • A stage production of Richard Wilbur's translation of the play opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 1977 and was restaged for television the following year on PBS, with Donald Moffat replacing John Wood as Tartuffe, and co-starring Tammy Grimes and Patricia Elliott.
  • Liz Lochhead translated and adapted Tartuffe into Scots in 1985; this premiered at the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in 1987 and was revived at the same theatre on January 7, 2006.
  • A version was performed at the National Theatre in London, England in 1990 by the Tara Arts Theatre Company. The Tara Arts version was in English but the play was restyled to the format of Indian theatre, set in the court of Aurangazeb and began with a salam in Urdu.
  • A translation into modern English by playwright Ranjit Bolt, published by Absolute Classics, 1991 (ISBN 0-948230-50-9) has been produced on the stage in Britain and abroad.
  • Tartuffe: Born Again This modern adaptation casts Tartuffe as a deposed televangelist. The action takes place in a religious television studio in Baton Rouge where the characters cavort to either prevent or aid Tartuffe in his machinations. Written in modern verse, Tartuffe: Born Again adheres closely to the structure and form of the original.
  • A second version by Ranjit Bolt (first performed at the National Theatre, London, in 2002) is published by Oberon Books ISBN 1840022604
  • James Scotland adapted the play into Scots, titled The Holy Terror, which was revived to considerable critical acclaim in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 by Edinburgh People's Theatre.
  • A 2007 translation by Justin Fleming for the first time uses a variety of verse forms respectively for truth, love and hypocrisy. It had its world premiere by the Melbourne Theatre Company, 2008, in the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.
  • Chris Martin adapted the play in 2007. It was performed in Fayetteville, AR at the University of Arkansas. Martin's adaptation is titled Sinclair and takes place in the home of a future Republican presidential candidate on the day of elections.
  • Australian actor and screenwriter Louise Fox adapted and modernised the play, setting it in a mansion in Toorak, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. This version premiered in the Merlyn Theatre at the CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, on February 20, 2008, ending its run the following month, with Marcus Graham as Tartuffe and Barry Otto as Orgon.
  • A new translation by the Liverpudlian poet, Roger McGough premièred at the Liverpool Playhouse in May 2008, transferring to the Rose Theatre, Kingston.
  • A new adaptation by James Wilkes for the English theatre company Belt Up (Nothing to see/hear) premiered at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The production sees the play modernised with Orgon presented as an old actor obsessed with his public image using Tartuffe for publicity purposes. The adaptation sees a 'fallen from grace' old Orgon looking back at the man who ruined his life, telling his story with the assistance of a troupe of decrepit variety acts.
  • A new adaptation by Rob Messik, first performed in The Deans Hall, Berkhamsted is to enjoy another brief run at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008. The production, performed by Greene Shoots Theatre at C Venues on Chambers Street from 10–16 August inclusive. Orgon becomes a publicity hungry MP and his servants, PA’s. A chorus of paparazzi link the shortened scenes and create an ‘ensemble’ style, whilst maintaining the voyeuristic element from the original. The acting style makes use of physical theatre, chorus work, farce and slapstick. The adapted script, written entirely in verse, seems to add to the sense of ridicule.


  • The film Herr Tartüff was produced by Ufa in 1926. It was directed by F. W. Murnau and starred Emil Jannings as Tartuffe, Lil Dagover as Elmire and Werner Krauss as Orgon.
  • A 2007 French film entitled Molière contains many references, both direct and indirect, to Tartuffe, the most notable of which is that the character of Moliére masquerades as a priest and calls himself "Tartuffe." The end of the film implies that Moliére went on to write Tartuffe based on his experiences in the film.


See also


External links

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