La Grande Siecle – a century that begins and ends with the reigns of two of the greatest of French kings – fires the imagination with French achievements in art, architecture, letters and all things civilized. It is the 17th century and it has become the object of our studies here in Paris. We are escaping into the past in Paris, just as we are escaping the Canadian winter. Here in the past you can meet a highly interesting set of people, from forementioned kings Henri IV and Louis XIV, to Mme Sevigne and Moliere. Alan and I passed the field where Moliere played Jeu de Pommes; it is just a block from our house. Now it is the playing field for young Lyceens, not one of whom was fooling around on a gameboy.
Exterior of the Comedie Francaise
Just a stone’s throw from the Louvre, in the Palais Royale (which was also the home of Louis XIV’s brother “Monsieur”, arguably the most famous openly gay man in European history) is another place Moliere used to frequent. His troupe of actors, officially supported by the King, were housed there beginning in 1680. It is the Comedie Francaise, an establishment that continues as a state-supported theatre to this day. It showcases classic works by Racine and Corneille as well as modern plays. How lucky for us that Tartuffe, considered Moliere’s masterpiece, is on the boards this winter.
Tartuffe (or The Imposter)
Tartuffe is a rollicking work that takes you inside the hearts and minds of 17th century Parisians as they deal with family conflict, the demands of love and passion, and the problem of duplicity and betrayal. Tartuffe is a religious beggar who has been taken into the home of Orgon, a man of great enthusiasms but little judgement. A scurrilous hypocrite, Tartuffe manages to cheat and trick his host into giving him the hand of his daughter, the inheritance of his son and a clear pathway to the bed of his young wife. Tartuffe intends to completely ruin Orgon while outwardly displaying a saintly demeanour and condemning all those who want to enjoy life.
Scenes from the Comedie Francaise (2015)
Mais…. Plus ca change…. We may be trying to escape into the 17th century but we can’t stop thinking of recent events here in Paris. What is Tartuffe if not a religious extremist who wants to impose himself on all around him? The many speeches made by friends and family about him to Orgon touch on the importance of a balanced approach to religion; they speak of the true religionist as someone who quietly and modestly serves his God without hurting or violating others. Moliere suffered censure on account of the frank depiction in Tartuffe of religious extremism and hypocrisy. Even though the King – and the public – liked the play, it was attacked by the Church who did not want these ideas expressed. The Bishop of Paris threatened to excommunicate anyone who watched, performed in, or even read the play. Can we understand, in the light of this, why now the French insist that theirs must be a secular society, and that even the most caustic of Charlie Hebdo cartoons must be tolerated without interference?
Well, I have used up my quota of rhetorical questions and so, like the play, will try to end on a positive note. Charlie Hebdo sold millions of copies this week and demand for a reprint continues. The French are still celebrating a play that a few hundred years ago they were told would effect their damnation, if seen. Vive la liberte.