In his book Thinking About the Playwright, drama critic Eric Bentley presumes to know the mind of Moliere. Bentley presents his theory as to why the 17th-century French satirist created his infamously slick villain, Tartuffe -- and then raises a philosophical eyebrow at the playwright's intentions.
"In Tartuffe, Moliere may have wished to get at hypocrites in his audience, but what hypocrite would see himself in [the character of] Tartuffe? Tartuffe is no play for hypocrites, at least not for those who have the slightest awareness of their hypocrisy," he writes.
Mark Ax, director of The Acting Company's current production of Tartuffe, appreciates Bentley's well-phrased dig. But when it comes to reasons why this dark comedy has endured more than four centuries, Ax harbors definite theories of his own.
"Our version is less concerned with the satire in the play," the director explains, "than with its humanity -- the way the people in the play treat each other. Because at the core of [Tartuffe] is a family, and the way the family deals with itself is extremely valid [today]. All of these things are universal."
Other aspects of the play, such as the paranoid political climate in which it was written, also resonate in modern times, Ax maintains. And The Acting Company -- America's only nationally touring repertory theater -- is not above inserting some startling touches to draw in younger audiences. They've set the opening party scene to the decidedly nonclassical strains of Nine Inch Nails. "Some older audiences might not like the first few moments," Ax reports with a laugh. But the director is quick to add that the rest of the play is true to text.
Tartuffe is a study in deception and determined ignorance. The play's namesake is a swindler in priest's clothing, a poseur supreme who ingratiates himself with a wealthy but naive Parisian named Orgon, in order to lay claim to his fortune. Everyone --including Orgon's wife, Elmire; Mariane and Damis, Orgon's grown children from his first marriage; and even the family maid -- sees through the rogue's veneer, except Orgon himself, who views Tartuffe as a near-saint and resents any assertions to the contrary.
Orgon intends to make Tartuffe his heir by wedding him to his horrified (and already-betrothed) daughter. In a private conference, Elmire pleads with Tartuffe not to accept her husband's preposterous offer, and the villain responds by trying to seduce her. Informed of this outrage, Orgon is skeptical and, somewhat inexplicably, becomes more determined that Tartuffe should become his only son. It isn't until he actually catches Tartuffe propositioning his wife a second time that Orgon finally sees the villain's true nature.
"I believe that Tartuffe is less of a hypocrite and more of the perfect con man," Ax declares. "Up until the end of the play, he's completely honest in all that he says. And the more pure and honest he is, the less Orgon can see [through] it. He can't even hear it."
It's the Parisian's willful refusal to recognize reality that the director views as the crux of the play. Because Orgon's need to believe in the accuracy of his own judgment transcends his need to protect his family and fortune, Tartuffe has no reason to be overtly deceitful. Even when first confronted with his attempted seduction of Elmire, he readily admits to it, thereby disarming his benefactor with what Orgon perceives to be priestly humility.
"It has less to do with Orgon's blind faith than [with the fact] that this is the only way he can do things," reasons Ax. "He's given Tartuffe complete control over his life, so he has to believe him. It's not foolishness [on Orgon's part] -- it's that he has no other choice."
Such deep character-delving is a hallmark of The Acting Company, a troupe that shoulders the unique burden of keeping classical theater alive in the country's smaller cities and rural areas. "It's important that classical theater continue to be interpreted and made exciting," says Ax, explaining that the company's shows are "language-based, not elaborate Broadway productions."
So far, though, American audiences' decreasing interest in classical theater hasn't hurt the popularity of this famously talented company (whose former alumni include David Ogden Stiers and Angela Lansbury). "We're very much in demand wherever we go," notes Ax.
The soft-spoken director, enjoying the company's first day off in two weeks, says he finds the task of bringing the works of the masters to the uninitiated "exhausting but exhilarating." The nearly-unanimous warm reception, among young and old alike, is what ultimately fuels the company, he says, adding, "The audiences are so hungry and excited to see us. ... [That's] a wonderful experience: It keeps us going."