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The invention of Tartuffe is decisive in the evolution of Molière’s art. As parasite, he shifts the action of the comedy indoors, accenting both inwardness and concealment. As agent of the father’s “holy experiment,” he inaugurates the Andromeda scheme whereby Molière’s fathers regularly will hand over a beloved daughter to the misfit who mirrors the dark state of their own souls. As charlatan of piety, he poses a challenge to the age which his creator was to pay for dearly in a five-year struggle to gain for his play the freedom of the stage. Though the denouement of Tartuffe is essentially political—reflecting the challenge by a political cabal to its right to exist—the comedy proper ends with its villain stripped of the protective cloak of the religion of an unseen Presence, by an appeal to the palpable truth of the religion of ancient Greece where comedy originated.
Molierè's reworking of lines from Dom Garde de Navarre in Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope, and Amphitryon points to a common theme in the four plays: the interplay of the ideal of faith and the ideal of integrity (authenticité). In Dom Garcie the hero is too much in love to bow to the convention that his beloved is by definition above reproach when he discovers her in the arms of another man. The demands of a faith grounded in self-deception clash with the exigencies of integrity. Tartuffe shuns both the artificiality and the highmindedness of the ideal. In a realistic setting shorn of all moral embellishment, integrity is made hollow by fraud; faith is maintained toward none; being is successfully undermined by nothingness. Le Misanthrope emerges as the third stage in a dialectic: the idealism of Dom Garcie, having been brought down to earth, no longer focuses exclusively on the ideal virtues of the beloved. Alceste, in fact, demands only one thing: let a man be a man. This seemingly modest desire for integrity bespeaks a faith in mankind which everyone in the play betrays. A heavenly reconciliation is achieved in Amphitryon. Impossible demands are relegated to Mount Olympus. Mortals are taught to place their faith in the only kind of integrity to which they dare aspire: a reciprocated love that fuses reason and passion so well that not even a god can prevail against it.
L'avare is probably Molière's harshest play. Scheming love suits, openly rebellious children, an unloving father, a sordid theme hardly leave our sympathies any acceptable resting-place. Harpagon, moreover, is a monster who, unlike Tartuffe, is firmly anchored to the center of the stage. No jail, not even an omniscient King can rid the unhappy family of the man who is its head. His power may wither, as it must for the comedy to end on a note of relief, but his presence cannot be so decisively expunged from the lives of those around him. When Tartuffe is dragged to jail in Orgon's stead, justice is restored in the state, as is solidarity to the once bitterly divided family. Harpagon leaving the stage to go see his chère cassette is merely shedding his family without another thought, allowing it to find unhoped for reunion under the wing of a new father, Don Thomas d'Alburcy, as generous and loving as the real father had been mean and hateful.
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