Tartuffe is a comedy by Molière, and is one of the most famous French plays of all time. It was first performed in 1664 at the fêtes held at Versailles, and almost immediately censored by the outcry of the dévots, 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. They took offense at Molière's play because it targeted them.
Setting: Paris, 1660's, house of Orgon
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. By the time Tartuffe is exposed and Orgon renounces him, Tartuffe has legal control of Orgon's finances and family, and is about to steal all of Orgon's wealth and marry his daughter. Instead 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.
Orgon's family is up in arms because Orgon and his mother have fallen under the persuasions of Tartuffe, a religious fraud (and vagrant before Orgon's help). Tartuffe pretends to be pious and to speak for the heavens, and Orgon and his mother no longer take any action without first consulting Tartuffe. One could even say Orgon has a single-minded obsession with Tartuffe, as clearly demonstrated in Act I, Scene 4.
The rest of the family and their servants 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 burrowed himself into the family.
In an effort to show Orgon how awful Tartuffe really is, the family devises a plan: 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 Elmire'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:
Orgon is convinced by Tartuffe's self-accusations that Damis was lying, and banishes him from the house. Tartuffe even gets Orgon to order that, in revenge of Damis's lie, Tartuffe should be around Elmire more than ever.
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. Earlier, Orgon signed all his worldly possessions over to Tartuffe, and he admitted to the same that he was in possession of a box of incriminating letters (written by a friend, not him). Tartuffe has 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.
The next 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 its house to a man with a long criminal history, changing his name often to avoid being caught.
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.
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.
The composer Kirke Mechem based his opera of the same name on the play.