French playwright Molière brings humor and wit to Calvin film festival

In the past two weeks the Calvin French, English and honors programs have collaborated with the Alliance Française of Grand Rapids, a charter organization devoted to “promoting French language and culture” in chapter cities and countries. Together they have hosted showings of some of Molière’s most famous plays as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of his birth. Molière is a playwright of Shakespearean brilliance, as seen in two of his famous plays: “Tartuffe” (or “The Hypocrite”) and “The Miser.”

Though the plays are older works, their themes and humor are timeless, making them well worth watching. 

These two plays show Molière’s extremes. “Tartuffe,” especially the three-act version of the play, is a high-stakes drama. The main character, Tartuffe, is a Catholic priest and religious hypocrite. Throughout the play, he makes exaggerated religious gestures of kneeling, prayer and self-loathing, all as an expression of his grand virtue. Orgon, head of a wealthy house, brings Tartuffe into his home, becoming blind to the needs of his family as he is overcome with adoration of Tartuffe’s pretended virtue.

‘Tartuffe’ attacks the hypocritical Catholic church of his own day, but religious hypocrisy is far from irrelevant in our time.

From within the home, Tartuffe makes lustful advances on Elmire, Orgon’s wife. Molière paints the family drama with members of the family trying to remove Tartuffe while Orgon and his mother — Madame Pernelle — become more and more stubborn about keeping him in. They are blind to all his faults. These faults become even more obvious and repulsive as the play goes on.

“Tartuffe” attacks the hypocritical Catholic church of his own day, but religious hypocrisy is far from irrelevant in our time. The intersection of the religious Tartuffe and the noble family of Orgon shows how spiritual hypocrisy can affect the everyday. Characters find themselves closely watching their words and actions to make the best case against Tartuffe, seeking to represent themselves and their traditions well and without hypocrisy. Paying attention to how this theme impacts characters throughout the play provides an opportunity for mindful reflection in audiences.

The inter-family conflict portrayed is also timeless. Tartuffe’s “virtue” blinds Orgon (or perhaps he purposefully turns an eye to Tartuffe’s faults) to the logical arguments from the family’s voice of reason, Cléante. “Tartuffe” shines a mirror reflecting the behaviors of its characters incisively onto its audience, forcing people to consider whether they too are blinded like Orgon or hypocritical like Tartuffe.

On the other hand, “The Miser” is a comedy, with humor driven by character faults and huge misunderstandings. The main character, Harpagon, is a miser of hilarious proportions. His miserliness is almost inconceivable, propelling the plot by preventing the marriages between the two male and two female leads (two of whom are his children).

On the day that both pairs attempt to have Harpagon recognize their desires for marriage, Harpagon declares that he will marry both of his children off; the son to a widow who will bring in a large dowry, and the daughter to a man who has agreed to have her for no dowry at all. Antics ensue as the pairs struggle to get Harpagon to break off the marriages and recognize their true loves. 

Though the plays are older works, their themes and humor are timeless, making them well worth watching.

Like Orgon from “Tartuffe,” Harpagon’s obsession blinds him, in this case to money. At one point in the play, he declares that it would have been better for his daughter to have died than for his precious casket of money to have been lost. Other moments of Molière’s humor are similarly shocking and all the funnier for bending the boundaries of social conventions, though there is plenty of more traditional slapstick humor in “The Miser” as well. Though not as deep as “Tartuffe,” “The Miser” is a joy to watch for its social satire and outrageous humor.

The fourth and final play that Calvin will show from this brilliant playwright will be “The Bourgeois Gentleman,” on Monday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Covenant Fine Arts Center Recital Hall. This play will mix the forms of play and ballet with a humorous style similar to “The Miser.” Give Molière a chance and check it out!