The Rhythm is Going to Get You

Suzy Hunt and Bhama Roget, photo by John Ulman.
Suzy Hunt and Bhama Roget, photo by John Ulman.

As Shakespeare fans, we’re used to hearing the rhythm of iambic pentameter and occasional rhymed verse. So it may be a little surprising just how much the rhyme and rhythm of Tartuffe take center stage in this production. Unlike Shakespeare, the rhyme scheme doesn’t come and go. Why is that? Here’s a look at the language of Tartuffe from our Education Director, Michelle Burce:

Molière wrote during a time when French theatre was highly regulated. The Académie française, formed in 1635, was responsible for regulating French language, grammar, and literature. Beyond publishing the first French dictionary, they also had standards for what constituted “good” theatre, and in Molière’s time the preference was Neo-classical theatre.

Neo-classicism refers to theatre that is inspired by the classical art of ancient Greece. Specifically, the Académie française based their guidelines for good theatre on the writing of Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy contains three unities: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. Unity of time means that the entire play takes place in one day. Unity of place means that the play takes place in a single location. Unity of action means that all of the action in the play is related to the central plot of the play, and there are no diversions or sub-plots.

Beyond conforming to the three unities, French plays of this period were also expected to conform to a strict language standard. French plays were written in alexandrine couplets, or what the English would have called iambic hexameter in rhyming couplets. (Shakespeare wrote largely in iambic pentameter, but only a few of his lines rhyme. He often also wrote in prose.) Each line was to have twelve syllables, and every two lines were supposed to rhyme. Each rhyming couplet was to form a complete thought. In addition, it was also common for there to be a short pause in the middle of lines, between the 6th and 7th syllable. This is called a caesura.

Molière’s Tartuffe conforms to this standard in the original French, and the Wilbur translation used by Seattle Shakespeare Company makes only minor changes to the text meter. In translating Tartuffe, Wilbur preserved the sound and structure of the play, since it was so important to Molière in his time, but substituted iambic pentameter (10 syllables*) for the hexameter (12 syllables) used in the French. Other translations are more directly literal, but do not preserve strict alexandrine lines and rhyming couplets.

Look at the examples below. In the first, Molière’s original French has 12 syllables per line, and the two lines rhyme. In addition, there is a short pause, or caesura, between the 6th and 7th syllable in each line. This is easy to see in the second line, where the pause is indicated by a comma. Compared below is a quote from Madame Pernelle in original French and Wilbur’s English translation:

Rhyme and Rhythm - French

In the translated English, the lines are a little shorter, but they still have the same iambic meter.

*As a note, it is generally accepted that one additional, unaccented syllable may be added at the end of a line of iambic pentameter without it disrupting the verse. These lines also preserve the rhyme at the end of the two lines.

Rhyme and Rhythm - English

A Peek at “Tartuffe”

Bring on the funny!  Rehearsals for “Tartuffe” are creating giggles, laughs, and guffaws with every scene.  Here’s your first look at the show before we move into the theatre.


Bluff Your Way Through the Play

Tartuffe at a Glance

Impress your friends! Wow your neighbors! Show off your smarts! Here is a handy guide for getting up to speed on Tartuffe.

Um…how do you say that?

The first step in sounding like you know what you’re talking about is to say the title of the play correctly.

Pronunciation: Tar-tuf

Um…what’s it mean?

The name Tartuffe means “truffle,” but not the chocolate kind. A truffle is an underground fungus prized by foodies for its delicious aroma (and it’s thought to be an aphrodisiac).

Read more about the meaning of Tartuffe

Kind of like Madonna or Cher

Molière, the author of Tartuffe, is a stage name. His given name is Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. It was common practice for French actors to assume a stage name. And, since his prominent father disapproved of his profession, it was likely Molière’s way of saving them him embarrassment of being associated with an artist for a son.

Pronunciation: Mole-yair (rhymes with airfare)

Just who was this guy?

Playwright. Actor. Legend. Molière is one of the greatest masters of comedy. His best known works in addition to Tartuffe are The Misanthrope, The School for Wives, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Doctor in Spite of Himself.

Molière and his acting company were in tight with the court of King Louis XIV. They created the official court entertainments and wowed Parisians with their productions.

Ironically, Molière bit the dust while playing the main character in his final play The Imaginary Invalid. He was done in by a coughing fit that led to bleeding. He finished the performance, but died a few hours after the show.

Read more about Molière’s fascinating life

So…what’s the story?

Orgon, a father and gentleman, has taken a boarder, Tartuffe, into his household. Tartuffe claims to be a holy man, but seems to have only convinced Orgon and his mother. The rest of the household thinks he has ulterior motives, mainly taking Orgon for all he’s worth.

Orgon gets so caught up in Tartuffe’s charms that he disinherits his own son and breaks his daughter’s heart by promising her hand in marriage to the swindler. Even though Orgon is blind to Tartuffe’s shenanigans, the family hatches a plan to expose Tartuffe and catch him red-handed. They do. Orgon sees Tartuffe for who he is and orders him from the house. Tartuffe turns the tables and threatens to evict the family. It’s only after the king intervenes at the very last minute that justice is served.

Want more? Here’s a longer synopsis

Character Lowdown

Orgon – Father of the house, seeking spiritual instruction
Tartuffe – An imposter posing as a holy man
Madame Pernelle – Orgon’s mother
Elmire – Orgon’s wife
Damis – Orgon’s son
Mariane – Orgon’s daughter, fiancé of Valère
Valère – fiancé of Mariane
Clèante –Elmire’s brother and Orgon’s friend
Dorine –Mariane’s lady’s maid
Flipote – Madame Pernelle’s servant
Monsieur Loyal – a law officer
Officer – A representative of the king

The Offstage Scandal

If you can believe it, this famous comedy was banned after its first public reading in 1664. The clergy thought Molière was attacking religion. Molière insisted he was mocking religious hypocrisy, not religious belief. Who are you going to believe? Under pressure, King Louis had no choice but to outlaw performances of the play. Molière wasn’t down yet. He re-wrote, re-named the play, and tried again. No luck. The play got shut down after a single performance. It took five years of begging the king for permission to perform the play before he finally relented. Once opened the public was crazy mad for Tartuffe and it has been making folks laugh ever since.

Read more

A Poet and I Know It

Tartuffe was originally written in 1,962 twelve-syllable lines of rhyming couplets. Crazy, I know! Who thinks of doing something like that? Um…rappers do that. You’d think it would be tough to listen to, but you get used to it pretty quick.

Hey! Where are the powdered wigs?

No lace and powdered wigs here. Our production of Tartuffe is set in 1947. This post-war period was a time when several new fringe religions appeared in the US. Tartuffe in this production belongs to an undefined religion, with a made-up symbol drawn both from religious icons and currency symbols.

Orgon’s home is inspired by Los Angeles mid-century modern architecture. This house is swank.

The play takes place over the course of one day, beginning in the morning and running late into the night. Watch how the lighting in the play changes over time (bright, sunny morning) and as Tartuffe meddles with the family more and more, the light begins to take on the feeling of film noir, with long shadows creeping across the stage.

Up Your Smarty-pants Game

  • The most famous film version of Tartuffe was released in 1984, directed by and starring Gerard Depardieu in the title role.
  • What Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. Both were men of the theatre, both were actors as well as playwrights, both had incredible insights into human life and behavior, both showed mastery over language.
  • With this production, Molière becomes Seattle Shakespeare Company’s second-most produced playwright.

A Slippery, Seductive Swindler

False gurus get their comeuppance in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe directed by Makaela Pollock.  Translated by Richard Wilbur, Tartuffe runs at the Center Theatre March 17-April 12, 2015.

In Tartuffe Orgon’s household is under the influence of a seductive swindler named Tartuffe. This cunning con artist, masquerading as a holy man, plans to dupe the gullible Orgon out of his fortune, his daughter, and his reputation. The pious grifter can do no wrong in his host’s eyes, yet everyone else in the household smells a rat. Just when the jig is up, Tartuffe ups the stakes and the charm.

“Can you trust the people around you? How do you know who they are? Who they purport to be?  And that applies to families as well as religious leaders,” said director Makaela Pollock when discussing Tartuffe.  “As I started looking at the play, I remembered that there is this moment around the late 1940s where everyone is searching for the next thing to believe in.” During this time L. Ron Hubbard first circulated his beliefs in Dianetics and Scientology, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were formulated, and the first UFO sightings were reported. Pollock and her design team have reset Tartuffe in 1947 and Orgon falls under the influence of huckster who has fabricated his own religion. “The people in the play have wealth and are coming out the confidence and swagger of winning World War II, but they’re also sitting at that fearful moment of ‘what do we do next?’ that sparked the fear-mongering of McCarthyism.”

Pollock directed Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2012 Wooden O production of Twelfth Night. She recently staged The Addams Family in Coeur d’Alene.  She is an adjunct faculty member of Cornish College of the Arts, and a graduate of the Trinity Rep/Brown University MFA Program in Directing. She currently is the New Works Associate at The 5th Avenue Theatre.

Hamilton Wright (Pygmalion) returns to Seattle Shakespeare Company to play the title role in Tartuffe. He joined by Peter Lohnes as Orgon, Christine Marie Brown (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) as Elmire, Bhama Roget as Dorine, and Suzy Hunt as Madame Pernelle.

With this production of Tartuffe, Molière becomes Seattle Shakespeare Company’s second most produced playwright.

Twelves Sale – All Tickets $12

HAWKS 12s Promo

Seattle Shakespeare Company is pumped up for the Super Bowl on Sunday and hope you are too! To celebrate we’re holding a “Twelves Sale.”

For 12 hours only (noon to midnight Jan 30, 2015) you can purchase adult tickets to Measure for Measure, Tartuffe or Othello for just $12 each. It’s a steal!

Use the code TWELVES when ordering online.

Remember, this sale shuts down at midnight tonight and is limited to 4 tickets per order, so act fast. Go Hawks!

Purchase Tickets