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Tartuffe’s Timeless Moods, Themes, and Characters

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Production Book: Tartuffe Reimagined

I have recently read Tartuffe, by Moliere as part of Introduction to Theater at Wheaton College. This play, more than most of the others that we studied, struck me as a timeless. There are aspects of this play that apply to my life, as a college student, there are aspects that apply to the world of politicians; it can apply to any time period, from Ancient Greece, to the Tutor Era, to modern times. I believe this play needs to be revived, in any of these time periods, as a way to revive these wonderfully complex moods, themes, and characters that are so timeless in their honesty about the human psyche.

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This play’s themes and moods are very important. They are very dark, serious, and realistic underneath all of the humor. I think these moods are emphasized by the analyses of the human character, which are extremely truthful, and add a very dark quality to the play with this realism. This play can be taken very seriously, however, on the surface the play is completely ridiculous. We can see this exemplified, especially in performances, through the use of the play’s rhyming couplets, the edge of sarcasm, and the deus ex machina ending which lighten the heavy content and characters considerably.

Part of the relatability of the play has to do with these characters. They exemplify very human traits which are embellished by the plot, but at times, verge on becoming ridiculous. When I first read the play however, they come across as interesting depictions of characteristics I’ve seen in real people. I especially connected to the characters of Dorine and Tartuffe.

I really connect to Dorine, in the sense that I am not as gullible as some of the people in this play, or at least I like to imagine that I’m not as gullible, and am extremely passionate about hot button issues, or issues that concern my family or friends. I also admire and appreciate her blunt honesty. I think the world needs a little more of these characteristics, whatever the time period, and I think reviving the character of Dorine would help give the audience a little more courage to be honest and blunt in the face of obscenity.

I also connected to Tartuffe. Regrettably, I have been in the situation before where I have manipulated someone to get what I want, as I am sure most people have. I see this, and appreciate people who have the shrewd intelligence to be able to do this, in our society. While they are not morally sound, they can be very cunning and intelligent when they want to be. I don’t agree with these methods, but I can appreciate their ingenuity, which, in some scenes, is also how I feel about the character of Tartuffe. I think this is also a great character to revive for modern audiences. While the world could use some blunt honesty, that we can see in Dorine, they could also use some better judgment.

In order to do emphasize these fantastically absurd characters, and the wonderful themes of the play, I intend to change several aspects from its traditional performance. Unlike the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, or a traditional performance, I would have the actors play it straight. I would emphasize the power dynamic between Tartuffe and the family through the use of dramatic scenery, lighting, and music. I would use the translation we read, with the rhyming couplets, to slightly offset the intense, dramatic feel of the play.

Modern society can be very quick to jump to conclusions or to see what they want to see and ignore what is really happening, which is what happens in the play with Orgon. Critical thinking and analytical judgment are a much needed presence, and hopefully, when faced with the absurdity that is the character Tartuffe, they will see that this reflection—upon life in our society—is sorely needed. I would like the audiences to see this absurdity in Tartuffe, and reflect upon themselves.

Production Notes

Performance Space/ Scenic Design

I would have my production of Tartuffe set in a large, old, Tudor style manner. The play is originally French, but in my mind I imagine the backdrop with more of a subdued, serious atmosphere, like we would see in the dark wooden panels and rich tapestries of Tudor England, as opposed to the ridiculousness of the Late Baroque and early Rococo periods that we see in the backdrop of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, and Moliere’s 17th century bourgeois France.

I would play with where each scene is set slightly. The scenes that have to be in a specific room for the orchestration of the scene, for example when Orgon hides under the table, would be set in the necessary rooms. However, the other scenes would be in various rooms around the manner, or even outside. The audience would follow the cast from room to room, as explained in the playbill. The stragglers would be encouraged to move to the next location by the ushers, and talking between scenes would be extremely discouraged, so as to not break the atmosphere of the play.

The exterior of the manner would be a dramatic backdrop with the large expanse of the estate visible. The audience would go back and forth between feeling claustrophobic in the smaller interior rooms and, when outside, feeling overwhelmed by the grandeur of the grounds and building. The interior rooms would be smaller, or would feel smaller due to the large amount of people occupying them.

The interior would be very richly furnished. Extravagant Tudor interiors involved wood paneling, brightly colored tapestries, detailed cloth covered furniture, and oil paintings involving extremely saturated colors. I would try to recreate the interior rooms as they would have been in the 16th century, with all of these rich colors, as opposed to using pieces actually from that era, which are now extremely faded and wouldn’t provide the right mood.

Exterior scenes would have a background of this architecture, including some of the gardens, (a smaller, interior garden is shown here) and the audience would see some of the detailing as they walked between scenes. A classic example is the molding, which features the rose, a representation of the Tudor family. This one here is on the ceiling of an archway in between two courtyards.

The interiors are dark, giving the appearance of a smaller, enclosed space. The furniture above has the original faded fabric, which I would not use. Tapestries were prominent, if the household had enough money, as they would insulate the rooms. This one here shows the detail and extravagance, however the tapestries I would use, like with the furniture above, would be fully restored in their brilliant colors.

This painting is an excellent example of the rich colors and details that were so prominent in the time period. I would furnish the manor with similarly exciting objects.

Lighting Design

I would have the most of the play only slightly lit, using shadows and a dark ambiance to emphasize the dramatic characters and themes. I would really play with the lighting and use different colors depending on the theme/emotion emphasized in the scene, almost to the point where the effect is too much, but without distracting from the audience. I think this would add to the ridiculousness and humor that the play typically has, which would be mostly absent in my production.

This would vary depending on the scene and its location. If it was outside, I would strategically time the scene so as to work with the natural lighting. If the scene was inside, I would play with artificial lighting without making the physical lights too distracting from the interior decorations. The effect would be similar to that of an intricate stained glass window.

Costume Design

Costuming and props would not be excessive, but would be appropriate to match the time period. Women of the upper class in the 16th century would have fairly elaborate clothing. Their dresses consisted of four layers, at the least. The first layer was the smock, a simple white linen fabric that would have some embroidery and/or frill around the neckline and sleeve cuffs. These details on the smock can sometimes be seen in the final ensemble.

The next layer is the petticoat, a type of under-skirt which was usually a fine red wool. The petticoat would be used to give the garment structure and weight, as well as to keep the person wearing the dress warm. In the second half of the 16th century, they would also wear a farthingale, which is a type of hoop skirt that originated in Spain.

The next layer is the kirtle, which, in this time period, almost functions as a loose corset. It is rigidly constructed, either through the material or through the use of light boning, and constricts the bodice. Sometimes it is connected to another light layer of skirt. Occasionally, a little bit of the kirtle can be seen in the final ensemble, usually poking out near the neckline.

Next we see the forepart, which pokes out from under the outer gown’s skirt, and the sleeves. The forepart and the under layer of sleeves match. There are two additional layers of sleeves beyond the smock and the short sleeves of the kirtle.

The final layer is the gown. For the upper class, they were always very extravagant, as depicted in the portrait of Catherine Parr on the left.

Head wear was also important. There were two major styles at the time: the English or Gable Hood (pictured above on the right), and the French Hood (pictured above in the middle).

Music/Sound Design

I would use dramatic classical music featuring string instruments. The more dramatic scenes would use a deep cello and two violins to bring out the tension and drama. I would start with the cello to build tension in the lower range. Then I would have the two violins sharply come in and harmonize, so as to emphasize the big reveal moments and the points of tension.

The instrumentalists would be dressed according to the time period, but as musicians of the era would dress. Their clothing would reflect their lower class status: it would be duller, it would use simpler fabrics, and it would be much simpler than the rest of the family’s garb. They would sit off to the side of the scene, but apart from the audience. As they are dressed in the period clothing, they will appear to be almost a part of the scene, but not entirely, as the actors will not acknowledge their existence.

Casting

For me, the most obvious casting choice is the character Elmire. I would love to see Lena Heady play this character. I think it would be really interesting to see Lena in this role after playing a similar character on Game of Thrones. I think she could bring some really great additions to the character.

Another obvious casting choice for me would be Imelda Staunton as Dorine. I imagine her bringing some of the ferociousness that she used to play Umbridge in Harry Potter again in this character. She could bring that necessary strong willed moral compass that this show depends on. I can see her playing the strong role very persuasively.

I would cast Daniele Radcliffe as Valère. It’s a small role for him, but I think he could bring substance and depth to an underappreciated part. I think he is easy to sympathize with, and I think that would be beneficial for the character.

I would cast a young Julie Andrews as Mariane. I don’t see the character of Mariane having a lot of substance in the play, but if Julie Andrews brought the passionate spark she had in The Sound of Music to the character I can imagine it would be lovely.

I would cast Kenneth Branagh as Tartuffe. I think he would be a strong actor to bring into the mix of all of these characters. I would love to see his interpretation of Tartuffe, and all of the little things he would bring to the character. I can imagine him bringing some of the physical comedy from his performance in Much Ado to this new role, but in a slightly more subdued and serious tone.

I think a younger Mel Brooks could play the role of Orgon well. He understands comedy very well, and I think he could bring some really funny and interesting insight to the role of Orgon that most people wouldn’t necessarily see. His experience in the industry would also be extremely helpful to bring to both his role and the production as a whole.

I would cast Eddie Redmayne as Damis. He is a very passionate actor and he brings a lot of depth and genuine emotion to his characters, which is exactly what this part requires. He is newer to the acting scene than the others cast in this play, however he is a very powerful actor when he wants to be and could easily hold his own.

I would cast Dame Maggie Smith as Madame Pernelle. I think she can balance the ironic bite of her intense character with serious content of the play very well. I think she can be extremely funny when she pretends to be oblivious to her surroundings. She has done a similar type of acting with her sassy character in Downton Abbey.

I would cast Christopher Walken as Cleante. I think he could play one of the voices of (exasperated) reason very well in the play. I imagine him bringing some of the realism to Cleante that he brought to his character in Hairspray.

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