Irish Wit Helps Molière Poke Fun At Religious Hypocrisy

by Sean Hillen

Just like 17th century French writer Molière in his play, ‘Tartuffe,’ hosted this week at An Grianan in Letterkenny, the play’s director Caitríona McLaughlin astutely avoids in her programme notes any mention of the Catholic Church. 

Both writers focus on issues such as corruption, deception, hypocrisy and greed – all hallmarks of this theatrical comedy – but refrain out of diplomacy or an overly-developed sense of tolerance to blame the Church directly for using these machinations to obtain and misuse power.  

Photos by Ros Kavanagh

But let there be no disputing.

‘Tartuffe’ is a deliberate, barely-disguised attack on the warped modus operandi of the Catholic Church, thus the reason the Archbishop of Paris went to great pains to ban Molière’s new work from public theatres at the time, warning what watching such performances could end one’s chances of entering through the Gates of Heaven (The Church even tried to deny the writer a Christian burial in consecrated ground until King Louis XIV, the Sun King, a benefactor of Molière, stepped in and shook his sceptre). 

Obviously, such clerical doomsaying from on high went unheard by most members of the audience at Wednesday’s opening night who merrily basked in the delights of the lavish – at times flamboyant – costumes; booming pop-music soundtracks; and comic on-stage interplays, made even wittier through the colloquial conversational add-ons by Donegal-born playwright, Frank McGuinness.

Enjoying a pre-show leg stretch, the heavy, impressively-designed stage curtain and footlights took me back through time to my teenage years, reminding me vividly of The London Palladium Show, a classic television variety programme hosted with aplomb every week from the West End, sending ripples of cosy warmth through me. 

When the curtain rose to reveal a glimmering chandelier high above stage – it’s not often one witnesses such a sight at the theatre – and a host of noisy revellers in delightfully Dionysian frolics, I sat up straight, residual pains from my recently installed stainless steel hip momentarily forgotten. Sumptuous theatre indeed.

This is not to say ‘Tartuffe’ is for everyone. While McGuinness has adroitly shaped dialogue within the limiting boundaries of rhyming couplets – a feat requiring immense writing skills – sometimes I wished for some situations to be rescued by more free-flowing conversation. At other times, his acrobatic control of language simply sparkled on the night air. 

While ‘Tartuffe’ is a play satirising religious hypocrisy, illustrating how simple it can be to sell salvation, this is not to say it is solemn and serious, rather the opposite, frisky and frolicsome, indeed downright bawdy at times. 

I was particularly taken by the no-nonsense, bold-as-brass Derry actress Pauline Hutton as the outspoken house-mistress Dorine. In a non-speaking role, you’ll be thoroughly amused by the antics of one particularly luckless servant, as indeed you’ll be by the carefully choreographed capers of her colleagues in unison.  

To maximise enjoyment, one’s sense of credibility must be abandoned. Otherwise it’s impossible to accept that anyone – not to mention the hapless Orgon, master of the gentry household within which the action takes place – could possibly be deceived by the amateurish Machiavellian nature of Tartuffe. Perhaps a little tweaking is necessary here.


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