Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

An ambiguous Tartuffe

A recent production of Moliere’s Tartuffe at the AUC gives Nehad Selaiha political food for thought

An ambiguous Tartuffe
An ambiguous Tartuffe
Al-Ahram Weekly

Moliere’s Tartuffe in a new English verse version by Constance Congdon, directed by Jane Page, Malak Gabr Theatre, AUC, 16-21 March, 2016.

Moliere’s Tartuffe was first introduced in Egypt in 1866, almost two centuries after it was finally published in France in 1669, in a third version, the earlier two having been condemned for blasphemy and banned. Egyptian poet, playwright and prolific translator Mohamed Osman Galal (1828-1898) reset the action in Egypt, used a versified, rhyming mixture of classical and Egyptian colloquial Arabic for the dialogue, added a new scene to the first act and another to the last, and rechristened his version Sheikh Matlouf – an Arabic name that happily rhymes with Tartuffe and literally means ‘corrupt’. This version, together with three similar adaptations of other Moliere plays The School for Husbands, The School for Wives, and The Learned Ladies was published in book form under the title Al-Arba’ Rewayat fi Nokhab Al-Teatrat (Four of the Choicest Theatre Plays). These adaptations, particularly Sheikh Matlouf, became immensely popular in the first half of the 20th Century, and Sheikh Matlouf continued to be revived well into the 1960s, even after faithful translations of the original play became available. 

The rise of religious fundamentalism and political Islam in Egypt from the 1970s onwards not only banished Sheikh Matlouf from the stage but also deterred directors from attempting to produce any of the available faithful translations of the original Tartuffe. Barring Jatinder Verma’s Anglo-Indian version of the play, performed in a variety of English interlaced with Urdu by Tara Arts, Britain’s leading Asian theatre company, at the open air theatre of the Cairo Opera House in 1991, and a student production directed by Ingy Al-Bestawi at the Theatre Institute in 2012, it was not until after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and his short-lived Islamic regime in July 2013 that the play surfaced again in Egypt. 

In 2014, director Mohamed Mekki staged his own adaptation of Tartuffe in colloquial Arabic for the State Theatre Company of Alexandria under the play’s original title. Mekki reset his version in contemporary Cairo, turning it into a vehicle for attacking the Islamists, particularly the Salafis, by dressing the eponymous hero as one and adding several forceful cautionary harangues against their dangerous wiles, religious hypocrisy, rapacious greed and Machiavellian pursuit of power. To offset the overt didacticism of his new version, the director overplayed the farcical element in the original and punctuated the performance with songs and dances. Had it been attempted a year earlier, this production would probably never have seen the light, or if it had, would most certainly have created a furor and possibly caused the theatre to be torched by fanatics. Seen in Cairo at Miami theatre in the course of the 7th Egyptian National Theatre Festival in August 2014, and despite its many tirades and passionate diatribes, it seemed tame and pallid compared to the grim reality of the Muslim Brothers’ one-year rule experienced by Egyptians.

This history of Tartuffe in Egypt makes the recent AUC production of the play, albeit in English (in a new verse version by Constance Congdon, directed by Jane Page) particularly welcome. Though it visually transposes the action to a different age and country, ‘updating the story to today,’ in the words of the director, ‘and placing it in a wealthy and acquisitive California family house’ in terms of décor and costumes, it does not tamper with the original text, performing the dialogue, as far as I could judge, in toto, with very few cuts and no additions. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first faithful stage rendering in translation of Moliere’s original Tartuffe to be publicly performed in Egypt in decades. 

Andrea Heilman’s predominantly blue and white, two-level set, with its long staircase, tall doors, high windows, grey chairs and curtains, glass tables and geometrical rugs and wall paintings, though elegant and airy, was all too rigidly formal and forbiddingly cold and impersonal. One could easily see at a glance that what this family home lacks is the warmth of intimate family relationships. This impression is soon corroborated and explained by what follows: the members of Orgon Pernelle’s family, though united in their resentment of Tartuffe’s presence, seem to be living in separate worlds, with only the house maid Dorine able to fitfully share in them all. One is persuaded to think that had their family relationships been otherwise, the iniquitous Tartuffe would never have been able to worm his way into their lives and home. In fact, Moliere never clearly explains in the play how or why the well-to-do, successful Orgon falls such an easy prey to such a blatantly hypocritical religious charlatan, allowing him to have the upper hand in his household, appointing him moral guardian of his wife and family, promising him his daughter in marriage and signing over to him his house and fortune.

There is no reason to suppose that Orgon has always been a nincompoop; indeed, in scene 2 of Act I, the astute Dorine avows (in W. Baker’s and J. Miller’s 2000 translation) that before he met Tartuffe, “His behaviour in our public troubles had procured him the character of a man of sense, and of bravery for his prince.” As Charles McNulty has noted (in the Los Angeles Times in 2014), “Various motivations have been proposed to explain Orgon’s willful blindness toward Tartuffe, including impotence, fear of encroaching mortality and even latent homosexuality. The subject has also provoked much discussion on the nature of piety, its compatibility with rationalism and the thin line separating religious fervor and charlatanism.” Be that as it may, the fact remains that the play itself offers no clear and definite explanation, leaving directors free to find their own in the light of their interpretations of the play. In the case of Jane Page’s production, the motivation she offers in her director’s notes is that of “a man wanting to buy his religious and spiritual piety rather than seek it himself”; in other words, a firm belief, akin to that once harboured by the noblemen who bought indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church, that wealth is all-powerful and can buy everything, including salvation. 

The impression of material wealth devoid of human warmth communicated by Heilman’s set becomes more focused in the behaviour of Jason Will, as Orgon, as soon as he makes his appearance. He bustles in self-importantly, but seems thoroughly absorbed in his business affairs; he talks to his brother absentmindedly while consulting his notebook, makes perfunctory inquiries about his family, hardly listening to the answers, and responds mechanically and ridiculously to them, showing no solicitude about his wife’s health. The same emotional frigidity marks his behaviour towards his wife, son and daughter and he is only shaken out of his human apathy and indifference when crossed or gainsaid. Having said this, I must add that I do not think that Jason Will was a happy choice for the part. Though generally an extremely competent actor with a strong charismatic appeal and very forceful stage presence, he is not the stuff out of which the Pantalones of the commedia dell’arte are usually made. He is simply too imposing and too attractive for the part, and though he struggled valiantly with the farcical bits, the strain was quite evident. Without actually resorting to the usual commedia dell’arte shtick, his performance seemed to consist of a series of overstated physical and vocal reactions without credible emotional underpinning.

More questionable still was the casting of Ahmed Badran in the title role, not on account of his talent, which cannot be properly assessed on the strength of this performance, but because of his general appearance. Moliere spends nearly half the play building Tartuffe’s character before allowing him to make an entrance. Besides being a conman, a religious fraud and a lascivious liar and hypocrite, physically, he is said to be “well, fat, fair, and fresh-coloured” and a hearty eater, capable of consuming ‘a brace of partridge, and half a leg of mutton hashed” in one meal. When he is finally allowed to appear, he is supposed to answer our expectations, or at least not to completely overthrow them. Badran tried to fulfill the role’s challenges and only managed to transmit a confused message. In terms of physique, stature, features and colouring, he looked, compared to the rest of the cast, including the servants, a definite outsider. Slightly built, with dark skin, curly black hair, tattooed arms and a foreign accent, he could be an Asian, or North-African Arab. But for the cross round his neck, he could easily be mistaken for a Muslim, third-world immigrant. 

As such, he was a dubious, ambiguous, disturbing sign: meant to signify Moliere’s dangerous French anti-hero who infiltrates a French home waving the cross and nearly ruins the lives of its inhabitants, it simultaneously pointed in a different, modern direction, bringing to mind the danger of dark Arab immigrants infiltrating the West and acting as forces of destruction under the banner of Islam. To believe that such a lanky, unimpressive figure as Badran’s Tartuffe looks could take in Orgon and his mother is impossible within the terms of the play and would require stretching the willing suspension of disbelief to breaking point. The choice of actor in this case would only make sense if Tartuffe was meant to be taken metaphorically as a wily Muslim immigrant, hell-bent on destroying the West. 

Indeed, one is tempted to pursue further this reading of Tartuffe as the Muslim, Oriental Other and see the play, as presented in this production, as a parable of how the US Administration first befriended and armed the Muslim arch-terrorist Osama Bin Laden, then turned against him and hounded him to death when he broke faith with the US and sent his disciples to wreak havoc on its citizens. Charles McNulty has rightly argued that “Tartuffe provides Orgon with an excuse for violently overturning the status quo of his domestic life. This holy fraud has been invited in at a moment when Orgon’s authority is being taken for granted. What better way of reasserting one’s tyrannical hold than by doing so under the flamboyant guise of moral and spiritual superiority?” Isn’t this more or less how George W. Bush, cloaked in a borrowed evangelical mantle and preaching a spurious holy “war on terror”, sought to control Americans?

Such a reading of the play would of course run contrary to the tribute paid by Moliere to King Louis XIV at its end, to the more extended paean to Khedive Ismail at the close of Mohamed Osman Galal’s Sheikh Matlouf, and more strikingly of all to the director’s guarded praise of the US government at the end of her notes. However, the timing of the production after so many terrorist attacks by Muslim immigrants in the West, together with the choice of cast that makes the actor playing Tartuffe stand out as an obvious alien intruder, invite such a reading. I have little more to say about this production save to applaud the director for not succumbing to the temptation of physical comedy and concentrating on bringing out the rich humour in the text. Under her guidance, the cast gave an efficient, spirited, ensemble performance. Most admirable of all was their crisp, fluid rendering of Congdon’s translation, observing its rhythms and rhyming schemes without allowing them to obstruct the speed and easy flow of the dialogue.

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