A Review of Tartuffe at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington DC

tartuffe thank you


To: Shakespeare Theatre Company

To say that I was disappointed by the recent production of Tartuffe at the Shakespeare Theatre Company would be an understatement.

I attended the performance last Friday with ten of my students and four chaperones.

We expected to see an up-to-date performance of Moliere’s classic and looked forward to hearing a new translation.

My students all study the play, using the Richard Wilbur translation, and are quite familiar with its structure and message.

We were appalled by the performance.

The adaption went out of its way to excise almost all of Moliere’s humor. This was a mirthless, sinister Tartuffe.

In addition, the performance went out of its way to import blasphemy, misogyny, and obscenity into the play in ways which would have appalled Moliere.

stc tartuffe5  stc tartuffe10

The two strong women’s roles in Moliere’s play (Dorine and Elmire) were reduced to impotence and utterly defeated by Tartuffe.

The actresses were very talented. The fault was not theirs. The fault was with the twisted adaptation of the script and the staging of the scenes.

stc tartuffe3Adding a second servant to Tartuffe, and then having two servants accompany him as a constant entourage altered the balance of power between Tartuffe and the other characters in profound and disturbing ways.

They physically intimidated every other character and overwhelmed them. Keeping the servants onstage, at times perching in positions overlooking the room, turned them into voyeurs and vultures.

Tartuffe no longer relied on rhetoric and deception alone to effect his plans – now he had the threat of violence constantly on display.

There was no need to transgressively introduce bread and a chalice of wine and mock the sacrament. It’s not in Moliere’s script.

stc tartuffe8There was no need to provide Tartuffe with his own cross to carry (with a leer to the audience) as he exited at the end of Act 3.

Perhaps most appalling was the elimination of any element of farce from the famous “table scene” which begs to be staged as a slapstick tag game between Tartuffe and Elmire, but with Elmire always (if only barely) in control, and preserving her integrity as she becomes increasingly exasperated with her hidden husband.

There was no humor in Serrand & Epp’s staging. Elmire did not dodge Tartuffe as he pursued her around the table.

tartuffe-berkeleyIn this production, Elmire was offered up as a sacrifice on the table – violated and essentially raped by Tartuffe.

It was obscene. It was totally unnecessary. It violated the text and message of the play.

The closing scene was completely at odds with the text and intention of Moliere.

In the Serrand & Epp production, AFTER Tartuffe is arrested and led away (bearing his cross!) by the officials of the king, the family, with terror written on their faces, stacks furniture up to block the door to their house and throw the latch.

The implied message is that Tartuffe has won. The family is destroyed and lost – alienated and violated.

The redemptive intervention of the king to exact justice and restore harmony was undercut with a vengeance.

Serrand & Epp’s disdain is clearly for religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Moliere hated hypocrisy, not Christianity.

I am profoundly disappointed in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s decision to host this production.

It has violated the trust we placed in you in bringing our students to see the staging of one of the classics of the 17th century.

We had no warning that this was to be a radically different version of Tartuffe.


I do not know if I can bring students to any productions in the future.


How will I know what to expect?


Rob Shearer

Director, Schaeffer Study Center

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  1. Nicholas Lefevre’s avatar

    I just returned home from this production of Tartuffe and I couldn’t agree more. The production was so grating, in fact, that we left before the intermission. It was like a production for Jim Carry, Adam Sandler, and Melissa McCarthy. I will say that the director believes in equal opportunity screeching. Simply awful.


  2. David Nicholson’s avatar

    I haven’t seen this production of Tartuffe, although I have seen many on both sides of the Atlantic. I think it’s fair to say that North American productions generally emphasize the humour, indeed the farce, of the play. That’s fair enough, but the French have focused on the darker elements for a very long time, and you probably wouldn’t ever want to see what the Germans and the Swiss do with it.

    Without doubt, Dominique Serrand’s production of David Ball’s translation is in the modern European tradition, rather than the American. I’m not sure why you didn’t read any of the reviews of his 1999 production with Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune. It seems to be essentially the same show.


  3. Uncdevil’s avatar

    My husband (also a French prof) and I just walked out at intermission. It was revolting. I’m a belligerent atheist, and I found what it did to Christianity and the leering just repugnant. I’m no prude, and I like challenging theater, but what was the point? Moliere didn’t need to be made shocking. Were we supposed to feel like the horrified family? Where was the humor? The point is lost because all we are doing is staring at Tartuffe’s homonculi oozing around the stage and tearing apples apart instead of listening to the actors. Why chew and spit and lick so much?

    Give it a modern setting. Cast all drag queens, or give everyone Southern accents. Put it in space. Make it ALL rhyme. Fine. This version just felt pointless, and the critics applauding just seem like a new version of the Emperor’s Clothes (to quote my husband’s opinion).


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