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Tolentino 1
Arianna Tolentino
December 11, 2013
Foundations of Theater I
Professor Reid Davis
Historical Research Paper
Moliere and The Rise of Commedia dell’ Arte and Farce Comedies
Who doesn’t love comedy? Comedy takes you into a situation where you can
either relate to it or not; either way it will still be funny. Comedy is a kind of “dramatic”
work that is light and often humorous or satirical in tone. It also usually contains a
happy resolution of the thematic conflict. There are so many ways to interpret the work
of comedy, but one thing’s for sure—it is designated to make one laugh and take a
situation in a whole new different way. An example of such a work is Moliere’s Tartuffe,
one of his most famous theatrical comedies. Although Moliere’s Tartuffe is normally not
the first play to think of when we think of comedy, Moliere’s Tartuffe uses a form of
comedy called French farce comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through
situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. In Moliere’s
Tartuffe, aspects of commedia dell’arte are also applied throughout the play.
Farce comedies can often be misunderstood or incomprehensible plot-wise—due
to the large number of plot twists and random events that occur. Farce comedy is also
characterized by physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and
broadly stylized performances. Moliere, being a quite verbal and subtle writer, limits his
Tolentino 2
“lower humor.” In Tartuffe, an example would be putting Orgon under the table in the
drawing room rather in a closet, to hear Tartuffe wooing Orgon’s wife. Before Tartuffe
comes she tells him: “Oh, Heavens! Just do as you are bidden. I have my plans; we’ll
soon see how they fare…I’m going to act quite strangely, now, and you must not be
shocked at anything I do” (4.4.4-5 and 10-11). Moliere’s Tartuffe might not be the type
of comedy we are used to seeing, but his use of “lower humor” is definitely an
interesting one.
In Moliere’s Tartuffe, many aspects of the popular theatrical form, commedia dell’
arte are seen throughout the play. Commedia dell’arte is Italian for “play of professional
artists”. Its convention “made the actors’ task simpler then its improvisatory nature
would suggest” (Living Theatre p.152). Some popular comic figures were a lecherous,
miserably old Venetian, Pantalone; a foolish pedant who was always involved in his
neighbor’s affairs, Dottore; a cowardly, braggart soldier, Capitano; and servants known
as the zanni, who were sometimes sly or foolish (Living Theatre p.152). Examples of
such characters in Moliere’s Tartuffe that portray these comic figures are Orgon, Elmire,
Dorine, and Tartuffe. These characters share the aspects of the stock characters in
commedia dell’arte.
Moliere was greatly influenced by the Italian theater style of commedia dell’arte.
It is a style of “improvised theater with an unwritten play”. This style originated in Italy in
the mid-sixteenth century and lasted across Europe until the end of the eighteenth
century. Like in Moliere’s play Tartuffe, commedia dell'arte can coincide with
disgraceful love intrigues, clever tricks to get money or outwit someone/something.
Tolentino 3
Many farce comedies move at a frantic pace toward the climax, in which the
initial problem is resolved one way or another. Farce in general is highly tolerant of
transgressive behavior, and tends to depict human beings as vain, irrational, venal,
infantile, neurotic and prone to automatic behavior. With that said, farce is a natural
companion of satire. Farce is, in fact, not merely a genre but a highly flexible dramatic
mode that often occurs in combination with other forms, including romantic comedy.
Farce is considered a theatre tradition.
As far as ridiculous, far-fetched situations, quick and witty repartee, and broad physical
humor are concerned; farce is widely employed in TV sitcoms and silent film comedies.
Examples of farce comedies on television are: Freaky Friday, Scooby Doo and I Love
Lucy. They are completely different shows and yet they fall in the same category—
farce comedy.
In other countries such as Japan, they have a centuries-old tradition of farce
plays called Kyōgen. These plays are performed as comic relief during the long, serious
Noh plays. Kyōgen can also be compared to commedia dell’arte, which developed
around the same period (around 14th century).
Overall, Moliere’s Tartuffe combines the two forms of French farce comedy and
commedia dell’arte very well. Although they have their differences, they also have their
similarities. If someone were searching for a play that is not too “exaggerated” as
much, Moliere’s Tartuffe would be the play to choose. In Tartuffe, Moliere sought to
justify his play and his approach to farce comedy as a whole by underlining the comedic
value of the juxtaposition of good and bad, and between right and wrong.
Tolentino 4
Edwin Wilson, Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre. Fifth. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 152.
"Farce." . Princeton. Web. 11 Dec 2013.
Martha, Fletcher Ballinger. "The Commedia dell'arte." Theatre History. Henry Holt and
Company. Web. 11 Dec 2013.