Moral Police in French Clothing

Talk about a cruel coincidence. While the cast of Tartuffe was preparing for opening night at The Actors Studio Bangsar, a woman in Cheras was being robbed at knifepoint in her home by a group of five men and women. The next day’s article, ‘Group using religion to rob’, said that the woman had been taken in by their discussion on God, the after-life and the donation box. She invited them into her home and within half an hour, they had cleared out her cash and jewellery. Even managed to raid the fridge on the way out.

The uncanny resemblance between this incident and Moliere’s Tartuffe is slightly unsettling given that the comedy, written in the mid-1660s, is ostensibly a tale of how religion is used to hoodwink folks into giving up their wealth, home and family. In the Stage Sense (with Sri Cempaka School) production, the slimy Tartuffe (played by Terence Swampillai) wheedles his way into the home of Orgon (Lim Soon Heng), who is smitten and charmed by Tartuffe’s cloak of piety. Tartuffe’s entry into the aristocratic household is facilitated, to a large extent, by Orgon’s and his mother’s upper-class guilt of being religiously-deficit. Apparently in the 1600s, it was common for religious bods to be invited into the homes of French aristocrats to aid the religious and spiritual ‘development’ of the household. Anyway, Orgon and his mother sign away all that they own to le hypocrite, including Orgon’s daughter’s hand in marriage.

Tartuffe‘s rhyming dialogue meant that unless the actors could nail rhyme as a devise, and not as an end­ product in itself, the lines had a tendency to come out sounding too rehearsed, unwieldy and, worse still, incomprehensible. With Anne James (who plays Dorine, the maid), Terence and Jodie Lariviere (who plays Orgon’s wife, Elmire) and to some extent, Soon Heng, you could just sit back and watch their characters come alive. Unfortunately with the other actors there were moments when it was incredibly difficult to make out what they were saying.

Anne James did good justice to her wisecrack character, Dorine the maid, who took great glee in calling the hypocrisy and gullibility with her supercilious remarks (When told to shut up by Orgon, she replies, “I’ll think about it. But till you grasp your senses, I will yell.”). During intermission, she rolls out a tea trolley and invites the audience to have tea and choc biscuits with her. She also invites some of the audience members by name. You can’t quite tell whether you are still in the play or in intermission now, or whether you’re doing tea with Dorine or Anne. You eventually figure out you can leave the auditorium, go for your pee break, whatever. Or just go sit next to Dorine/Anne and chat.

The blurring of the audience and players’ time-space continuum began even before the beginning. Walking into the theatre earlier, you would have found the performers chatting to each other, some welcoming you, some warming up on stage. The houselights were never turned down completely. It momentarily bugged me when I couldn’t mentally draw the separation between where my audience space (the dark side) ended and the actors’ space (the lit side) began. I was convinced sooner or later the lighting technician would figure it out so I could watch the play ‘properly’! Director Chris Jacobs seems to be screwing with our minds, and I must say I like it. This device seems to take its reference from some of the characters’ inability to tell what is real and what is not. I think it also alludes to the blurring of our spaces outside the theatre, where actors walk among us selling all manners of causes.

Acting as a man acting pious, Terence gives us a commendable, greasy Tartuffe, oozing sweat and saliva, occasionally punctuating his lines with an odious half-hiss, half-laugh. He reminded me of those mean animal characters in kids’ books, the weasel-gone-bad sorts. You can’t help but find the fella objectionable and a bit geli.

The lack of shading, however, made him too obvious a bad guy. Orgon and mum would have to have a real case of cataracts not to notice that Tartuffe was bad, bad, bad. The only way you could process Orgon’s falling for Tartuffe’s ploy is to take it at its simple, one-dimensional, slapstick comedy value. Perhaps director Chris Jacobs is trying to be true to the playwright. After all, Moliere thrives on exposing human behaviour using just such caricatures. And the production gives itself license to the absurdity – the exaggerated make-up, vaudeville/Japanese-street-fashion costumes (by who?), exaggerated commedia del’a arte-type characters and physical comedy. All these add up if you are looking for simple comedy.

Today’s Tartuffes, though, are a lot more nuanced. It’s one thing to be cleaned out by wolves in religious robes, where you can easily name the manipulation and see the ‘robbers’. It’s another when the hypocrisy and manipulation come in ‘religious’ beliefs, norms and laws that seize your brain and dictate your life.

For example, everytime I hear of a khalwat raid, I am jarred by the thought of how easily one’s private life and privacy can be invaded in the name of religion. To keep the Muslim good and have their morals intact, laws and state instruments were crafted and passed without so much as a boo. And these by Members we put in Parliament. We let them sit there and agree, or at the very least not disagree, when these laws on moral policing were passed.

Look how normalised this has become – it has ceased to shock us that Muslims in Malaysia can be denied a personal relationship with their religion, and instead must be regulated to do so. Personal obligations have been turned into legal obligations, personal values turned into ‘collective, state values’ that have the force of law. Not performing Friday prayers is an offence, as is eating in public during the fasting month. Many of my Muslim friends worry if their friends, particularly the opposite sex, stay over because some nosey neighbour might just lodge a complaint and the next thing you know, boom, the religious police are at your doorstep. Muslims, it seems, are not to be trusted, they are always up to no good and don’t really know what to do with privacy and personal freedom.

How does one deal with these sanctimonious intrusions? Enter King of France. Well, at least in Tartuffe anyway. His royal intervention (just don’t think too hard about the plausibility of the ending) arrives just in the nick of time. Bad guy gets apprehended before any real damage can be done, and all is well once again in the Orgon household. Unfortunately, keeping the moral police out of your house and life doesn’t quite work the same way.

Never mind keeping them out. Even questioning their existence ain’t easy. Few realise that every time one challenges a fatwa, for example, (fatwa literally means ‘opinion’, but in Malaysia this has become synonymous with ‘religious laws’) or has an opinion different to the ones in power, that too constitutes an offence. Our state and non-state actors can’t seem to cope with the fact that there is a plurality in interpretation of the religious texts, and that this exists both in classical as well as contemporary studies of religion.

What determines which interpretation ultimately gets used? Politics. Not just political decisions by parties trying to secure votes, but the manifestations and manipulations of politics throughout history. This is why it strikes me as ‘criminal’ that these human constructed laws then get elevated to the level of the divine and then declared immutable. What is even more despotic are charges of blasphemy that get dangled in your face for daring to comment and criticise. In the name of ‘upholding good and preventing evil’, the state muscles itself into our lives by locking in what religion ought to be. Then it’s only a hope-skip-and-jump away before they invite themselves into our homes, lives and theatre, robbing us of our privacy and freedom of movement and expression.

I mention theatre because interestingly, the 17th century Mayor of Paris and Church find close allies in the 21st century KL City Hall (DBKL) and Kedah Muslim Scholars Association (PUK). Hands up all those who remember the time DBKL revoked a permit for the re-run of The Vagina Monologues because the PUK thought it was obscene and insulted Islam. Well, turns out the Church had apparently been so deeply offended by the Moliere’s portrayal of religious hypocrisy that Tartuffe was denied a permit by the Mayor for five years before it was finally allowed to be staged in public in 1669. Why take the religious hardline when you can issue guidelines – looks so much more thought out, doesn’t it?

But ultimately, it’s not really the Tartuffes amongst us that worries me, but rather how much of an Orgon we allow ourselves to be. We have a choice as to which doctor of religion we choose to let into our lives, if at all, and the right to determine how we engage with our personal beliefs. We have to, guys, cause the King of France sure ain’t sending his troops.


Toni Kasim is a free-lance trainer, consultant and activist (not that activism is a job, really) focusing on gender, sexuality and Islam.

First Published: 19.05.2005 on Kakiseni

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