Madame Pernelle is ready to leave her son Orgon's house because she finds it appalling that no one pays any attention to her. She offers everyone her good advice, and everyone tends to contradict or ignore her. She tells her grandson, Damis, that he is a dunce; her granddaughter, who seems so shy and demure, is censured for being so secretive. She accuses her daughter-in-law, Elmire, of being too free with money, and she accuses Cléante, Elmire's brother, of being too worldly. The only person who has her approval is Tartuffe — to her, the epitome of perfection.
Damis and the maid Dorine both argue that Tartuffe is a bigot and a hypocrite, but Madame Pernelle is unconvinced; she thinks that the others don't like Tartuffe because this "good man reminds them of their sins and reveals their moral flaws." She also maintains that there are too many visitors who come and, upon leaving, gossip about the family. Dorine snaps that the old woman condemns out of jealousy; before Madame Pernelle grew old, she was a part of the world and now, fearing that the world is going to drop her, she spends her time criticizing it. Madame Pernelle will not tolerate such comments and upon leaving, reminds the company that they are lucky to have such a holy man as Tartuffe dwelling beneath their roof.
Note the division of the scenes. It was a tradition in the French neoclassical theater for a scene to end when a new character appeared on stage or when a character left the stage. Sometimes when the entrance or exit occurs within the length of a few short exchanges of dialogue, this practice seems highly artificial; however, in the actual production of the play, none of these scene divisions interfered with the continuity of the action, because the curtain was never lowered except at the end of an act. Some modem editions do not adhere to these divisions, but the reader can use this explanation to determine the scene divisions.
In the early history of the theater and well past Molière's time, the audience was not the attentive and polite audience that we expect in today's theater. Instead, it was often an unruly group; many of the public came to the theater to be seen rather than to see a play. In addition, prostitutes and vendors were often moving among the audience. The author, therefore, had to find some dramatic way of capturing his audience's attention. In Shakespeare's Hamlet or Macbeth, for example, remember that the play opens with the appearance of a ghost in one case and with witches in the other. These were dramatic ways of immediately catching the attention of the audience. Thus, Molière must also create a dramatic and theatrical way of opening his play. He does this by having Madame Pernelle ready to leave as the curtain opens, and constantly throughout the scene, she is on the point of leaving, but then feels the necessity of coming back to admonish or criticize one more person.
Consequently, the play opens with several people (seven) on the stage amid a flurry of activity. The comedy of this first scene is based partly upon the physical activity on the stage. One must visualize the flustery and overbearing woman dominating all conversation and forcing her own egotistical opinions upon the others. Intellectually, the comedy is based upon the anticipation of seeing this woman proven wrong — an expectation which will not be satisfied until the third act. By this, we mean that part of Molière's comic technique is to set up a character or characters who are deviations from the norm of behavior and gradually reveal the absurdity of these characters.
Consequently, we must observe how Molière is able to convey to the audience that Madame Pernelle is the absurd deviation from the norm. First, Molière has subtitled his play "The Hypocrite" (or as it is sometimes translated "The Impostor.") Thus, from the mere subtitle, we know that Madame Pernelle is praising a man unworthy of praise.
Second, when there is a stage filled with characters and only one person is holding the opinion that Tartuffe is a holy and pious man, then the tendency is to side with the many and not with the one. Third, the manner in which Madame Pernelle defends Tartuffe automatically makes the audience doubt both her credibility and his honesty. That is, she is so overbearing, so talkative, and so superficial that we immediately tend to dismiss her opinions as absurd.
Finally, when each person on the stage is criticized for the most minute aspect of his behavior and when we know that Madame Pernelle's advice to the people on the stage is absurd, then we tend to doubt the validity of all her advice. She tells her grandson that he is a fool; she accuses her granddaughter of being secretive; she reprimands Elmire for dressing elaborately; she dislikes Cléante because he is filled with worldly counsel; the maid Dorine is too impudent; in other words, the entire world is wrong and only she and Tartuffe are right. Thus, to conclude, since everyone on stage who seems normal and rational is against Tartuffe and the only person who praises him is a blustery and talkative old woman, the audience would immediately sense Tartuffe's true character. And, if we examine the comments of the other characters on the stage, the things they say seem to represent good logic and a good evaluation of society in general.
Cléante, who will function throughout the play as the voice of reason, tries to get Madame Pernelle to see that one cannot stop foolish gossip however much one tries. To refuse to have guests would only cause another type of gossip to arise.
In conjunction with Cléante's sound reasoning is the equally sound and realistic voice of the maid Dorine. She functions as a practical, common-sense viewpoint; she calls a spade a spade. If there is gossip, she feels that it has to come from someone named Daphne who gossips about other people only in order to conceal her own indiscretions. Furthermore, Dorine points out the psychologically sound idea that Daphne was once a great flirt until she began to lose her own beauty. Dorine reminds Madame Pernelle that as long as that woman could attract people she was a great flirt, but now that she is no longer captivating, she retires and condemns others for the same vice which she practiced.
Madame Pernelle, however, has a closed mind and insists only that people should be proud to have such a virtuous man as Tartuffe living with them. Of course, later, she will have to eat these words, and she will have to acknowledge that she has been deluded. The audience now can easily see that she is deceived. She has talked about the virtues of Tartuffe, but at the same time she has not demonstrated a single virtue of her own; this is seen especially in the crude manner in which she orders her own servant about.
One of the interesting techniques in this first act is the use of the maid, Dorine. She is the source of much of the comedy and she is also the voice of practical reasoning. It has since become a traditional stage technique in comedy to have a servant who can get the best of his so-called superiors.