Monday, January 1, 2018

Richard Wilbur, 1921-2017: Molière’s Emissary

Richard Wilbur passed away on October 14, 2017, at the age of 96.

Among the many achievements of the poet Richard Wilbur, who died in October, perhaps his least recognized is the work he did as a translator of neoclassical French playwrights – Racine, Corneille and especially Molière. Wilbur translated ten of Molière’s plays, originally written in Alexandrine couplets (six beats to the line), into iambic pentameter, which is a more natural meter for English speakers, as my wonderful undergraduate Shakespeare professor, Alan Levitan, liked to illustrate with the spontaneous iambic line, “Give me a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles.” In his introduction to his first interaction with Molière, The Misanthrope (1955), Wilbur argues, “The constant of rhythm and rhyme was needed, in the translation as in the original, for bridging great gaps between high comedy and farce, lofty diction and ordinary talk, deep character and shallow. . . . [W]hile prose might preserve the thematic structure of the play, other ‘musical’ elements would be lost, in particular the frequently intricate arrangements of balancing half-lines, lines, couplets, quatrains, and sestets. There is no question that words, when dancing within such patterns, are not their prosaic selves, but have a wholly different mood and meaning.” By way of example, he offers a prose translation of one speech from the play, adding, “Even if that were better rendered, it would still be plain that Molière’s logic loses all its baroque exuberance in prose; it sounds lawyerish; without rhyme and verse to phrase and emphasize the steps of its progression, the logic becomes obscure . . . not crystalline and followable as it was meant to be.”

To my mind the key word in Wilbur’s explication is “dancing.” His renditions of Molière’s texts have a courtly formality that frames their cheeky, playful quality: the combination evokes the flavor of the baroque age while allowing for the (however restrained, in Molière) irreverence of humor and social satire. After a couple of speeches, your ear is tuned to the lilt of the meter and you wait for the rhyme. I don’t mean to suggest that the second line in a couplet thuds as it hits the last-syllable rhyme; Wilbur sought, as he expressed it in the introduction to his translation of The School for Wives (1971), to “avoid the metronomic, which is particularly fatal on stage,” and so his versifying is fluid and deft. You anticipate the rhyme as you might anticipate the arrival of the dessert tray, with its coveted element of surprise, after a delicious dinner. Here are a few of my favorites, all from Tartuffe (1963):

But now I hear he gambles, which greatly shocks me;
What’s more, I’ve doubt about his orthodoxy.

Therefore you’d better humor the old fossil.
Pretend to yield to him, be sweet and docile . . .

No, I’ve a stubborn cold, it seems. I’m sure it
Will take much more than licorice to cure it.

Take care: a woman too may go to jail if
She uses threatening language to a bailiff.

Those who have read or seen a production of this translation probably laughed out loud at his most flamboyant rhyme: when Dorine, the saucy maid, is upbraiding Mariane, her employer’s daughter, for being too passive to oppose her father’s decision to marry her off to the loathsome title character, Mariane’s protest, “I’ve always told you everything, and relied . . .,” is countered by Dorine’s pert “No. You deserve to be tartuffified.”

Wilbur employs, of course, all the resources of the poet to render the lines with wit and color – like emphasis (the iambs), as in “I choose, sir, to be chosen, and in fine, / The friend of mankind is no friend of mine” (Alceste in The Misanthrope), or an unexpected word choice, as in “Oh, he’s a wondrous talker, and has the power / To tell you nothing hour after hour . . .“ (Célimène, also in The Misanthrope). Wilbur observes, in the introduction to this play, that “Molière’s dramatic verse, which is almost wholly free of metaphor, derives much of its richness from argumentative virtuosity,” and we can see exactly what he means in the glorious long speeches, like the catty back-to-back declamations of Arsinoé and Célimène in the third act. Célimène is a flirt who likes to collect suitors, among them Alceste; Arsinoé, who has set her own cap for him, resents her for it. But rather than confront her directly, she presents her critique of her rival’s behavior as a series of quotations from other (unnamed) people in their circle, whose accusations, Arsinoé professes, she tried hard to counter:

I visited, last night, some virtuous folk,
And, quite by chance, it was of you they spoke;
There was, I fear, no tendency to praise
Your light behavior and your dashing ways.
The quantity of gentlemen you see
And your by now notorious coquetry
Were both so vehemently criticized
By everyone, that I was much surprised.

After thirty-five lines of these gloved barbs, Célimène responds in kind, in forty-eight lines. Here’s a sample:

The other day, I went to an affair
And found some most distinguished people there
Discussing piety, both false and true.
The conversation soon came round to you.
Alas! Your prudery and bustling zeal
Appeared to have a very slight appeal.
Your affectation of a grave demeanor,
Your endless talk of virtue and of honor,
The aptitude of your suspicious mind
For finding sin where there is none to find,
Your towering self-esteem, that pitying face
With which you contemplate the human race,
Your sermonizings and your sharp aspersions
On people’s pure and innocent diversions –
All these were mentioned, Madam, and in fact,
Were roundly and concertedly attacked.

Of the four translations (the first ones Wilbur did) in Molière: Four Comedies, which Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published in 1982, I’ve seen The School for Wives, The Misanthrope and Tartuffe performed, and I’ve taught the last two; only The Learned Ladies was new to me. But I’d never read the introductions before preparing to write this piece. They were revelatory, especially his analyses of The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, the playwright’s masterpieces. Molière’s plays refined archetypes and in some cases plot devices he was familiar with through commedia dell’ arte, the improvised comedy performed by traveling players, and perhaps because of their origins as well as their cultural and rhetorical distance from our own age, we tend to shy away from reading the characters psychologically. But Wilbur does, and his insights on Célimène and Alceste, the misanthrope, who, in his obsession with being genuine, manages to alienate almost everyone, and on Orgon, the bourgeois who has permitted the phony Christian Tartuffe to displace Orgon’s own family in his affections, are fascinating and persuasive. Of Alceste he claims, “[H]e seems an unconscious fraud who magnifies the petty faults of other in order to dramatize himself in his own eyes” and “He must play-act continually in order to believe in his own existence, and he welcomes the fact or show of injustice as a dramatic cue.” That perception makes sense of Alceste’s adoration of Célimène, who is the embodiment of insincerity and whose appeal for him baffles his friends Philinte and Eliante (Célimène’s cousin). Their reasonableness and good sense offer a counterpoint to both Alceste’s extreme rejection of social standards and the flattery and hypocrisy of most of the other characters. When Philinte asks Eliante, “Does she return his love, do you suppose?,” Eliante replies, “Her heart’s a stranger to its own emotion. / Sometimes it thinks it loves, when no love’s there; / At other times it loves quite unaware.”

Of Orgon, whom Wilbur rightly identifies as a more complex character than the confidence man Tartuffe, the poet has this to say: “Orgon has withdrawn all proper feelings from those about him, and his vicious fatuity creates an atmosphere which is the comic equivalent of King Lear’s. All natural bonds of love and trust are strained and broken; evil is taken for good; truth must to kennel.” Wilbur sees in these two plays a depth that transcends the satirical purpose most other critics have settled for in them; in fact, he argues that “Tartuffe is not a satire but a ‘deep’ comedy in which (1) a knave tries to control life by cold chicanery, (2) a fool tries to oppress life by unconscious misuse of the highest values, and (3) life, happily, will not have it.” And though his Shakespeare reference may be to Lear, in fact the implicit comparison here seems to be to the great Shakespeare comedies, especially Twelfth Night, which is all about the need to live life in a balanced fashion. Much as I’ve always loved and admired Tartuffe, rereading it this time with Wilbur’s insights in my head, I found it more profound and more rewarding than ever before.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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