Richard Wilbur’s Translations of Molière
The genres of the theater—comedy, tragedy, farce—have always called into question the existence of an essential self. To act a part—and acting is essential to theatrical performance—is to pretend to be someone else, even when one may be playing oneself. But translation may also call into question that essence of the singular individual, when one artist, like the poet Richard Wilbur, has turned his hand to translating another, like the playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière. The twentieth-century American poet, one of the finest of his generation, translates by transforming the seventeenth-century French master of comedy, so that modern American audiences may experience Molière’s elegant and often sly send-up of the French middle class, the bourgeoisie, which was beginning to establish itself during the reign of Louis XIV. That Molière comes with his pseudonym attached already evinces this alteration of identity that stage and page produce. Any American audience that has seen Molière’s plays in English has probably enjoyed Richard Wilbur’s translations. Now the Library of America has published in two volumes the ten comedies that Wilbur translated, out of the some three dozen plays of Molière: in volume 1, The Bungler (L’Étourdi), Lovers’ Quarrels (Le Dépit amoureux), Sganarelle, or the Imaginary Cuckold (Sganarelle ou le Cocu imaginaire), The School for Husbands (L’École des maris), The School for Wives (L’École des femmes), and Don Juan; and in volume 2, The Misanthrope (Le Misanthrope ou L’Atrabilaire amoureux), Amphitryon, Le Tartuffe (Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur), and The Learned Ladies (Les Femmes savantes). Each volume includes Richard Wilbur’s comments on individual plays, along with an insightful foreword by Adam Gopnik, and an interview by Dana Gioia with Richard Wilbur about translation. Coming out of the commedia dell’arte tradition, with its stock characters, built-in laughs and situations, Molière shows his genius by remaking what was hackneyed into things that, while still familiar, turn rich and strange with originality. Molière was able to do this with changes either to plot or character or both, and often by revealing the malleability of those elements. Wilbur performs a similar genius by changing himself into Molière or, rather, Molière into himself. They share temperaments, in fact, arising as they do in eras of political stability, an aspiring middle class, and with an appreciation of a natural status quo. Whatever imbalance might occur in the human or natural world, both writers find that sanity is the best policy and status quo ante the desired resolution. But the sense of identity is so mercurial in Molière’s comedies that in one, Amphitryon, the valet of the eponymous character stands before the god Mercury who has disguised himself as the valet and protests, “I can’t be someone else than me.” This of course is what we expect any actor to be able to do: to become someone else. In the comedy of errors, however, the changeableness of identity is still existential. Shakespeare was bending identity and gender more than 50 years before Molière. That trope is older than Shakespeare’s plays, too. But the feat of synthesis between Molière and Wilbur makes the act of translation a comedy of errors and corrections. The best correction for error is to restore what has been mistaken.
Wilbur’s intrinsic correction as he transforms Molière is of the alexandrine couplet, the basic metrical unit of classical French verse. Wilbur changes the twelve-syllable line to iambic pentameter, which in a way is capable enough, but the wit of the couplet is not so easily preserved. Wilbur notes this as a challenge, and he meets it and succeeds again and again. Because the iambic pentameter line is accentual-syllabic and the French alexandrine is syllabic, it is possible to bring more attention to a rhyme’s rightness even within incongruity, because of stress. In The Bungler (Molière’s L’Étourdi), a planned abduction is foiled when a chamber pot is emptied on the abductors’ heads. The French emphasizes the knowledge of discovery and the need for escape. The scene itself is at least as old as Chaucer and as contemporary as Swift. The leader of the would-be abductors, Léandre, exclaims:
Fi! cela sent mauvais, et je suis tout gâté.
Nous sommes découverts, tirons de ce côté.
But Wilbur’s translation adds to the haplessness of the plotters and their puzzlement, psychologically.
Oh no, I’m soaked! And what an awful stink!
Let’s go, my friends; they’re on to us, I think.
That rhyme, “stink/think,” is a palpable conjoining of scents and sensibility.
It is also interesting to note that Wilbur’s translations of Racine’s stately speeches are as apt as his translations of Molière’s racy repartee. In his translations of Racine’s Phaedra and Andromache, Wilbur can carve a beating heart out of marble. But he sounds less comfortable revealing their tragic hubris than he does exposing the silliness of Molière’s comic characters. Wilbur the poet actually resembles Molière in ways that he does not resemble Racine or Corneille, the classical tragedians of the French seventeenth century. If we can discover the poet Wilbur in Molière’s comedy it would be in the restoration of stability, once some conniver or hypocrite is revealed, rather than the depredations of tragedy. This is not to say that the pathos of tragedy is absent from Wilbur’s poems, but it is usually part of the natural world. Wilbur’s poignant poem “The Death of a Toad” gives us the garden creature, dying under a bush, as he dreams of “lost Amphibia’s emperies.” And “Beasts,” one of the best poetic mirrors between the natural and human world, ends by imagining “Navies fed to the fish in the dark / Unbridled waters.” These horrors are, of course, the work of “suitors of excellence” whose imaginations make “such dreams for men / As told will break their hearts as always.” If Molière were writing in England in his own time, he would be thought of as a Restoration playwright, malgré lui. And Wilbur’s courtliness gives us as close as we have to a cavalier or Restoration poet, more Robert Herrick, though, than the Earl of Rochester. Wilbur’s translations of Molière allow us to enjoy a satirical view of seventeenth-century France through the idiom of twentieth-century American English.
Nevertheless, Wilbur himself demands that even his translations be set in their periods. In his introduction to The Learned Ladies, he reveals a reactionary side in response to his own contemporary society.
I hope that no presenter of this new translation will wish, by means of contemporary costume and set, to attempt a violent conflation of Molière’s drama with the current women’s movement. And I hope that all readers of this text will envision it in a just historical perspective . . . and every nuance of this excellent comedy will then be there to be seen.
This, along with a dismissive remark about “our youth culture” and its insistence on telling it like it is, sounds a bit like a curmudgeonly middle-aged college professor’s frustration with his students in the 1960s. I will only say that one cannot successfully limit the nuances of any great piece of art as it moves from its own time into the future. You can remind a contemporary audience of the play’s historical context and its impact on its original audience, but its meaning will be redetermined again and again, even for classics like Molière’s.
Reading Wilbur’s poetry against his work in Moliere’s plays, there are opportunities aplenty to hear sentiment and temperament of one in the other. When the well-meaning schemer, Mascarille, in The Bungler, who is simply courting on his master Lélie’s behalf exclaims, “Long live chicanery and artifice!” we can find in many of Wilbur’s poems something similar, at least with regard to artifice. Celebrating his own pattern-making imagination, in “An Event,” Wilbur describes birds assembling for migration and compares them to all sorts of things, say, “a drunken fingerprint across the sky!” And continues, “Delighted with myself and with the birds, / I set them down and give them leave to be.” Both Molière and Wilbur dabble constructively with creation and set it free. Wilbur himself, with regard to his The School for Wives, praises Molière’s recognition of “Spontaneity versus automatism, life’s happy refusal to conform to cranky plans and theories . . .” In The School for Wives, Arnolphe’s decision to raise his ward Agnès to be his faithful spouse is one such plan. Wilbur’s “Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act,” the McCarthy era law meant to identify subversives, especially Communists, argues against the law as a failure of imagination:
Shall one man drive before him ten
Unstrung from sea to sea? Let thought be free. I speak
Of the spirit’s weaving, the neural
Web, the self-true mind, the trusty reflex.
The natural course of existence is disrupted by codified superstition and suspicion. That is the sort of error which breeds hypocrisy, and which both Molière and Wilbur sense. It is indeed a radical belief in imagination as essential to human nature which also serves to correct its errors. It is a kind of misanthropy to want to box in human nature and deprive humanity of pleasure. In The Misanthrope, one character says to the eponymous misanthropist Alceste, “If all hearts beat according to your measure, / The dawn of love would be the end of pleasure.” That’s a subtler reproach than Sir Toby’s insult to Malvolio in Twelfth Night, “Doest thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Malvolio’s puritanism is not unlike Alceste’s misanthropy. To say, as Alceste does, “This age is vile, and I’ve made up my mind / To have no further commerce with mankind” is as much anathema to Molière as it would be to Shakespeare. But Malvolio is clownish and, though a threat to Sir Toby and his associates, a harmless target for spoofing, despite his ridiculous claims that he will have revenge, wound up as he is in his absurd yellow stockings. Molière sees hypocrisy as the chink in the armor of puritanism and misanthropy or misogyny. As for Wilbur, his own celebration of sophisticated pleasure is of lying in bed with your spouse and enjoying each other and a glass of white wine. In “A Late Aubade,” Wilbur says to his wife, as they linger in bed:
Think of all the time you are not
Wasting, and would not care to waste . . .
You who had rather lie in bed and kiss
Molière was indeed a satirist, but his moral underpinning reveals one who would resist anything that seems inhuman or moralistic. He wrote his comedies during the age of the Sun King, Louis XIV, an absolute monarch who may have had more in common with England’s Charles II, the Merry Monarch, than with any leader of a democracy. Wilbur is coming into his own after the defeat of a very unmerry monarch, Hitler. He even joins with Leonard Bernstein to make a musical about that Enlightenment text of Voltaire’s, Candide. One of the most famous and demanding arias in modern musical theater, “Glitter and Be Gay,” has the female lead, Cunegonde, considering the double role she must play, trapped in the role of a party girl and concubine which she abhors but also rather enjoys. Wilbur’s lyrics, “Glitter and Be Gay,” catch that disintegration of the self, as Cunegonde is pulled in opposite directions:
Glitter and be gay,
That’s the part I play.
Here I am in Paris, France,
Forced to bend my soul
To a sordid role,
Vicitimized by bitter, bitter circumstance.
And yet as she considers her luxurious amenities, she admits:
And yet, of course, I rather like to revel, ha, ha!
I have no strong objection to champagne, ha, ha!
My wardrobe is expensive as the devil, ha, ha!
Perhaps it is ignoble to complain . . .
These superbly written lyrics rise to the superb music of Bernstein. And if you know the song, you know what a singing tour de force it can be. Still, one lingers on the pun “ignoble” and remains grateful to Richard Wilbur’s ear. Granted Candide is a century after Molière’s comedies, and Bernstein’s musical is two centuries after Voltaire, still we can see that need for balance and sanity which both Molière and Wilbur seek to reestablish when both may be lost. Molière’s world was not Panglossian by any means, and Wilbur knows that.
Foolishness, a love of the silly, the ability to tell the difference between gravity and levity, this is a mark of the poet Wilbur as well as the playwright Molière. Take Amphitryon. It tells the story of Jupiter’s lust for a mortal woman, Alcmena, the wife of Amphitryon. In this case the god finds it would be best to seduce her in the guise of her husband; Mercury comes along to help and disguises himself as Amphitryon’s servant Sosia and likewise seeks to seduce Sosia’s wife, Cleanthis. The irony of two gods, Jupiter and Mercury, disguising themselves as two mortals is that they seduce the mates of those mortals as their mortal spouses. In the case of Amphitryon’s wife, once she has made love with Jupiter in the guise of her husband, she’s amazed at Amphitryon’s passion. And yet the spouses do love something essential in their spouses, which these gods cannot access as themselves. In one case, Sosia implores Mercury, “Oh, come; be human; show me some compassion!” And later adds, to his master, “Just as I’ve been dis-Sosiated, / you have been de-Amphitryonized.” Wilbur catches the nuance of modern jargon in “dis-Sosiated,” whereas Molière merely—merely!—plays on how one can apparently cease to be oneself. If anything, the switcheroo confirms, rather than subverts, the idea that character is destiny. And if one is destined to be a cuckold (the greatest fear of the seventeenth-century French husband, it would appear), then as Arnolphe’s friend Chrysalde says to him in The School for Wives:
But bear in mind that he
Who thumps his chest and swears upon his soul
That he will never play the cuckold’s role
Is studying for the part, and may well get it.
And Arnolphe’s ward Agnès does not make him a cuckold but thinks it normal for her to fall in love with the young man Horace, son of her guardian Arnolphe’s friend. The problem in fact is sketched perfectly and with one of the funniest speeches in Molière, when Alain, Arnolphe’s servant, explains to Georgette, another servant, the source of male jealousy:
Womankind is, in fact, the soup of man,
And when a man perceives that others wish
To dip their dirty fingers into his dish,
His temper flares, and bursts into a flame.
Somehow, and I’m not quite sure how, in French to think of a man’s wife as his “potage” seems less silly than to think of her as his “soup.” And furthermore, when Alain does refer to a man’s wife as his “soupe,” Wilbur here has substituted “dish,” inviting the connotation of an attractive person, who is sexy, male or female. He’s done it for the rhyme, of course, but it adds another layer of silliness any of us can correct, while enjoying the inadvertent foolishness of what, to those involved, seems to be serious business. I suppose this is a form of dramatic or comic irony, allowing us in on a joke that the characters have created but don’t get.
It is serious business when a threat to the stability of the family, for example, has to be defanged. This is the role of exposure in Molière; Wilbur who actually is not the satirist Molière is, creates exposure through plays on words. Tartuffe and The Learned Ladies turn on the exposure of hypocrites and the necessity that this exposure occur publicly. Malvolio comes to mind again, but once Malvolio is exposed, he vows revenge, and in fact all he meant to do was make himself appealing to Olivia. He gets a last word. The religious hypocrite Tartuffe, and the gold digger Trissotin, are after money, and once they are caught and revealed for what they are, they cease to exist and disappear in a puff of exposure. There is nothing further for them to say or do. But those who have believed in them must be shocked into recognition. It is possible, as well, that there will be others who seduce and mislead them. In Molière’s satire, sanity must be restored albeit with a bucket of cold water or the contents of a chamber pot. These are comedies, and the restoration of stability usually implies that marriage will follow. And even though Molière can avoid political relevance, in the age of the Sun King, the object of his satire is not the Court itself, though some of the styles extending from Court fashion like the wearing of wigs are ridiculed. The target is the new middle class, le bourgeois or merchant class, with its aspirations to be cultivated and its susceptibility to fraud. The bourgeois, like the aristocracy, will also suffer during the French Revolution. But in the end, even with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, it will have its status attached to Louis Philippe I, the Bourgeois King. And his fall in the 1848 revolution will have more to do with the economy than with royal privilege. It’s hard not to get ahead of oneself with French history and society, once you notice how one era recapitulates another. As early as Molière, épater le bourgeois was an aim of the arts in France.
How does a poet as distinct as Richard Wilbur put on the skin of another in translation, especially if the genre is not one he is known for? Molière is a poet insofar as the convention of seventeenth-century French drama was to write in verse. He resembles other Restoration dramatists like John Dryden, and his aphoristic bent also calls to mind Alexander Pope. In some ways, then, Wilbur must adapt himself to another genre from the one he has shown himself a master of and convince us that if Molière wrote in English, it would have been in iambic pentameter couplets, and he would have sounded not only like Pope or Dryden but like Richard Wilbur. That is, he would have sounded gravely humorous, witty, and sane. Wilbur’s model Robert Frost had a built-in persona, the Yankee farmer, who could fall back on his contrariness. Wilbur, however, is New England middle class, an academic, who knows both sides of any problem and chooses to return to stable ground, the earth, often after a flight of fancy.
Molière on the other hand sounds a tad frantic in French, funny and mad. But that’s French for you, with its unaccented syllabics rushing along and waiting for you to catch up. Wilbur’s translation, then, brings the rhythm of clarity. Crazy stuff can occur in that clarity, it’s true, but it’s never in a rush, a gush, a spewing of equally stressed syllables. Wilbur brings a measured response which may even be more comic from its apparent or audible meter. He takes time to make a pun or a witty rhyme.
I once heard Richard Wilbur end a reading of his poetry by saying that he liked to wind up with something silly and funny. He read a poem from his 1976 volume, The Mind-Reader, and in order to wind up myself, I will quote the poem in full here.
The Prisoner of Zenda
At the end a
“The Prisoner of Zenda,”
The King being out of danger,
(As Rudolph Rassendyll)
Must swallow a bitter pill
By renouncing his co-star,
It would be poor behavia
In him and in Princess Flavia
Were they to put their own
Concerns before those of the Throne.
Deborah Kerr must wed
The King instead.
Rassendyll turns to go.
Must it be so?
Why can’t they have their cake
And eat it, for heaven’s sake?
Please let them have it both ways,
The audience prays.
And yet it is hard to quarrel
With a plot so moral.
One redeeming factor,
However, is that the actor
Who plays the once-dissolute King
(Who has learned through suffering
Not to drink or be mean
To his future Queen),
Far from being a stranger,
Is also Stewart Granger.
Having it both ways transcends inevitable morals and satisfies the appetite for art’s transgressive and affirmative resolutions. That is what Richard Wilbur lets us experience in his translations of Molière, a master of comedy, for comedy is the genre of having it both ways. We get to have our cake and eat it, and we get to do so thanks to Jean-Baptiste Poquelin and Richard Wilbur. We can enjoy the comic genius of Molière in the comic poetry of Richard Wilbur, as if each were wearing the other’s identity, like a costume. The willing suspension of disbelief, crucial in any audience for theater, is joyfully embraced in a comedy, even when it may lead to discomfort that will eventually be dispelled. “How can you be the person that I am?” Sosia asks of Mercury. If it were up to me, I would have Mercury answer or seem to answer, as if with the profound clarity of nonsense and paradox, “How? Willingly. Why not?”