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Book Review: Richard Wilbur Translations of Molière’s Comedies

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Every country has their own set of heroes, whether they be soldiers, leaders, writers, artists, actors, or scientists. The art of theater was one highly celebrated during the 17th century, and while there were many dramatic playwrights beloved in France, there was one comedic writer and actor who stole the show: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, also known as Molière. He wrote both drama and comedy, but it really was the latter which rose him to fame in Paris. He started out as an actor and often starred in his own plays, and he found great success from his patron, the Duke of Orléans, Louis XIV's brother Philippe. Humorous and intelligent, Molière is still considered one of the literary French giants and still commonly read today.

Richard Wilbur is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former Poet Laureate, so you know going into his translation of Molière's famous works that this is a writer who knows what he's doing. Over the years Wilbur has published several translations of Molière's plays, and just recently he has added two excellent new editions of the French writer's famous comedies: Lover's Quarrels, The School for Husbands, and The Imaginary Cuckold.

First there is the paperback edition of Lover's Quarrels, originally titled Le Dépit amoureux in French, and it comes with the one-act play along with an introduction by Wilbur and an interview with him about Molière. Lover's Quarrels is about two sets of lovers, deception, confusion, honor, and romance. Not unlike some Shakespearean tales, it involves a young woman dressed as a man unable to express her feelings to the object of her affection. Years ago, Albert was promised a massive fortune if his wife birthed a son, so when she instead had a daughter he replaced the girl with a servant's son. Some time later, the boy died while he was away and his wife switched the babies back, thus raising their real daughter as a son named Ascagne. Albert never knew the truth and felt true guilt when he believed his daughter died, not knowing she had actually replaced the son.

Yes, it is a little confusing, but things get more so!

Ascagne falls secretly in love with Valère, who is openly courting her younger sister Lucile. She pretended to be Lucile so he would fall for her, and then they married in private. However, Lucile knows nothing of this and is instead in love with a young man named Eraste. He in turn thinks that Lucile is only lying to her about loving him, since Valère believes she is married to him! This causes problems for all the lovers as they try to figure out who has betrayed who, and if anyone is married at all. It's a charming and quick witted play, not very long but full of twists, and Wilbur himself points out that it is the plot which has intricacies rather than the characters. It is not necessarily a deep, questioning play with commentary on their society, but rather mistaken identity topped off by two decades of lies and deceit. How Ascagne stayed incognito all that time as a man is anyone's guess, but all's well that ends well, right?

In the second paperback, there are two short comedies offered: The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold. Be aware that Molière often used the same character names again, but none of the characters in these plays are the same from Lover's Quarrels. This paperback has a quick foreword and then an introductions to each of the plays by Wilbur, once again he discusses his translation and his views on Molière's work. L'École des maris, The School for Husbands, is about two brothers who have two young women under their charge, and how their different ways to handle the ladies ruin or save their lives. The older Ariste is gentle and kind to his ward Léonor, so she loves him and happily plans to marry him. The more insecure Sganarelle, however, is controlling and sharp with Isabelle, which leads her to fool him in a most grievous way so she can run off with her lover Valère.

Everyone generally agrees that it's Sganarelle's own fault for what happens to him, for he treats her more like property than a person. It's interesting to see this kind of early feminism written by a man, since it clearly believes that men should be gracious and allow women freedom rather than lock them up. Sganarelle's inability to bend on anything turns Isabelle to manipulation to get away from him, while Ariste's respect for Léonor affords him happiness. Molière is even handed in his comedies, allowing both genders to be foolish and shrewd.

The Imaginary Cuckold is also titled Sganarelle (Sganarelle ou Le Cocu imaginaire), and it involves the illusion of cheating spouses and the distrust of lovers. There are two couples in this: the older Sganarelle and his unnamed wife, and the young Célie and Lélie. Each lover is convinced that their chosen one is cheating on them with one of the other two lovers. Sganarelle's wife sees him catch Célie after she faints and believes they are having an affair. Then she picks up Célie's picture of Lélie, and when her husband sees it he thinks she's having an affair! This leads to Sganarelle telling Célie his wife is cheating on him with her lover, and Lélie believes his love has married Sganarelle. Yes, confusing again, but it works in the story. In the end it is all cleared up, but the point is that there was nothing to worry about at all; they all simply distrusted their loves. So is this a lasting romance on either end? Possibly, but certainly not a very happy one!

Both paperbacks are excellent transitions of this charming playwright's work, and they are certainly better to get your hands on then a more clunky hardcover copy. They are very reasonably priced and should appeal to any theater lover who appreciates the classic masters, or anyone planning to take a theater class and wanting to know what they are getting into. They are entertaining, clever, and memorable, plus Wilbur's thoughtful commentary on each play is introspective and interesting. Lover's Quarrels, The School For Husbands, and The Imaginary Cuckold all come highly recommended to anyone interested in classic theater!

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