Molière. The Complete Richard Wilbur Translations. Library of America, 2021.
Foreword by Adam Gopnik
... for a translation of a classic to remain impressive in our minds, the original and the new version need somehow to rise from an allied point of view. Some secret concord needs to exist between the two eras for the translation to remain golden.
Miraculously theatrical in ways that more academic translations are not, Wilbur's Molière is nonetheless miraculously authentic to the original, written in a flowing, vigilantly smooth version of Molière's rhyming couplets, instead of in the lumpy prose of previous English translations. At once readable and stage-friendly, his translations achieve the improbable end of making seventeenth-century French prosody completely playable in English, while remaining true to the essentials of French grand siècle style. Wilbur took Molière's Alexandrines, the eleven-syllable rhymed line of classic French theatre and turned it into a more English-friendly iambic pentameter, the ten-syllable heroic couplet of Pope. To do this, he drew on living resources in the American language of his time, particularly on the reality that American ears had become accustomed, both in the then-booming business of light verse and in ambitious musical theater -- of which Wilbur himself was to write a supreme example in his lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's Candide -- to accepting easy rhyme as an aid to emotion.
The intersection of author and translator is something far more than a library or even a theatrical triumph. The overlap between Wilbur and Molière is social as much as stylistic. To put it simply -- or perhaps to state it as simply as a complicated case can be put -- though Molière made his life in and around courts, his role was to become the first great comic poet of the emerging and ascendant middle classes, portraying their domestic concentrations, their appetite for erudition, their constant insecurities, and their easy readiness to be wowed by fashions and trends. Wilbur came to Molière at a moment when that same bourgeoisie in America was newly ascendant in another way -- when a highly educated postwar GI culture had taken happy possession of a European cultural heritage then undermined on its own ground, a time when all the heritage of European culture seemed in need of American succor and American support.
Rhyme in its nature stylizes and distances an emotion. It's why even the most Francophile of English speakers find something puzzling in Racine: that much rhyming seems "off" for the tragic passions... In English, rhyme belongs almost exclusively to extravagant humor, with Gilbert and Sullivan being both the apotheosis and the cul de sac of this truth. You can't go further in that direction without becoming wholly mechanized.
The rhymes themselves can be commonplace, because the act of rhyming is not. Wilbur knows that whereas in French, rhyme is neutral, in English, rhyme, smoothly and consistently appliquéd, injects a rolling comic energy irresistibly into the text. Its simple presence is enough to produce an effect of ingenuity. Wilbur himself speaks of the importance of making the repetitions in Molière, which are part of the high style of aphoristic argument, land as elegance rather than irritate as overemphasis -- Wilbur points out that there is scarcely a metaphor in all of Molière's writing -- and that the rhymed couplet is essential to this task.
Yet if rhyming in English is inherently comic, the art and wit of rhyming in English is, as Ogden Nash understood, to land self-consciously on a "find" when you find one. Impressive on every page, Wilbur's wit is particularly so when stretched out across dialogue, so that the exchanges are both perfectly unstilted and idiomatic, and still delight with the ingenuity of each line "tag."
The insistence on rhyme, particularly the play of invisible, "perfect" rhyme with marked "foregrounded" rhyme, that one finds in Wilbur's Molière was part of a larger, though still select, "return to rhyme" in American literary culture in the fifties and sixties, part of a mini-rappel à l'ordre, a recall to order, of the time. Ignited by the American Auden's long, neoclassical poems of the forties -- particularly his wartime meditation written in Swiftian couplets, "New Year Letter," and the slightly later satiric masterpiece "Under Which Lyre" -- rhyme for a period of twenty years or so seemed a vital affirmation of tradition that also, in its self-conscious artifice, had a modernist twang: it guyed the undue inaccessibility of high modernism while, with the elegant knowingness of its revivalist urge, remaining under its umbrella of self-conscious irony. Couplets were as romantic as couples. John Updike, who saw himself first as a light-verse writer, wrote in praise of rhyme, with Wilbur perhaps in the back of his mind, in the early sixties. Updike said that "by rhyming, language calls attention to its own mechanical nature and relieves the represented reality of seriousness. ... Light verse, an isolated acolyte [isolated, that is, from the main ground of modernism], tends the thin flame of formal magic and tempers the inhuman darkness of reality with the comedy of human artifice." The composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, another exact contemporary of Wilbur's, insisted in a parallel way of rejecting in theatre music the increasingly slack -- and differently expressive -- diction of American pop music, which would lead at last to the sixties revolution in lyric writing. ... Sondheim insisted on lyric writing in favor of true rhyme schemes, seeing in "perfect" rhyme the same kind of formal magic, imposed by the sheer obdurate resistance of rhyme to easy composition -- a sign of the resistance of intelligence to kitsch.
Both timeless and timebound, Molière is not our contemporary in some facile and fatuous way: he is not a radical, certainly, in our sense, nor even a romantic, in the nineteenth-century sense -- he is a common-sense realist, opposed to putting ideas and obsessions and idées fixes in place of people and relationships, and believing not in an ordered but a balanced world. What he is almost uniquely good at doing -- perhaps only Jane Austen among the world's masters equals him here -- is conveying the quality that Wilbur celebrates in his poetry, that quality of unschooled intelligence we call common sense. Common sense these days is condemned as a conspiracy by the privileged against the excluded; the suspicious circles of what counts as "common" are, we're told, an indictment against the sense. But Molière reaches out across the centuries to remind us that in truth common sense has legs as long as laughter itself. The model of patriarchal order in the plays is not merely impotent; the common sense of the other characters, their knowledge of actual human possibility, leaves it instantly disregarded as absurd. The plays are filled with patriarchal impositions, but the patriarchal figure is always ridiculous, and quickly shown to be completely impotent and ineffective.
Molière's great theme is the folly of fanaticism of every kind.... Molière is no philistine; he is the poet of common sense, not merely in his ridicule of the idea that life can be lived by a rule of excessive piety or in his exposure of erudition for its own sake, but by being most fully alive on the stage when dramatizing their opposite. ... Molière loves natural actions and affections, including that of lust. ... Molière escapes fatuity in his candor that what restores a universe unbalanced by intellectual obsession is, most often, normal erotic appetite. ... It's the purpose of comedy to restore energy to sanity -- to make common sense come alive to our dramatic imagination by making the pious certitudes that censure common sense look as loony as they are.
With all respect, sir, for your troubled heart,
Your fear that I might play a traitor's part
Is wounding to my pride and honesty,
And shows no grasp of physiognomy.
Men of my round proportions, sir, are not
Regarded as the type to scheme and plot --
Which good opinion I shall not gainsay:
I'm a solid citizen in every way.
Sganarelle, or The Imaginary Cuckold
Sganerelle, or The Imaginary Cuckold has many qualities that may be seen as deriving from the tradition -- then two centuries old -- of the one-act French farce.