Molière in Los Angeles
Brian Bedford & company in The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold
I must with your heart show myself satisfied
And here applaud it for the happy choice it’s made.
A booming voice welcomes you to the Mark Taper Forum, a voice as false as a Kenneth Feld ringmaster’s, and asks you to turn your cell phones off. A barrage of harpsichord music a hundred times louder than needful is offered, and the actors enter from a vomitorium (I sat next to one, and the shadowy figures rising out of nowhere are an epiphany, a coup de théâtre).
Bedford is subtle, refined, witty, in the measure of himself and of the play. The other actors, with one exception only, rave the couplets as if they were unintelligible nursery rhymes at the tops of their voices, gentle viewer, on a projected stage in a theater that is all of fifteen rows deep. I would rather go to hell on Ricki Lake, join the Foreign Legion, hear the Philharmonic caterwauling out of tune, than endure the experience again. In Molière’s time, actors were excommunicated generally; they must have burned at the stake for evenings like this one, before their souls writhed in the pit. Alas! We cannot have plays without actors. Subsidies (says Arthur Miller) will sustain the wretched exercise, so that amateurs may sneer, like the New York City Opera doing its utmost with Porgy and Bess on the Peeb,
For the benefit (not to say the edification) of John Simon, who wrote that “Wilbur… makes Molière into as great an English verse playwright as he was a French one,” and not to criticize the heroic poet, whose task (in view of the great French verse playwright Molière is) is a monumental one, I will say a few words about Richard Wilbur’s verse translations.
It is plainly insufficient to say they are a third-rate effort, one would have to add that a second-rate effort would have eliminated some lacunæ of the subtleties (where a joke, for example is picked up in l. 318 of The Imaginary Cuckold) and obviated some accretions (the tail end of Sganarelle’s Scene XVII monologue in that play). To be a first-rate translation would be to have transmuted Molière perfectly into English, and after three centuries. Only Pierre Menard could do that. The greatness of Wilbur’s versions is they hold the stage, and will work very well in the hands of capable actors. Given the difficulties, success is a Show.
I feel about this rather as the painters who protested the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling: for the sake of clarity, “much has been overlooked.” There is an easy tendency toward simplification, and another toward explication, which can delude inexperienced actors. Benefit (God bless the translator in the toils!) can yet be derived from consulting the French, in order to find the right nuance in acting. Often enough, Wilbur’s lines can’t be argued with.
But I can’t resist that joke. The setup is given by Wilbur thus (Scene Twelve):
One shouldn’t accuse a wife of this offense
Without strong proof and clinching evidence.
To which Sganarelle replies:
One has to catch her clinching, as it were.
(Bedford accompanies this with a gesture not only in keeping with accounts of Molière’s performance, but showing a commonality with Eric Idle, whom he somewhat resembles in this part.) Molière has, for this last:
C’est-à-dire qu’il faut toucher au doigt la chose.
Which means one has to put one’s finger on the thing.
Molière’s continuation answers this:
Le trop de promptitude à l’erreur nous expose.
(Too much promptness oft exposes us to wrong.)
Which Wilbur glides over as:
By judging hastily, we often err.
Wilbur very accurately describes the performance difficulty: “Such an interplay of strong delusions can challenge the imaginative agility of an audience, and so give pleasure; or if badly performed, it can be merely chaotic, which does not amuse for long.”
“For God’s sake,” said John Gielgud to a very young Alec Guinness (in what I imagine were tones like those of Dylan Thomas adjuring his wife to “cook that bloody goose, will you, for the love of God”), “go somewhere and learn how to act,” which, viewer, he did. Which being the true and faithful account of how, in the long ago and faraway, Guinness became a knight.