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Holy Sanctimony

Molière's surgical comedy of religious manners and hypocrisy crackles in a cunning translation by Richard Wilbur packed with more verbal firecrackers than a Sondheim song.


Let Us Prey: Brian Bedford and Henry Goodman in Tartuffe.  

Louis XIV, who for five years allowed the religious right to elicit a ban on Molière’s Tartuffe, was neither puritan nor prude. But he perceived, according to a contemporary account, the great resemblance between those with “true devotion . . . and those whose vain exhibition of good works did not prevent them from committing bad ones.” Is there no similarity between John Ashcroft, doubtless a good Christian, and Tartuffe, Molière’s religious hypocrite? The one has a classic nude statue covered up for his TV appearance, the other makes a tremendous show of having the maid Dorine cover up her décolletage.

“The play is not a satire on religion,” says its brilliant translator, Richard Wilbur. Maybe not, but Molière’s comedies say more than they seem to. Thus Orgon, Tartuffe’s dupe, is also a man who exploits the impostor’s moral authority for his own authoritarian ends. And thus the too-good-to-be-true ending is not only useful flattery of the king, but also a deus ex machina so blatant the author surely wants us to disbelieve it.

The present director, Joe Dowling, does some amusing things here if you haven’t seen in his earlier mounting the very same gags. The design team (John Lee Beatty, Jane Greenwood, Brian MacDevitt) is as stout as can be, although a couple of costumes could have used a little understatement, and one wonders why a dialect coach was necessary. To make the British actors sound less British? Actually, they are the best. Henry Goodman’s Tartuffe is properly—which is to say not excessively—smarmy, Brian Bedford’s Orgon almost too charmingly obtuse, and Rosaleen Linehan’s Madame Pernelle matchless. All the women do well, though the worthy J. Smith-Cameron’s Dorine would have been twice as good doing half as much.

Except for the aforementioned two, the men are poor. John Bedford Lloyd’s Cléante, the raisonneur, is a stevedore; T. R. Knight’s Damis, a lumpen pipsqueak; Jeffrey Carlson’s Valère, a feeble fop; Erik Steele’s Officer, at best a dogcatcher; and Philip Goodwin, who can make even the smallest part unbearable, a sickening Loyal.

But the verse translation, wherein Wilbur at times surpasses the original, is sheer joy, like listening to classical music in a flawless concert. You may not want to see this Tartuffe, but you surely want to hear it.

If you raised an eyebrow at “surpasses the original,” let me offer some examples. Take Tartuffe’s response to Cléante’s argument for getting Orgon to rescind the expulsion of his son: “Mais, après le scandale et l’affront d’aujourd’hui, / Le Ciel n’ordonne pas que je vive avec lui.” Literally: “After today’s scandal and affront, / Heaven does not command that I live with him.” Wilbur: “But I am not commanded by the Bible / To live with one who smears my name with libel.” Not only is this pithier, it also has that wonderfully surprising yet apt and euphonious rhyme.

And how well Wilbur captures character in language. Molière’s Tartuffe, in trying to seduce Elmire, answers her recrimination with “L’amour qui nous attache aux beautés éternelles / N’étouffe pas en nous l’amour des temporelles.” “The love that binds us to eternal beauties / Does not stifle in us love of temporal ones.” Note that rhyming two adjectives in -elles is rather facile, and that “temporal” is the predictable counterpart to “eternal.” Now for Wilbur: “A love of heavenly beauty does not preclude / A proper love for earthly pulchritude.” We get here the triple alliteration in p, the delightfully unforeseen rhyme, and just the word, pulchritude, that an oily and pompous fellow would use. Wilbur is easily one of our best translators of lyric poetry as well, but when it comes to Englishing French verse drama, he simply has no equal.


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